Is Hydrogen an alternative to batteries as a zero carbon fuel?

Steam Methane Reformer

I’ve had a number of questions about whether hydrogen and its use in fuel cells, is a viable alternative to electric cars powered by batteries, given the issues I identified with cobalt as a significant element in the battery.

Hydrogen appears, at first, to be very attractive as there are no emissions during use, so air quality is improved (which is why it is often used in restricted spaces). However, the problem with hydrogen lies in production. At present roughly 95% of hydrogen is produced using fossil fuels, usually with a steam methane reformer, so it is not a zero-emission fuel. For it to become zero emission, it would need to be produced using zero emission electricity or biogas.

Producing hydrogen with electricity requires about 50 kWh to produce 1 kg of hydrogen. Electrolysis only produces clean hydrogen when “green” electricity is used. This would require using a substantial amount of new renewable energy capacity to produce hydrogen and that use would be competing with other uses for that electricity. To overcome the issue of cost-competitiveness, large amounts of inexpensive electricity would be needed. Prototypes are being studied, to use intermittent production spikes from wind and solar energy.

Is this an efficient use of renewable energy? There are reports, that hydrogen fuel cell cars consume more than three times more electricity than an electric battery car. Cost is also an issue, the Toyota Mirai currently costs $58,000, and Toyota is reputed to be losing money at this price.

Given these cost issues and competition for renewable energy production will technology make hydrogen feasible as a zero-carbon fuel? As I’ve described in my book, the other issue is the length of time it would take to see significant improvements in hydrogen technology which would likely be decades.

For all these reasons, hydrogen fuel cars are not , at present, a viable alternative to electric battery cars. Nor is this likely to change quickly.

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One thought on “Is Hydrogen an alternative to batteries as a zero carbon fuel?

  • Roll out of hydrogen powered cars would also remove the opportunity to charge at home -potentially in part from roof-top solar as I do- at much cheaper price than public points, and would remove storage capacity from the grid. Also, of course, hydro cars will need filling stations, and thus would be popular to increase the fuel producers monopoly and bottom line. Much more competition likely in the utility market for supply of electricity.

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