By on June 12, 2019

Toyota Mirai Clean Billboard, [Image: Toyota North America]

Toyota and Hyundai have reportedly suspended sales of the hydrogen fuel cell-powered Mirai and Nexo in Norway after one refueling station went up like the Hindenburg.

Local media reports that, on Monday evening, a Uno-X station in Sandvika suffered a “huge explosion” that injured two nearby drivers after the shock wave caused their vehicles’ airbags to deploy. It’s a black eye for a fuel that, despite the best efforts of a handful of determined automakers, can’t seem to make much headway in the marketplace.

Following the blast, station operator Nel shut down a number of its remaining refueling locations in Norway, reports NRK, as well as those in other European countries. An investigation is ongoing.

The lack of hydrogen availability in Norway means there’s little reason to sell vehicles that can’t find fuel. In response, Toyota and Hyundai have temporarily suspended sales of their FCVs.

Hydrogen is difficult and energy-intensive to produce; in California, the only U.S. state to offer drivers the option of taking home a FCV, efforts are underway to expand the existing network of 40 retail refueling stations. Another 24 are in various stages of planning and approval.

2018 Honda Clarity PHEV, Image: Matthew Guy/Hybrid Cars

FCVs operate by generating electricity through a chemical reaction in the fuel cell stack. That current then powers a conventional electric motor, which powers the drive wheels of the car. Operation is much like any other EV, though refueling is a much quicker process than plugging in your vehicle overnight. Of course, that’s assuming the nearby station hasn’t run dry of its supply of scarce liquified hydrogen. Range, while improved from early models, still lags behind that of internal combustion vehicles.

News of a station detonating will no doubt rekindle distrust in the highly flammable gas, which, as this story’s lede aptly shows, can’t seem to shake the stigma of that 1937 tragedy at Lakehurst Naval Air Station. And still automakers try. Among other makes, Hyundai, Toyota, Honda, and Mercedes-Benz feel that the future of propulsion is not yet set in stone; thus, FCV development continues.

[Image: Toyota, Matthew Guy/TTAC]

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41 Comments on “Hydrogen Fuel Station Blast Temporarily Halts Fuel Cell Vehicle Sales in Norway...”


  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    Why does the second picture show a Honda ICE engine? No fuel cell stack there. I think that one is the Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid, not the Clarity FCX or Clarity fuel cell.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    I’d like to see more hydrogen-powered vehicles, whether ICE or fuel cell, but the reality is that the technology isn’t there yet, at least as far as making hydrogen fuel.

  • avatar
    ToddAtlasF1

    If only we had a cheap, abundant fuel source with an established distribution network.

    • 0 avatar
      bking12762

      Tongue firmly planted in cheek.+1

    • 0 avatar
      tylanner

      Cheap and abundant are the easy problems to solve…sustainability is the open question…

      • 0 avatar
        Lockstops

        I guess what we need is research on how to take organic matter (waste etc.) and make oil out of it relatively economically, and without the process taking thousands of years. That would solve our problems.

        Or we could just have had some sort of population control methods in place decades ago. This place is wayyy overcrowded and with about half the population on earth the magnitude of these problems would be pretty different.

        • 0 avatar
          ToddAtlasF1

          Why are we allowing NGOs to traffic people from low carbon footprint countries to the ones with the biggest carbon footprints?

          • 0 avatar
            Lockstops

            Because they can make money that way. Where I live it’s a well-oiled machine: politician-owned (not directly of course) companies own the apartments in the inner cities where inevitably all immigrants end up, and taxpayers pay for everything through social benefits (yes, they get new apartments in expensive mid-city areas paid for by idiot taxpayers so of course they move there). They also own the shopping centres that have subway stations attached, and also the junk food franchises (this is where most immigrants gather and spend their social benefit money). Ironically over here it’s the leftist parties that own the ‘capitalist devil American’ fast food franchises (indirectly but it’s in the records, this is fact)! Basically they benefit from everything the immigrants do, and that’s why they want to bring them in.

        • 0 avatar
          SPPPP

          Lockstops, some resources are scarce, it’s true. But who among us has the hubris to look the person next to us in the eye and tell him or her, “You should not exist”?

      • 0 avatar
        johnnyz

        Peak oil? Axe Jimmy Carter.

    • 0 avatar

      “abundant fuel source with an established distribution network”

      You know to have “abundant fuel source with an established distribution network” you need to start production of fuel and establish distribution network. It can be quickly done by market forces if there is a sufficient motivation. There are no miracles – nothing appears out of blue sky, hard work and reward is required.

      I mean if congress outlaws ICE vehicles abundant fuel source and established distribution network will quickly materialize.

  • avatar
    Lockstops

    Oh, oh, oh! I have a great slogan for Hydrogen: “Fuel for the humanity!”

    (I actually think hydrogen is the bomb! No seriously, I want to buy a hydrogen-fuelled car, preferably an ICE engine that uses hydrogen.)

  • avatar
    tylanner

    With a population the size of Minnesota, Norway taking abrupt action on Hydrogen based on safety concerns doesn’t seem like breaking news…but Hydrogen has always occupied the precarious space between petrol and EV/Hybrids…

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    When hybrids were in their infancy and hydrogen was still up and coming I would have bet the farm on it. I’m glad I didn’t.

    Mention hydrogen and immediately everyone thinks of the Hindenburg.

    Mention gasoline and no one thinks about Fireball Roberts, the 91+ people who died in the Mexican pipeline explosion in January, the 1999 Olympic Pipeline explosion, or the many cars that immolate every day.

    The argument has always been that you can’t trust the general public to refuel hydrogen because it is explosive. As if gasoline isn’t.

    A gasoline station in Virginia exploded a month ago yesterday and 3 people died. I hadn’t heard about it until I went looking for examples just now.

    • 0 avatar
      Lockstops

      What we need is someone like Al Gore to make a movie about it and start touring…

      • 0 avatar
        Lorenzo

        What if everywhere that person went, there’d be a cold snap with rare snow. Imagine going to south Australia and bringing the first snowfall in years?

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      Hydrogen in it’s gaseous state is colorless and odorless, in addition to being highly explosive. If there’s a leak or a mistake in fueling, it would be difficult to determine until possibly a disaster takes place.

      Further down the string someone lists all of the characteristics of hydrogen, but the takeaway is this: odorless, colorless and a very low flash (ignition) point. Gasoline, while flammable, is easily detected when leaking via sight and smell and the flash point is much higher than hydrogen.

      Much is made of the Ford Pinto debacle, as if every one of those cars that was hit from behind instantly exploded into a fireball. Fortunately, that was not the case. All of the examples cited in your post most likely have some sort of catastrophic failure of otherwise safe systems for these fires/explosions to happen.

      We’ve got a lot experience (much of it hard lessons learned) handling gasoline as consumers, but I believe the learning curve will be very steep for hydrogen especially considering the properties of the fuel. I think it’s no win, as it takes a lot of energy to separate the hydrogen molecules away from whatever it’s bonded to. We may as well stick with gasoline at that point.

      • 0 avatar
        Land Ark

        Natural gas (cng) is also odorless in its natural form. You can easily add a scent. And for the most part, gasoline leaks are not typically seen prior to smelling, and natural gas is almost never seen, so the color is fairly irrelevant.

        As for the causes of my examples, I have yet to see a cause of the explosion presented in this story. I can’t imagine Norway would allow a haphazard installation of a hydrogen fuel station. Accidents happen in every industry. People set themselves on fire at pumps, people don’t realize their pilot light is out and blow up their house, people are careless around electricity and get electrocuted on a fiarly regular basis. All of these things can cause massive loss of life, but we press on with them. If they were presented to the masses today, we would all declare people too irresponsible to safely interact with them and they would never be accepted.

        I will continue to agree that the cost of hydrogen production is too high, but with all present technology, production costs would be too high to justify if started today. The dagger being several already viable alternatives.
        Can you imagine if we had to roll out gas stations nationwide within the last 15 years from zero?

        • 0 avatar
          geozinger

          While it’s commonly done with other gaseous fuels, an odor could be added easily to hydrogen. My point was that there are few signals for folks to know they’re on fire when dealing with hydrogen. There’s a post further down the string that details what the invisible fire can accomplish. And, like I mentioned in my post, something had to go horribly wrong for this accident to happen in the first place. The engineers who work on this stuff think of all kinds of disasters; but human nature has outsmarted all the precautions that learned men can take…

          Agreed, however, that people die everyday from accidents involving all kinds of energy. I also agree that if we were presented with the idea of using a combustible liquid fuel to power a vehicle in the present day (assuming that it was never done this way before, totally novel), it would never get to market due to safety concerns.

          Like the poster below notes, the amount of energy to get the hydrogen molecules isolated from whatever they’re bonded to is very high. This doesn’t even take into account distributing the fuel, etc.

          I think we’re better off using already established fuels and methods than trying to adopt hydrogen as a transport fuel.

          • 0 avatar
            volvo

            Actually I believe that hydrogen for fuel cells needs to be pretty much free of any carbon contaminants. Even minimal carbon apparently “poisons” the catalyst in the fuel cells.

            That is one of the things that make processing/purification of the hydrogen for natural gas expensive and complicated. Agents added to NG and Propane, Mercaptan to NG, are carbon based.

  • avatar
    Asdf

    BEVs have proven to be a technological dead-end due to their short ranges, EXTREMELY LONG charging times and exorbitant prices. Maybe it’s time for FCVs to follow suit? The problem with these technologies is that they try to solve a problem that was already solved a lot better about a century ago – with the internal combustion engine.

    • 0 avatar

      You ignore the superior driving experience of a BEV over a ICE engine vehicle. Superior in terms of performance, handling and quietness.

      Once you’ve driven electric, you don’t go back. Its like Broadband, who’d want to go back to dial-up?

      As for long charge times, it takes me 3 seconds to charge my car each evening. The car takes much longer than 3 seconds, but that time was going to be occupied by the car simply sitting there doing nothing anyhow. Due to the speed of refueling from the perspective of the owner, you end up spending *less* time fueling your vehicle with electricity vs gasoline.

      • 0 avatar
        Lockstops

        JPWhite: I went back. Or am in the process of doing so. Specifically because I want superior performance and handling. I have already switched from BEV to PHEV, and am now switching from PHEV to pure ICE. It is better to drive, more ecological and far more economical (even though the subsidies for EV/PHEV are over $6000 and we have super expensive gasoline plus super cheap electricity) than the EV&PHEV cars that weigh 500-1000kg more.

        I might convert the ICE car to E85 which is readily available, and over here I think over 95% of it is made from waste products. Still, there are basically no subsidies available and even after the switch to E85 I have to pay very high yearly taxes based on CO2 figures of the gasoline-powered original configuration… Meanwhile the PHEV I have now is taxed on some completely ridiculously low CO2 figures even though in real life even when plugging it in at home and driving very much on pure electric mode it consumes over 6 times as much than the paper figures! It consumes MORE gasoline on average than the ICE car I had earlier and the ICE car I plan to buy!! Before my home charger was installed it consumed about twice what my previous ICE cars did, even about 50% more than the Porsche I had!

      • 0 avatar
        Asdf

        @JPWhite: No matter how you spin it, mandatory downtime is mandatory downtime, and in the case of BEVs, the sheer length and frequency of the mandatory downtime makes it a GLARING DEFECT, regardless of what people DO during this mandatory downtime. Only brainwashed greenies manage to twist this flaw into a feature, yet another sign that BEV ownership makes people stupid.

        Incidentally, going from a 5-minute top-up of a fuel tank to an 8-hour charge is like going FROM broadband TO dial-up – who’d want to go back to dial-up?

        • 0 avatar
          chris724

          Fuel cells are a dead end. Batteries seem to be working out quite nicely though. ASDF is wrong.

          • 0 avatar
            MBella

            I don’t know if fuel cells are the future, but we need something to power vehicles, and it can’t be lithium batteries. What’s funny is how long we’ve been hearing about peak oil, even though new sources are constantly found. Few people are talking about peak lithium. It’s one thing to find enough to mine for your smartphone. It’s another to build a battery to drive a vehicle.

        • 0 avatar
          mcs

          @asdf: Having an ICE is like having to go to cafe whenever you want to get on the internet. EVs don’t have to take 8 hours to charge. Maybe on a 120v outlet. They have 60 amp Level 2 chargers for home use that charge much quicker than that. Maybe an hour or two – at home. If you need quicker charging, you can get cars that charge at 250 to 350 kW.

          EV charging is refueling that doesn’t get in your way. You have to park your car eventually, so it might as well be doing something like refueling while you are gone. You get to avoid searching for a gas station with the best price or have to stand beside your vehicle in the cold pumping in fuel. Almost every time I get into my vehicle, I’ve got 100% range. When you get into a fossil car, that’s not usually the case.

          My next car will be about 320 miles range and I have 50 amp charging at home. Home charging will be an hour or less and I’ll have 320 miles available every time I get into the car.

          Tesla is now saying 400 miles range is coming. That’s easily the same or better than some fossil cars. I usually fly for trips more than 150 to 200 miles, so it’s something I’d probably never use.

    • 0 avatar
      Lockstops

      But it’s so very important that we increase the world population to at least 20 billion. Therefore we need to strictly regulate how people live, force everyone to eat seaweed or some s**t like that, decrease living standards, stop people from moving around too much and basically store people in dystopian stacked box-cities. Because that is the enlightened vision of our (childrens’) future. Oh yes, and the enlightened elite will still have chauffeurs drive them everywhere and jets fly them everywhere (though they will pose in public transportation and on bicycles for press photos), they will dine in fine restaurants etc…

      • 0 avatar
        Lorenzo

        Birth rates are going down, and people who estimate such things are saying the planet’s human population will peak at about 12 billion and begin to decline. Getting to 20 billion will be impossible.

        That’s not to say there won’t be problems. It’s been estimated that Mom Nature will have to recycle over 800 million gallons of urine every day. That’s enough to fill over 600 olympic size swimming pools every day!

        It’s also estimated that just the current population generates over 1.8 million tons of poop daily. The Empire State Building weighs 365,000 tons, so that’s five Empire State Buildings of poop every day!

        Then there’s the matter of all the people in the world breathing. It’s mostly water vapor, garlic fumes, and the dreaded CO2. The average person exhales 15-16 times per minute while resting, much more when moving about – and we even do it in our sleep! I haven’t seen any figures on the CO2 output, but it must be enormous.

        In short, the scientists are right: there are so many of us now, that just going through our daily lives, we’re a force of nature. I shudder to think of the poop, urine, and garlic fumes from 20 billion people.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    You can’t always buy H2, even when you’re at the refilling station:

    https://www.edmunds.com/honda/clarity/2017/long-term-road-test/2017-honda-clarity-fuel-cell-hydrogen-mageddon.html

    Furthermore, the operating cost for fuel is equivalent to a Dodge Hellcat.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      FWIW, it appears to this midwesterner that the H2 infrastructure in CA is small and not developed.

      I remember reading that a while back, but I’d forgotten about how the dispensers freeze after fueling several cars in a row. I can’t imagine how quickly they would freeze up in one of our midwestern winters, especially when there’s a stiff northern wind blowing.

      You can pump gas and plug in your car, as neither one of those freeze regularly.

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        The thing that scares me, is that you’re depending on someone maintaining equipment that has to compress fuel to 10,000 PSI (if I remember correctly). Also, how long do those tanks last? Even if I was carrying 10,000 psi of normal atmospheric air, I’d be concerned.

  • avatar
    volvo

    I have a question.
    The post says
    “Hydrogen is difficult and energy-intensive to produce’.
    Can anyone give more details on that? Is the energy cycle from source (presumably gas from oil wells) to that delivered to the wheels of the vehicle positive or negative? How does it compare to gasoline or diesel?

    Hydrogen is very volatile with vapor point of -423F. Very low ignition energy input. And flammable over range of 4%-75% oxygen.
    I guess the good point is that spontaneous combustion temp of pure hydrogen is +1060 F

    Because of handling/storage difficulties and relative low energy density/volume at reasonable pressures it has been used in the past for applications that require vast amounts of instantaneous power, such as rocketry and spaceflight.

    IMO hydrogen as a fuel for cars/trucks/buses is not ready for prime time.

    • 0 avatar
      Jagboi

      I used to work at a fuel cell R&D company, so am quite familiar with their challenges and advantages.

      One way to produce hydrogen is electrolysis of water. Basically, apply power to water and it breaks down to hydrogen and oxygen. However, the H2-O2 bonds are strong, so it take more energy to break the bonds one made, than is obtainable from the energy that is released by making the bonds. There is a net energy deficit in electrolysis of water.
      If the power is generated by nuclear to hydro, it might not matter through, but if it’s a coal of gas fired power station it does matter.

      As a very crude analogy, this of the snap together plastic car models you might have built as a kid. It’s much easier to snap the pieces together than to take them apart after assembly isn’t?

      The other way to produce commercial quantities of hydrogen, and the way most is produced, is by steam reforming of natural gas. You heat methane and steam in the presence of either a platinum or palladium catalyst at temperatures of 750 C ( i.e glowing bright red for steel) and you get H2 and CO.

      Most automotive type fuel cells are PEM ( proton exchange membrane)cells that run at about 70C. To them CO is a poison, so that needs to be stripped out of the reformate gas. Basically, you throw away half the fuel before you even start.

      The other type of cell is SOFC – solid oxide fuel cell. These run at about 700C, so could use the hot gas straight from the reformation process. They can use teh H2-CO mix as fuel, but the problem with them is the ceramic membrane is a Ytteria stabilized zirconia, mixed with platinum and palladium and it is very brittle. It has to be brought up to temperature slowly, it takes about 4-6 hours to come up to temperature so the cells don’t crack and then it’s ready to start producing electricity. Once hot it has to be fed fuel continuously, as any air touching the reduction side of the membrane will destroy it instantly.

      if you’ve done much chemistry, you know there are basically two types of reaction: reduction and oxidation. Materials can generally resist one type of process, but not the other. Both of these occurs at the same time in an SOFC cell, and at very elevated temperatures when steel has the strength of soft lead for example. Last I heard there were only 6 materials known that could act as seals and withstand the temperature and reduction and oxidation at the same time. As you can imagine these are not cheap or easy to work with.

      The other problem with hydrogen is it is the smallest molecule. It sees steel as window screen and goes right through it. Hydrogen burns with an invisible flame, you can walk right into a hydrogen fire and not know until it’s too late.

      The SOFC cells also operate above the autoignition temperature of hydrogen, so if there is a leaky seal in the fuel cell stack and the H2 leaks out, you have an instant fire. We had a seal split one weekend when a stack was on test and came in Monday to a melted puddle of inconel and stainless steel on the floor, what was all that remained of the test stand that contained the fuel cell stack on Friday. The control system shut off the hydrogen before the building burned down, but it was a hot fire.

      The stacks themselves can be in the 50% efficient range, but when the amount of energy required to make the hydrogen is included as a complete energy cycle analysis, the efficiency was far less than using conventional gasoline or diesel for transportation.

      • 0 avatar
        conundrum

        Thanks for that. A very good yet concise explanation from someone who knows a bit about the subject.

        If hydrogen is most often made by decarbonizing natural gas at some significant cost in energy input, you have to bang your head against the wall and wonder – why bother?

        Of course you need hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles, but why not just run natural gas in an average ICE engine and avoid wasting energy producing hydrogen?

        I guess what I’m asking, what the hell is the use of fuel cells for vehicle propulsion in the first place? It hasn’t been obvious to me for well over 40 years now. All I see is waste, waste and more waste, and then there’s the problem of hydrogen leaking out from everything but incredibly expensive specialty tankage. Complete waste of resources from beginning to end, it seems at first and second blush.

        However, I’m willing to listen to a solid technical argument in its favour if there are any. What do you believe?

        • 0 avatar
          Jagboi

          I used to work with the guy who invented the fuel cell powered bus that BC Transit used in North Vancouver. They had a unique situation in that there was a chemical company across from the bus barns who manufactured soap. A byproduct of the soap process is hydrogen and they used to flare it off.

          They reached an agreement with BC Transit and put a pipeline across the street to the bus barns and used the hydrogen to fuel the buses. It did work fairly well, as the busses were electric drive they had plenty of power to get away from the curb quickly and were well suited to the stop and go of an urban bus route. Range was always a problem, as well as life of the fuel cells.

          Of course, we had the same thing 60 years ago in the form of trolly busses with overhead wires, and earlier with streetcars.

          Fuel cells are really best suited to applications that have constant load. One application we were looking at was cathodic protection of pipelines. They are often remote, need little but steady power, and have natural gas as the only fuel available. That became obsolete with better solar panels and batteries.

          I can see fuel cells in some industrial uses, such as providing a base load to the grid, assuming there is a source of hydrogen that could be utilized like in Vancouver, but I think it’s poorly suited to retail users in a transportation application.

  • avatar
    volvo

    I also am grateful for that excellent technical description from someone who was in the industry.

    As to your question. I do not have a technical argument for hydrogen fuel cells.

    I do have a political argument and that is that this is just another large corporate try at government subsidized rent seeking.


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