Is Hydrogen Coming of Age?

By Mike Sheldrick

It may be time to retire the old saw about hydrogen: “The fuel of the future and it always will be.” Despite some dramatic advantages, including zero emissions, and fuel costs that potentially could be substantially lower than gasoline, hydrogen has never been a serious contender to replace internal combustion engines, even though fuel-cell technology was invented 175 years ago.

While hybrids and BEVs (battery-powered electric vehicles) are grabbing most of the spotlight, nearly all the automakers have active FEV (fuel-cell electric vehicle) programs underway.

Hyundai has struck first when it introduced a $499 per month lease for the fuel-cell driven Tucson SUV. The vehicle will be available through dealers in Tustin, CA, and can be refueled at three refueling stations available in the area. The range of the Tucson is 265 miles, and it can be refueled in 10 minutes. Hydrogen enthusiasts claim that better refueling times — as little as three minutes — will soon be available.

Toyota had earlier announced its plans to introduce its FEV sedan in 2015. Honda will also be offering its Clarity, a sedan in 2015. Mercedes has operated a pilot program for its B Class F-Cell powered program, which actually began in 2002 and has included many commercial vehicles.

At the recent American Chemical Society meeting in San Francisco, where Toyota introduced its sedan, a panel of scientists predicted ranges of 300 miles for the latest hydrogen vehicles and fill-up times of 3 minutes or less. They also predicted lower costs for fuel-cells themselves, thanks to new membranes, new nanoscale catalysts, incorporating lower-cost materials, and better, lower-weight on-board storage for even higher ranges.

Although prices of FEVs could match those of BEVs or even gasoline- or diesel- powered cars, initially they will be more expensive, probably $60,000 or more. In addition, there’s another problem with hydrogen: a lack of infrastructure. There are, literally, only about 100 hydrogen-fuel stations nationwide. So far, the automakers’ solution is to concentrate its sales in restricted geographic areas. Southern California is a favorite area, and will probably be followed by Northern California before a full-scale national rollout.

Last month, the California Energy Commission approved grants of almost $50 million for 28 hydrogen refueling station. The state has a goal of putting 1.5 million zero emission cars on the road by 2025.

The infrastructure problem is not insuperable. Hydrogen can be manufactured from natural gas by a process called steam reforming and stored in tanks below ground and dispensed in a station that looks just like a regular gas station. Shell Oil has been pumping hydrogen for several years in Newport Beach, CA. Fleets may be one of the most significant markets for EFVs, especially those that return to a depot, where refueling would be quite easy.

Fuel economy can be as high as the equivalent of 70 mpg in gasoline, depending, of course, on a number of factors. Hydrogen itself, when it is produced from natural gas, produces CO2. But there are “green sources” of hydrogen, which can be recovered from industrial processes. Also, hydrogen can be produced electrolytically from solar energy or wind power. In any event, hydrogen, even when produced from natural gas, produces — overall — only 50% of the CO2 emissions compared to gasoline.

The University of California at Davis recently issued a white paper, “The Hydrogen Transition.” It covers all aspects of the developing “hydrogen economy,” on a world-wide scale. According to the white paper, the next two to three years will see concerted efforts to introduce hundreds of hydrogen stations capable of supporting tens of thousands of FCVs in selected regions worldwide, backed by several hundred million dollars in public investment and billions of dollars in private investment. If these regional rollouts succeed, hydrogen FCVs might be just a few years behind plug-in vehicles in their commercialization and might ultimately capture a larger share of the light duty vehicle market.

There’s no need to brush up your selector list yet, and it’s possible that hydrogen could once again come a cropper, its future may still be in the future, but suddenly it looks brighter than ever.

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