Why Are Hydrogen Cars Not the Future?

According to VW CEO Thomas Schafer, the second-largest manufacturer in the world would not create hydrogen-powered automobiles but will instead concentrate on developing electric vehicles.

Volkswagen has abandoned hydrogen, while other major manufacturers like Toyota, Hyundai, Honda, and BMW are still making significant technological investments.

February 2023 has come. Several of the biggest manufacturers in the world are still “developing” and talking about hydrogen-powered automobiles in 2023. 

They describe their multi-billion dollar plans as “hedging their bets” or using a “multi-pronged approach.”

Even politicians like former prime minister Scott Morrison are invited to drive and photograph in hydrogen vehicles. He wouldn’t do it with an electric car and didn’t do it either. 

Thus it is important to thoroughly explore the continuous development of what many contend is a fundamentally faulty technology.

It’s essential first to explain why hydrogen-powered cars are so fundamentally flawed and will never be able to compete with battery electric vehicles before examining why legacy automotive companies, resource tycoons, and the politicians who represent them have been such ardent supporters of hydrogen-powered cars over the last 20 years.

There aren’t many on the streets right now, save from a couple driven by politicians for photo shoots and a few purchased by technology enthusiasts. 

Yet there are many reasons why hydrogen-powered automobiles won’t be widely used anytime soon.

They include design complexity, thermodynamic constraints, ineffective logistics, excessive pricing, and safety concerns. 

Passenger cars and compact vehicles are the least possible uses of green hydrogen out of all the potential applications. They may be utilized in large vehicles like hauling trucks, but even that is still being determined.

Since hydrogen technology for automobiles resembles their present business models—complex engines that need extensive maintenance and a centralized distribution system—Big Auto and Big Oil and Gas are fans of the technology.

Several supporters of the technique will use hydrogen’s high energy density as evidence. People must remember to discuss liquified hydrogen, which is complicated and energy-demanding to liquefy.

Vehicles Fueled By Hydrogen, a “Rube Goldberg contraption” for transportation

Saul Griffith, the founder and chief scientist of Rewiring America and the mind behind the “electrify everything” movement, compares hydrogen-powered vehicles to Rube Goldberg contraptions.

A Rube Goldberg machine, named after an American cartoonist, is a device created to carry out a straightforward operation utilizing a succession of ludicrous and pointless procedures that amusingly overcomplicate the process.

The self-operating napkin in the original comic is activated when the diner raises his fork. We can understand what Griffith is getting at by contrasting a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle with an electric car. 

In addition to electric motors and batteries, a hydrogen automobile also requires hydrogen tanks to store the hydrogen and a fuel cell to turn the hydrogen into energy.

  • We can see that the hydrogen-powered automobile is far more complex when we compare the two car designs.
  • However, we begin to see how implausible the hydrogen-powered automobile is once we zoom out and examine the whole energy supply chain.
  • The supply chain for hydrogen is quite similar to the one for our present fossil-fuel-powered system.
  • Most of the world’s transportation system has been powered by gasoline and diesel over the previous 100 years.
  • Oil is extracted on enormous, intricate oil rigs that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to provide the fuel required to power gasoline and diesel vehicles and trucks. 
  • The oil is then transported to intricate and pricey oil refineries by costly pipelines or tankers.
  • Oil is transformed into gasoline or diesel in sophisticated, pricey refineries. 
  • It is also held in enormous, expensive tanks before being trucked to a costly fuel station, where it is once more stored until you go and pump it into your automobile from an underground tank.
  • You need to use the whole system to move from point A to point B in our fossil fuel-dependent society. 
  • To get this energy into your car, hundreds of thousands of engineers, boilermakers, diesel mechanics, truck drivers, and petrol station employees are required.

Other transportation technologies, such as hydrogen and battery electric cars, must be subjected to the same comprehensive study. 

As the globe moves away from fossil fuels, the energy source for electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles must be solar and wind-generated electricity.

Electricity for battery electric cars may be produced using rooftop or grid-scale solar panels or wind turbines. 

Image courtesy of youtube

The onboard battery pack of the vehicle is then used to store this electricity before moving the car using electric motors.

The system for hydrogen-powered cars is much more intricate and resembles our current gasoline and diesel “Rube Goldberg on steroids” system more closely.

Peter Newman from Curtin University and Jake Whitehead from the University of Queensland reached the same conclusions in their recently released study, which was printed in Sustainable Earth Reviews.

According to the laws of thermodynamics, “energy is wasted at every stage of the energy chain, which in turn leads to larger energy input needs, and ultimately higher energy costs,” they write.

And they illustrate this with the graph above comparing the energy chain required to power a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (HFCV) compared to a battery electric vehicle (BEV).

In his book “The Big Switch,” Saul Griffith lists the stages needed to power a hydrogen-powered car. 

Even before the first step, electricity needs to be generated by renewables, such as solar and wind, for the hydrogen to be classified as “green.”

  • Separate the hydrogen from water or some other molecule (using electricity from renewables).
  • To enable transportation, compress the hydrogen or cryogenically cool it.
  • Store the hydrogen in a sage pressure vessel.
  • Transport the hydrogen to where it’s needed.
  • Decompress the hydrogen so that you can utilize it.
  • Either use an engine to burn the hydrogen by combining it with oxygen (and maybe use that to turn a generator to make electricity)
  • To convert hydrogen straight into energy, put it via a “fuel cell.”
  • This incredibly complex system requires materials, machines, and energy to make and run.
  • In comparison, the battery electric system is straightforward and efficient.

Hydrogen’s “Rube Goldberg” complexity of converting renewable energy into the physical movement of a car equates to enormous energy losses, which means that hydrogen-powered cars are complex and woefully inefficient.

Read: Worldwide, the Finest and Worst Transportation

Hydrogen’s inefficiency problem

The next major problem facing the hydrogen-powered car is the laws of thermodynamics.

Every engine or system has an upper theoretical efficiency limit. Internal combustion engine vehicles are known as “Carnot cycle” engines. 

For vehicles, Carnot cycle engines have an upper theoretical limit of around 37%; however, most car engines only reach about 20% efficiency in reality.

It means that for every liter of petrol you buy from the petrol/gas station, only 20% of the energy in that liter goes into moving your car. The other 80% is wasted, producing heat and sound.

So after the enormously complex and expensive journey from the oil rig to your car, 80% of the fuel you buy is just burnt up for nothing, only contributing to air pollution and climate change.

Hydrogen-powered cars, combustion or fuel-cell, also need better theoretical upper-efficiency limits. 

In “The Big Switch,” Saul Griffith uses Sankey diagrams to compare these efficiency limits between electric and hydrogen-powered cars. The graphs show the accumulated energy losses at each stage in the system.

  • Again these diagrams show the theoretical upper limits. In reality, the efficiency is closer to just 20% for hydrogen. 
  • The electric vehicle efficiency numbers shown in the chart above are conservative, with some battery electric systems now achieving efficiencies of over 95%
  • What this all means in practice is that to get the same usable energy output to move a hydrogen-powered car, you need 3-5 times more energy input than a battery electric vehicle.
  • It means the energy cost to fuel hydrogen-powered cars is at least 3-5 times higher than EVs.
  • But it’s much worse than that.
  • It would be best to have 3-5 times more solar panels and wind turbines to supply hydrogen-powered cars.
  • That’s 3-5 times more capital costs to build those additional panels and turbines, and this is before we’ve even got to the following stages of the process, including Electrolysers, storage tanks, pipe networks, trucks, pumping stations plus all the workers’ wages needed to operate and maintain the supply chain.
  • By comparison, electricity for electric vehicles is delivered straight into your garage like magic. You are traveling just a few meters from your rooftop solar!

The hydrogen problem isn’t something engineers can “design out” of the system. 

There needs to be a technological breakthrough on the horizon that will enable hydrogen cars to get efficiency rates above 35% only if engineers figure out a way to violate the laws of physics.

So if hydrogen is inefficient, complex, and expensive, why are legacy automakers, politicians, and resource tycoons always spruiking it?

Image courtesy of theeconomictimes

Read: BMW Introduces a Talking Electric Car, Mercedes-Benz Increases Charging

Centralized vs. Decentralized energy:

The battle between electric and hydrogen-powered cars could be better described as the battle between centralized and decentralized energy.

Hydrogen represents a continuation of the highly centralized and monopolized fossil fuel-powered system, where a handful of oil companies control the entire world’s supply chain of transport energy.

This control over transport energy enables the global oil industry to wield immense power over governments worldwide, securing hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies and suppressing policies that benefit their competitors, like electric vehicles.

Alternatively, battery electric vehicles represent a decentralized system because the vehicle’s energy can be sourced entirely from solar panels on your roof (or your neighbor’s roof).

It is why the electric vehicle revolution so threatens the global oil industry and the governments they’ve co-opted. 

Once people switch to EVs, they no longer depend on massive multinationals for their energy or mobility.

The susceptibility for a future hydrogen supply chain to be monopolized has also attracted resource tycoons like Australia’s Andrew Forrest. 

  • In his 2021 Boyer lecture, Forrest claimed that green hydrogen is the solution to climate change.
  • “Our technology leading neighbors, Japan, South Korea and China have together pledged to put almost 8 million hydrogen fuel cars on the road in the next few years.” he said during the January 2021 lecture.
  • Forrest said, “Elon Musk recently called hydrogen fuel cell cars, despite the 8 million that will soon be on the roads, mind-bogglingly stupid. 
  • He has every reason to fear them. His description is perhaps better suited to someone who pedals a battery technology as green when it runs on fossil fuel.”
  • In the two years since Forrest’s lecture, his company has announced substantial stretch goals for green hydrogen, but this is mostly for industrial use, not cars. 
  • Tesla has sold over two million battery electric vehicles and is on track to produce almost two million more EVs in 2023. There have been only a few thousand hydrogen fuel cell vehicles sold.
  • Forrest is also pursuing battery electricity and has just announced plans to create a multi-billion battery business from the recently acquired Williams engineering team.
  • His company has also taken delivery of the first big 15-tonne batteries for his huge haul trucks and developed the so-called infinity train, using mortars and regenerative technologies, for the vast trains carrying ore to ports.
  • Meanwhile, in a press release last week, Honda said it hopes to sell just 60,000 hydrogen fuel-cell cars by 2030. 
  • A date when many analysts believe electric vehicle market share will be well over 90% of all new cars sold globally. 
  • BMW also announced its plans to invest more in hydrogen fuel cells, saying it has a “strong belief” in the technology.
Image courtesy of electronicdesign

Read: The Largest Ever Hydrogen Plane Takes Flight

Economy wrecking decisions

It’s hard to imagine the top engineers at companies like Toyota and Honda needing to understand the fundamental problems with hydrogen. 

The talk is that high-level executives have pressured them to “just make it work” and have chosen to stay quiet rather than rock the boat.

Whatever the reasons, the decisions companies have taken to focus on hydrogen over the last decade are about to have massive consequences for the companies themselves and the entire nation’s economies.

Toyota and Honda still need to develop high-volume electric vehicle manufacturing in Japan. 

It has given Japan’s dominant market position to China (and Tesla), ramping up electric vehicle production to fill surging global demand.

Japanese energy think tank Renewable Energy Institute released a report in September last year titled Re-examining Japan’s Hydrogen Strategy: 

  • Moving Beyond the “Hydrogen Society” Fantasy. 
  • The report slams Japan’s 2017 national hydrogen strategy, which envisages a carbon-neutral “hydrogen society,” as catastrophically misguided.
  • Japan’s strategy aggressively pushes for hydrogen-powered cars, while consumers overwhelmingly prefer EVs.
  • Japan’s automotive manufacturers and the industries that support them are estimated to employ over 5 million workers—around 8% of Japan’s workforce. 
  • With the world rapidly shifting to electric vehicles, which make up just 0.2% of Toyota’s production, it’s looking like Japan’s decision to focus on hydrogen over EVs is about to bite them hard.
  • And it’s not just economies that are at stake here. 
  • The hydrogen “fantasy” has sown seeds of confusion in the public discourse for many years about which direction the energy transition is heading. 
  • It has undoubtedly slowed the world’s efforts to get off fossil fuels.

Read: Car Prices are FINALLY coming back to Normal

Hydrogen, the never-ending story

If it feels like hydrogen for cars has been talked about for decades, that’s because it has. A Guardian article from 2011 titled “Why don’t governments push for more hydrogen cars?” begins with the sentence.

“We seem to have been talking about the ‘hydrogen economy’ for well over a decade now, but, like so many other savior technologies, its arrival never seems to get any closer.”

The never-ending narrative of “we’re developing hydrogen-powered cars” that stretches out into the future suits legacy auto companies that are unable or unwilling to develop electric vehicles.

They tell their customers this vague technology will be ready in a few years. In the meantime, please consider our petrol and diesel cars.

Hydrogen pushers should cut their losses and accept that EVs have won the technology war. 





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