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February 19, 2008

Hydrogen Emits More Than Water Vapor

I’ve just read another article (Automotive Engineering, February 2008, p. 30) that mentions that the only emissions from hydrogen fueled vehicles is water. Not true. This is just like saying electric vehicles powered by batteries emit nothing. Why is the media constantly hyping this? Sure, running a vehicle on hydrogen is clean but most ways of making hydrogen aren’t. Just like most ways of making electricity.

The whole truth is not well known by the public, but the second half of it is very sound-bite friendly. While I’m not an expert on hydrogen, the sheer level of hype surrounding its use as a fuel makes me cynical. It is not a panacea.

Hydrogen fueled vehicles can be divided into two basic groups: Internal combustion engines running on hydrogen fuel, and electric vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

In either case, you have to get hydrogen and compress it to store enough of it to power the vehicle an appreciable amount.

In either case you have to make, storage, and transport hydrogen. It takes a lot of energy to make hydrogen. And energy usually results in emissions. Then you use the hydrogen to make electricity. So let me ask you this. Why not just use the energy to make hydrogen to make electricity instead? Is that not a more direct and efficient process that will yield fewer emissions? Two words: Rube Goldberg.

It’s debatable which is more feasible: Developing an electric battery that can be recharged quickly, provide enough vehicle range to be useful, and be durable enough to last 100,000 miles, or developing a hydrogen fuel cell that can do the same. But batteries already exist for all sorts of applications. Do you have a fuel cell powered-anything?

Here’s a quote from “The Car and Fuel of the Future: A Technology and Policy Overview” prepared by the National Commission on Energy Policy by The Center for Energy and Climate Solutions (June 2004) on hydrogen funding:

..currently getting funding and policy attention that is vastly disproportionate to both its probability of success and likely environmental benefits.


Hydrogen compared to battery electric or other energy storage method is like VHS versus Beta max, Apple versus PC, and Xbox versus PlayStation all over again. All it really comes down to is finding practical storage media for energy and establishing a dominant standard. Hydrogen as a storage medium seems redundant, like copying a VHS tape into Beta or running PC apps on an Apple.

My guess is that most (all?) hydrogen fuel cell research programs by major companies serve as advanced research for hedging bets in case a breakthrough happens and for PR purposes. No one who is going to build a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle that you and I can buy for any reasonable amount of money any time soon and turn a profit. Not only because they’re very expensive, but also because where are we going to refuel? File this under not-going-to-happen-anytime-soon-unless-there’s-a-lot-of-major-breakthroughs.

Sorry for the rant. I’m just calling out what I see as misleading reporting.

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