Arnold Kling  

Hydrogen Cars

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Randall ("FuturePundit") Parker takes down hydrogen cars by pointing to a number of scientific studies.

The biggest problem with hydrogen as a means to reduce pollution is that it has to be produced from another energy source and the most cost competitive energy sources are all forms of fossil fuels. The production of the hydrogen is not 100% efficient and it produces pollution. The transportation and storage of the hydrogen also use energy.

He deflates hydrogen even more emphatically than Lynne Kiesling, whose analysis I linked to in March.

For Discussion. Is there another side to the hydrogen story that I need to know about?

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The author at in a related article titled Hydrogen Not Good Short, Medium Term Form Of Fuel writes:
    UC Berkeley academics throw cold water on the prospects for hydrogen. In a paper appearing in the July 18 issue of Science... [Tracked on September 4, 2003 11:53 AM]
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Eric Krieg writes:

Here are some things that you need to know about hydrogen:

Being the smallest molecure, it is VERY hard to seal hydrogen tanks, pipes, or lines. Thus, if we ever got to a hydrogen based economy, we would release a lot more hydrogen into the environment than we do, say, methane, or VOCs, which are much larger, more easily controlled molecules.

This has many ramifications. Hydrogen in the upper atmosphere acts very much like CFCs, reacting with ozone. So we would be releasing much more hydrogen than we ever did with Freon. I suspect that the ozone layer would be negatively impacted.

On the plus side for hydrogen, the feeling is that fuel cells have more upside potential for efficiency than do internal combustion engines. So what you lose at the plant that makes the hydrogen you make up for in the actual vehicle. You'd be hard pressed to get 30% efficiency in an ICE, but the potential is there for 50% efficiency from a fuel cell.

And don't discount economies of scale. A large refiner will be able to extract as much efficiency from the hydrogen producing process as is humanly possible.

Being a gas, hydrogen lends itself to pipeline distribution, which is about as efficient a distribtuion system as you are going to get.

But like all utopian visions, I believe the hydrogen economy hasn't been well thought out. I don't see why we should scrap a system that works for nothing more than the POTENTIAL of something better.

Randall Parker writes:

I am increasingly of the view that hydrogen is kinda like the emperor who has no clothes. Why are people excited by hydrogen? It makes no sense. We ought to be working in energy sources that would replace fossil fuels. Click thru to the last link on my post and you will see what Chemistry Nobel Richard Smalley (for fullerenes) says about how this could be done.

Also, we ought to be working much harder on lighter weight batteries so that hybrid vehicles could become cost effective. Donald Sadoway of MIT says much lighter weight batteries are achieveable. If you go into my site's Energy Tech archives you will find links I've made to Sadoway's views on this in previous posts.

Andrew Martin writes:

I don't understand why everyone is so dismissive of hydrogen. The promise it provides is that if a fuel cell (O2 from the air + H2 = Energy and Water) is used in conjunction with a solar cell (Water + Energy = H2 for use in the fuel cell and O2 for us to breathe) we can have a completely clean energy system. The main hurdle is how to make Hydrogen storage cost effective.

As Parker pointed out, fuel cells aren't 100% efficient. According to "Fuel Cell Systems Explained," a book written in 2000, maximum efficiency for Hydrogen fuel cells where water is given off in gas form is just under 80%. Yet Parker neglects the fact that internal combustion engines aren't efficient either, not by a long shot. A stock engine suffers from a thermal efficiency of about 30% (most of the energy in the reaction is given off as heat) and Mechanical efficiency of around 90% (this is where friction takes its toll), meaning that the combined system is about 20-25% efficient. (And he's complaining about inefficiency of fuel cells?) I honestly think the sun will run out of its own hydrogen fuel before a 100% efficient fuel system is discovered. But, seeing how many days of Code Orange air quality we in the Raleigh-Durham area have seen, I don't think we can wait for something like cold fusion to come along.

As everyone has pointed out, hydrogen is a very tricky substance to store, and that is why one of the cheaper methods is to use fossil fuels. However, this isn't the only method. Hydrogen can be stored when combined with metals such as titanium which allow for the storage of more hydrogen in a smaller space than hydrogen gas alone and with the benefit of not needing great pressure or temperatures.

Above all, I would like to point out that fuel cell systems have been proven to work. The most popular type of fuel cell, the Proton Exchange Membrane cell, is the basis behind Honda's new FCX. It is one of the first fuel cell cars that's only emission is water vapor. It is available for sale in environmentally conscious California right now. I have also seen where buses, in Chicago and in Georgetown run on Ballard Fuel Cells. The bottom line is that the technology works and it is much cleaner than gasoline dependant internal combustion engines, ethanol fueled cars, or hybrids (though hybrids and ethanol are important and effective steps).

Ted writes:

I think it's a waste of money, but here's my understanding:

The dream is to "free" the hydrogen atoms in a manner that will have low environmental impact-- the idea is that it's easier to make one big hydrogen plant "green" than it is to make millions of cars "green".

If we can develop a safe hydrogen-powered vehicle that works, than we have greatly reduced pollution caused directly by automobiles. That leaves us with the pollution at the hydrogen factory. If we power the factory by fission, than we have no air pollution, and very little water pollution. All we have to do is find a place to dump the toxic waste...

Redundant explanation, but I think it's right...

Eric Krieg writes:

>>The promise it provides is that if a fuel cell (O2 from the air + H2 = Energy and Water) is used in conjunction with a solar cell (Water + Energy = H2 for use in the fuel cell and O2 for us to breathe) we can have a completely clean energy system. The main hurdle is how to make Hydrogen storage cost effective.

Eric Krieg writes:

What is the attraction of hydrogen powered vehicles?

You better not say air quality, because automobiles as they are CURRENTLY built are essentially zero-emissions vehicles. Dump a quart of oil on the ground, and you have exceeded the hydrocarbon emissions over 100,000 miles from the typical Honda Accord SULEV, which you can buy today in New York, California, and a few other states. This is not some research vehicle like the Honda FCX either. This is the ONLY model Accord sold in the states that follow California (CARB)emmisions standards.

It's not to say that auto emissions are not a problem. They are. If you are driving a vehicle over 5 years old, it doesn't meet these new standards. If you are concerned about air quality, you should consider trading it in. Also, SUVs meet the same emissions standards as cars, so a brand new Excursion is less polluting than a 5 year old Geo.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>Also, we ought to be working much harder on lighter weight batteries so that hybrid vehicles could become cost effective.

Andrew Martin writes:

Eric, what are you talking about, "You better not say air quality?" The fact is a lot more air pollution comes from the burning of coal to power our homes (thank you Tennessee Valley Authority). Hydrogen provides the potential for clean energy for home usage. Ballard is currently offering a fuel cell generator for commercial and industrial usage, and with advances in solar collection with multi-junction solar cells as well as the potential for phosporic acid fuel cells for residential and industrial use, Air Quality can certainly be improved.

Mcwop writes:

For Discussion: “Is there another side to the hydrogen story that I need to know about?”

Yes there are a few sides:

1) Hydrogen engines are weak in the horsepower department – at least in the short-term.
Many hydrogen cars won’t be ready until 2010, and the engines will produce about 126 horsepower (models today are about 80 horsepower – there are prototypes with more power, but they are $$$$). This won’t fly in the car buying market. The cars will be tiny, and won’t compete alongside more powerful vehicles (Try to merge into the fast lane from a center located rest stop on I-95 in Maryland with that kind of dog). A base model Mini Cooper has a 115 horsepower engine, which is plenty for that size car and one or two passengers. A family of four will have a tough time in one, and the extra weight will bog the engine down.

2) Hydrogen distribution stations will take time to penetrate. In the US, which has a lot of acreage, this is a greater logistical problem than say Europe. These won’t be built without ample customers, government subsidy, or both.

3) Hydrogen cars hold promise, but the payoff could be 20 years away. Diesel and hybrids could penetrate the market faster and increase fleet average MPG sooner than hydrogen cars. Excellent tax incentives could speed adoption (eliminate sales tax and federal tax credit).

Hydrogen cars have many other issues that will take time to be worked out. The focus should be on existing technologies that have a more immediate return. Turbo-diesels with better pollutant reduction technologies and hybrids have that potential.

David Thomson writes:

“I am increasingly of the view that hydrogen is kinda like the emperor who has no clothes. Why are people excited by hydrogen? It makes no sense. “

I’m convinced that hydrogen is popular in some quarters merely because it is considered a “clean” and “natural” substance. Oil, coal, and nuclear energy sources are deemed yucky, nasty, and reprehensible. It’s really that simple. Cold and dispassionate logic has nothing to do with the matter.

Randall Parker writes:

Andrew, The conversion of fossil fuels to hydrogen has some inefficiency. Transportation has some inefficiency. Storage has some inefficiency (keeping it liquid has on-going energy costs). Then of course using it in a fuel cell has additional inefficiency. You can tell me that the final step is more efficient. But there are all the other steps that lead up to it that have costs as well.

The MIT people (who being a bunch of smart scientists and engineers I figure deserve to be taken seriously) say that hybrids may do almost as well in terms of efficiency. Plus, the hybrids do not require hundreds of billions or trillions spent on new infrastructure. The issue here is not just the money. Building infrastructure also costs energy. So would there be a net benefit to rushing toward hydrogen? It is far from clear.

Plus, there is the problem that hydrogen takes up too much space. We need a way to store it densely and not have to expend energy to compress or cool it.

By contrast, a big step forward in battery tech would allow really efficient hybrid vehicles to be built that would go more miles between fuel stops and would use all the existing infrastructure. Donald Sadoway (also of MIT) says that a big step forward in battery tech is achieveable.

See my Energy Tech archives and in particular see my post Is Hydrogen The Energy Of The Future? for the bottom part of the post where I link to Sadoway's views.

Andrew, the main hurdle is not how to make hydrogen storage cost effective. The main hurdle for your scenario is how to make cheap photovoltaics.

Eric, you say something that seems wrong to me:

"Let me put it this way: there isn't enough square footage of earth to cram in enough solar cells to generate the amount of energy needed to produce enough hydrogen to replace oil as an energy source."

Have you tried to do the calculations? First of all, it will be possible to achieve a much higher solar cell efficiency than 10%. See my post Material Discovered For Full Spectrum Photovoltaic Cell about some LBNL researchers who found a material that is 50% efficient. Surely nanotubes will be able to achieve a still higher effiency.

Have you done calcs on how much energy we use and how much falls on the Earth? I've done rough calcs and the energy needed looks like it is achieveable with a fairly small portion of the Earth's surface. On my blog in the Grand Strategy archive see the comment section of my post Energy Policy, Islamic Terrorism, And Grand Strategy where I introduce some rough calcs on the area needed for photovoltaics.

I'd include URL links to these articles but this site strips them out. So you'll have to go my category archives on my two blogs and search on the subject titles.

Andrew Martin writes:

Randall, I completely understand that this technology, as it is now, is inefficient. And as you said, density is a problem. This is overcome with the use of metals in hydrides, but then these can only be used for certain applications because they are very heavy and are thus not good for storing in cars. My main problem with the quote Kling put on his blog, was just that you seemed to ignore the inefficiencies in the internal combustion engine and were dismissive of any efficiencies from hydrogen unless it were near perfect. Also, I wanted to point out that other systems can be used other than storage in the form of fossil fuels. There is also one system that WHEN (certainly a ways off) and if (I really think we'll do this before we see peace in the Middle East) such as system is created that is cost effective it would hold promise to be not only clean but renewable as well. But, hey, I'm an idealist.

And Eric, I'm sorry to say this but you are behind the times when it comes to solar power. To back up Randall's comment multi-juction solar cells, as I mentioned above, have achieved efficiencies of around 30%. Theoretically this could get much higher using many more junctions, but right now the most anyone is using is three because more junctions introduce new problems. At present, this is done by using different layers of different materials (say bye-bye to the old silicon based cells you were refering to that we use to power our calculators) to absorb differ wavelengths of light. There is actually an article that came out of Berkley Labs last year that provides the promise of an alloy that could be used to convert almost the entire light spectrum into electricity. It is an alloy of indium, gallium, and nitrogen and is relatively cheap. The researcher behind the discovery said these cells could be produced as cheaply as traffic lights. Check out the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory website at if you want to re-educate yourself. Of particular interest would be the article at

Whether it works or not, I haven't been able to find. The article is from Nov. of 2002, so I imagine they are still working on it. But regardless, there are multi-junction solar cells in production that have trebled the efficiency you claimed.

In closing, I say let technology and market forces decide, not fear of change. Even if only asthmatics and greens were to actually want to clean the air by using such clean systems, that's still a significant market to justify funding research at the very least. And apparently Honda is convinced enough to start thinking about production.

Randall Parker writes:

Andrew, so you didn't even bother to click thru and read my post but were willing to take the time to criticise my views. Okay.

Eric Krieg writes:

Randall, I have seen the calculation done. Of course, it was based on current, silicon based solar cell efficiencies. It was also based on real world capture rates, where the weather and the light cycle is taken into account, as well as assuming that you can't install the cells on things like roads, national parks, the oceans, mountains, etc.

When talking about solar cell efficiency, you have to be very careful to indicate if you're talking about real world efficiency or laboratory efficiency. In the real world, solar cells get hot with use. The heat lowers the efficiency of the solar cells significantly.

In a residential application, this may not be a problem. You can put a solar water heater behind your cell array, and do your hot water heating along with your energy production. But in commercial applications, it can significantly lower the amount of energy produced.

Finally, even if someone invented the perfect solar cell tomorrow, powerful and cheap to produce, you would still have to figure out how to integrate it into our power system. The electrical system in the US is not set up for distributed power systems (a solar array on every roof, selling excess power back into the system). This is a point that is frequently forgotton in arguments for distributed power systems like solar and fuel cells.

Eric Krieg writes:

Martin, I brought up automobiles because they are blamed for something like 1/3 of the air pollution in cities, according to the American Lung Association. But it isn't new cars that are creating ozone and smog. It is all the junkers out there.

0% financing has done more to clean the air than the ALA has. New cars simply do not create ozone or smog.

As for coal, new coal plants are extremely clean. The filter companies have combined electrostatic technology with bag filters, to get 99.9% of the particulates down to something like 10 microns in size.

Of course, the problem is that the old plants have been grandfathered in. They don't have the filtration requirements that the new plants have, so they're emissions monsters (much like the junker cars that are the source of most auto emissions).

The grandfathering is a political problem. It requires a political solution. You could just change the regulations, as the Clintonistas tried to do, but that will increase electricity rates significantly.

Another idea might be to scrap all the alternative energy programs the feds now fund and simply use the money to scrap all the old coal plants and build new coal plants with the latest technology. That would do more to clean the air than anything else we could possibly do in the short term.

Andrew Martin writes:

Yes, Randall, as a matter of fact I did click through to read your article, but I still find that what you said on that quote is highly dismissive of the high inefficiencies in internal combustion engines. I also felt I needed to introduce you to the promise hydrogen holds that one day we can turn water into hydrogen and then back to water in a completely renewable, clean cycle. It just so happens that the quote on this blog happened to be what you saw as THE BIGGEST PROBLEM with hydrogen. I just wanted to say that that problem can be overcome with new technologies and better efficiencies.

There is also an article from your MIT friends on something called a plasmatron which converts some of the gasoline into hydrogen allowing for much greater effieciency in the internal combustion engine, as well as allowing for a cleaner use of gasoline. They're hoping to produce test cars in a few years. Admittedly, this solution still creates pollution, but like a hybrid, it is an improvement on what we have today.

There's also an article on the major problem with the theoretical promise hydrogen holds which is that it uses a lot more energy to break down water than to create water. As a solution, MIT's Daniel Nocera is looking at trying to use photosythesis to create the needed hydrogen. It's an interesting read. Basically, hydrogen power is about the ability to create energy that is much cleaner than what we have now, not only for vehicles, but for residential and commercial use as well.

Randall Parker writes:

Andrew, if you click thru to my article that Arnold Kling linked to you will see I've added updates to it that link to some of my relevant previous posts.

Andrew, I linked to the MIT folks on the plasmatron as well. But the plasmatron is a means to improve the efficiency of the ICE. Yes, it generates hydrogen. But it will have the effect of prolonging the use of gasoline and the ICE.

Eric, better materials for photovoltaics would be less temperature-sensitive. I expect that we will eventually have such materials. Yes, some uses are more easy than other uses. Fossil fuels are going to be harder to replace for some applications than for other applications.

Andrew, As for using chloroplasts to generate hydrogen: It seems like an inefficient way to go. Chloroplasts convert only a very small fraction of the sunlight that hits them into energy. Algae or plants would need water, a livable range of temperatures, and a more complex apparatus to keep them alive.

Mark Bahner writes:

"For Discussion. Is there another side to the hydrogen story that I need to know about?"

Well, as has been pointed out here, a 2003 production car is essentially completely free of emissions of ozone- ("smog-") forming pollutants.

So there are virtually no benefits to going to hydrogen cars for reducing smog-forming emissions. (As was pointed out, the trick is to get the old cars on the road replaced with year 2003 cars, rather than switching engine/fuel types.)

That leaves emissions of carbon dioxide, which hydrogen-powered cars wouldn't have. But the idea that human emissions of CO2 are an important environmental issue will probably be essentially abandoned in the next 2 decades.

Over the past century, *surface* temperature measurements seem to have increased by about 0.6-0.8 degrees Celsius. If we guesstimate that the increase in the sun's output has been responsible for half that increase, the contribution of greenhouse gases (e.g. carbon dioxide and methane) has been 0.3-0.4 degrees Celsius.

Based on that estimate, and current trends in human emissions of CO2 (they've plateaued), and current trends in atmospheric methane concentrations (they've plateaued)...anyone who thinks that surface temperatures will increase by more than another 0.3-0.4 degrees Celsius over the 21st century is probably overestimating.
[fixed, Econlib Ed.]

Summary: By the end of this century, we probably will have transitioned to a hydrogen economy. But there won't be any substantial transition for at least another 2-3 decades...and probably more like 4-6.

Eric Krieg writes:

If we're really concerned about CO2 (which I am not, but for argument's sake...), remediation of CO2 would be much easier and cheaper than restructuring our entire energy system to hydrogen.

Injecting CO2 gas back into oil and gas fields would be a very cheap way to cut down on CO2 emissions to the atmosphere. The capacity of some of these spent oil fields is simply huge. I've read that the capacity of the North Sea fields alone are such that they could adsorb European CO2 for decades.

But that's only if we decide that CO2 is a problem. I'm a skeptic.

TM Lutas writes:

A few things have been missing in the discussion so far. Hydrogen is effectively not an energy source but an energy storage device. One of the first things that hydrogen fuel cells will replace is laptop batteries (Toshiba is putting one out in 2004). So in the question of electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells have a clear role to play as a battery replacement.

Another thing that has not been mentioned is that hydrogen can be derived from multiple sources. This multi-fuel capability will create great worldwide efficiencies as what were waste streams can be converted to energy sources. Agribusiness conversion of animal waste and crop biomass will turn waste to energy without having to have a new energy infrastructure beyond hydrogen.

In fact, the pie-in-the-sky aspect of alternative energy schemes will generally go away as every alternative energy source can pretty easily be converted to hydrogen and feed into the hydrogen economy. This lowers the barriers to entry for future innovations in the field.

For example, take a look at beamed solar energy from solar power satellites. That's likely to end up being microwaved to a ground station in a relatively remote area (you don't want to be anywhere near a powerful microwave beam if it gets knocked a bit off target). If all that's at the receive site is a plant that creates hydrogen out of water, you've converted a very inconvenient power supply to something that can be sent down a pipeline network. Currently orbiting solar power satellites are about 15 years out. But then again they would depend on cheap launch capability on the level of a space elevator which is... about 15 years out.

So we have a technology (hydrogen fuel cells) that can serve both as a ICE motor replacement and as an electrical battery replacement. It's multi-fuel capable and creating this one new infrastructure will permit future innovation in energy production to plug into the same infrastructure in future lowering barriers to entry.

It sounds to me like hydrogen really has possibilities.

Dean Lehrke writes:

Lets face it, an H2 economy would be an environmental disaster! It is hyped by fuel cell makers that we will somehow get all this H2 "free" from wind energy but that is only a "smoke screen" for the real fuel to be H2 from fossil fuels. An H2 economy is truly the "emperor's new clothes" since there are way too many problems with storage and a costly pipeline infrastructure that would cause more global warming than present C02 emissions. Lets face it, H2 is hyped mainly by the fuel cell companies who are sucking up huge amounts of federal money doled out by government beaurocrats ignorantly lobbied into the scheme. Ethanol made from biomass through the Fischer-Tropsch process or pyrolosis conversion (ie GTL or Gas to Liquids Technology and not by "frankenbacteria" fermentation)is the only truly environmentally benign transportation fuel,period. There is nothing more to argue. If you are still committed to fuel cells then use simple reformers powered by ethanol, but don't use on-board H2. Ethanol is the only liquid fuel occuring naturally in nature and is totally biodegradable, and does not pollute groundwater. It also has a low vapor pressure so it will not pollute the atmosphere during storage and handling like H2 or gasoline does. Ethanol from biomass is the only true C02-neutral fuel. It is an oxygenate and being a simple hydrocarbon is easier to combust cleanly in an engine or fuel cell vehicle than any fossil fuel. And forget Cornell Professor Pimental's outdated arguments, as there are now farmers using just the energy of the normally discarded corncobs themselves to power their own on-farm ethanol distilleries! Talk about a positive energy balance!

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