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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