Naysayer Alert – the hydrogen purple herring

Naysayer Alert – the hydrogen purple herring


(Visitor Submit by John Murray)

There was a lot dialogue for over thirty years or extra round the usage of hydrogen gasoline cells as a substitute for the inner combustion engine.  Gasoline cells had been promoted in some sectors as one of the best various to the inner combustion engine.  Proponents imagine such a automobile may very well be simply refuelled with hydrogen and assumed it might have better vary than a pure all-electric automobile.  Latest developments in lithium ion batteries, and the consequential vary enhancements of EVs has considerably dampened enthusiasm for hydrogen gasoline cells.  Little appears developed in any broad business sense and definitely to not the extent of the pure electrical automobile.  Honda have produced the Honda FCX Readability FCEV, a hydrogen powered Gasoline Cell Electrical Car (FCEV), which they’re leasing in restricted numbers to chosen prospects in specifically chosen areas solely.    Equally, Toyota launched its Hydrogen Powered Mirai, however once more solely in chosen areas and to chosen prospects. There are a number of causes for this method and understanding a little bit extra about gasoline cell autos might clarify why.

It is very important notice {that a} gasoline cell automobile is definitely an electrical automobile.  The Honda FCX Readability FCEV and the Toyota Mirai FCEV, each use an electrical drive motor and a battery pack.  So, gasoline cell automobiles have a number of the benefits of pure totally electrical automobiles.  The motors are extremely environment friendly, they’ve the identical torque traits and they’re silent.  The hydrogen gasoline cell within the FCEV acts to maintain the battery charged, however can immediately energy the electrical drive motor, just like the operate of a gasoline-powered vary extender.  In essence the FCEV is firstly an electrical automobile with a hydrogen gasoline cell vary extender added.  Each the battery and the gasoline cell use chemical reactions to supply electrical energy.  Extra considerably it should be realized that hydrogen, identical to a battery, will not be an vitality supply in itself, however merely a way of storing vitality.  The vitality saved inside hydrogen has been imparted from electrical vitality by means of the electrolytic hydrogen manufacturing course of or extra possible within the refinement of fossil fuels similar to coal seam (methane) fuel – each are vitality intensive processes in themselves.       

The FCEV takes on hydrogen gasoline in a compressed fuel cylinder just like, however a lot stronger than an LPG cylinder.  As hydrogen has an especially low vitality density it needs to be extremely pressurized (over 700 atmospheres) and this course of in itself takes loads of vitality past the precise manufacturing of the hydrogen.  Throughout journey, hydrogen is routed to the automobile’s gasoline cell which, by means of the usage of a catalyst, separates its protons and electrons on the anode.  The electron circulation goes through the automobile’s lithium-ion battery, in essence holding it charged, and recombines with the protons and oxygen on the cathode.  The one by merchandise are water and a good diploma of warmth, the latter indicating a level of inefficiency and wasted vitality.  Nonetheless, hydrogen gasoline cell automobiles are, like pure battery powered automobiles, classed as Zero Emission Autos (ZEV).

So why haven’t FCEV turning into as prolific as different electrical automobiles?  The explanations are quite a few.   

First, hydrogen will not be as readily attained and definitely not as accessible as ubiquitous electrical energy.  Mostly it’s refined from typical coal seam fuel, usually termed ‘pure fuel’ to greenwash what it truly is, in essence simply methane discovered with different fossil-fuel deposits. If taken from such sources, hydrogen is a fossil gasoline, and isn’t a renewable useful resource.  As well as, it’s topic to comparable refining, storage and distribution prices at present related to petrol and diesel, together with upstream CO2 emissions the place the electrical energy required is normally generated from fossil fuels. As already talked about, it additionally must be extremely pressurized to achieve any helpful vitality density and this takes additional vitality.  Therefore its provide wouldn’t be low-cost, renewable nor sustainable in the long run.  Thus, if taken from such sources, hydrogen represents a silly vitality pathway and an costly and non permanent answer at greatest.      

Second, whereas hydrogen may be in any other case produced by means of the electrolysis of water, this course of requires big quantities of unpolluted and recent water – an important and extremely worthwhile commodity of life that may’t be wasted.  Additionally, electrolysis of water by definition requires electrical energy along with the already talked about pressurization, storage and distribution prices.  It’s really the vitality within the electrical energy used for electrolysis that’s imparted to the hydrogen i.e. hydrogen is just a storage medium for {the electrical} vitality.   Why not merely use the electrical energy on to cost electrical automobiles through the already accessible distribution community – the electrical energy grid?  Each time there’s a conversion of vitality from one kind to a different there are effectivity losses – an idea often known as ‘vitality vector transition’.  It appears fully illogical to make use of giant quantities of electrical energy to supply hydrogen after which have to make use of extra vitality to extremely compress it, to be then decanted and bodily transported through vehicles (much more harmful than present petrol tankers) by means of pricey distribution networks, solely to be decanted once more into automobiles and finally reconverted again into electrical energy within the gasoline cells of these automobiles. This course of can not be extra environment friendly, value efficient or safer than the direct use of electrical energy from the grid (or the solar) to cost an EV.   Once more, the hydrogen pathway represents a silly vitality pathway.  The mandating of any system similar to this is able to solely be about taking care of the pursuits of ‘middlemen’: oil and fuel invested corporations who would invariably transition into this market as each provide and/or demand for oil recede.      

Third, the acidity of a substance is set by the quantity of hydrogen ion current in that answer; the extra hydrogen ions, the extra acidic.  Hydrogen ions are extremely acidic and thus extremely corrosive.  For that reason the anodes of gasoline cells want platinum to stop speedy degradation.  The price of platinum makes hydrogen gasoline cells an costly proposition even compared to lithium-ion batteries.  Therefore, hydrogen gasoline cell autos are intrinsically costlier than pure battery-electric automobiles. 

Fourth, like all fossil fuels hydrogen is very risky, way more so than petrol.  If present petrol tankers have the title of ‘essentially the most harmful autos on the street’ such a title can be outdated by hydrogen tankers.  So creating and working a hydrogen refinement and distribution community brings considerably elevated danger of explosive incidents and demise.  In 2019 alone there have been three important explosive incident’s involving hydrogen;

  1. a hydrogen plant explosion in Santa Clara, California, which means Honda and Toyota had to supply rental petrol autos to their few FCEV homeowners[8],
  2. a hydrogen tank explosion in Gangrening, South Korea, killing two individuals and injuring a number of others[9] and
  3. an explosion of a hydrogen filling station in Sandvika, Norway, injuring two individuals and inflicting Hyundai and Toyota to stop gross sales of their FCEV in that nation[6,7].

And these incidents are taking place already with none widespread uptake of hydrogen FCEV as but.  The security components appear by no means thought of with fossil fuels regardless of 1000’s of lives misplaced through the years from important explosive incident internationally[12].      

Lastly, and as already indicated, hydrogen FCEVs require a big and costly distribution infra construction, with a purpose to allow lengthy distance journey.  In essence this mandates a whole billion greenback replication of the oil business’s distribution community.  Such an infrastructure will likely be costlier than the present oil infrastructure due to the unavoidable pressurization wants to present adequate vitality density by quantity.  It’s this infrastructure issue that has meant the Honda FCX Readability is simply accessible for lease particularly areas, i.e. people who have a hydrogen refuelling outlet.  This issue too, means hydrogen powered FCEV will at all times be far costlier to buy and function than a easy battery electrical automobile.  

Compared to a pure battery electrical automobile, FCEVs are extra advanced and heavier.  They require all of the part components of the easier pure battery electrical automobile plus costly gasoline cells and hydrogen storage programs.  Therefore, they’re more likely to at all times have comparatively poorer efficiency, be costlier in preliminary buy, in ongoing upkeep and per kilometre travelled prices. The usage of hydrogen as a gasoline for automobiles has a really poor Vitality Return on Vitality Invested (ERoEI) ratio in addition to poor greenback return on greenback invested ratio relative to the pure all-electric automobile.

It’s simpler and cheaper to drive an all-electric Kona or Tesla throughout the nation than it might a hydrogen powered FCEV.  The truth is, when in comparison with the Honda Readability FCEV, the all-electric Tesla Mannequin S has each better vary [Tesla 100D 572km (355mi) vs Honda 386km (240mi)] and better effectivity (Tesla 89% vs Honda 60%).  The Toyota Mirai can nearly match the Tesla Mannequin S 100D on vary (Tesla 100D 572km(355mi) vs Toyota 512km(312mi)) but it surely doesn’t exceed it and is definitely much less competent in all different standards, together with efficiency and effectivity (Tesla 93mpg-e vs Mirai 66mpg-e).  

Reinforcing this angle, a 2018 paper from a group of Queensland college researchers “The place are we headed with electrical autos?[5] evaluated the comparative efficiencies of assorted energy trains together with ICE (petrol and diesel), FCEV, PHEV and the pure EV.  This examine didn’t simply have a look at the efficiencies of the stand-alone autos but additionally the efficiencies of the total ‘well-to-wheel’ vitality pathways. The hydrogen FCEV was proven to have a well-to-wheel effectivity of solely 22%, in contrast with 20% for diesel and 14% for petrol.  The pure EV had an effectivity of 67% throughout the total well-to-wheel evaluation, thrice that of the FCEV and nearly 5 occasions that of the petrol-powered ICE[5], once more highlighting the silly vitality pathways of fossil fuels.  Hydrogen’s fuel-path inefficiency issues are additionally mentioned in one other paper by Tom Baxter of Aberdeen College, “Hydrogen automobiles gained’t overtake electrical autos as a result of they’re hampered by the legal guidelines of science[10].   Baxter particulars the unavoidable effectivity losses of the hydrogen gasoline pathway as a result of vitality vector transition whereby vitality is transformed from one medium, electrical to chemical (hydrogen), again to electrical and eventually to kinetic vitality.  Baxter places the theoretical effectivity of hydrogen FCEVs at 38% at greatest, in comparison with 80% for a full battery electrical automobile, mainly displaying that the conversion losses for hydrogen vitality pathways are little higher than fossil fuels and essentially, inescapable.

“…and hydrogen autos include the opposite nice drawback of inner combustion powered automobiles, not with the ability to refuel them at dwelling”


A FCEV additionally has a lot bigger drive practice elements than a pure EV thus encroaching on inside and cupboard space and considerably limiting design flexibilities.  And hydrogen autos include the opposite nice drawback of inner combustion engined automobiles – not with the ability to gasoline them cheaply at dwelling.  However there’s yet one more more and more mentioned benefit to the battery electrical automobile: the flexibility to be charged/fuelled from one’s personal home photo voltaic panels.   This primarily free and infinite provide of vitality is, and can more and more be proven to be, one of many biggest benefits of EVs over any various energy trains together with over-hyped hydrogen. 

Levi Tillemann in his guide, The Nice Race: The World Quest for the Automobile of the Future writes,

        “The truth is, there was a working joke within the automotive neighborhood that hydrogen was the gasoline of the long run, at all times had been the gasoline of the long run and at all times can be the gasoline of the long run” (Tillemann, L. 2015, p127)[1].    

Some imagine that the promotion of hydrogen gasoline cells for vehicles is little greater than a distraction and delay technique, seeding in individuals’s minds the notion that a substitute for gasoline is ‘simply across the bend’.  A hydrogen powered transport business has been termed the “alternative-energy purple herring” (Fletcher , S. 2011,p66)[3] and Tesla’s Elon Musk has known as the idea of hydrogen FCEVs as “extremely dumb”[5].   Intriguingly, Toyota’s chief engineer accountable for the Toyota Mirai mission, Yoshikasu Tanak, just lately said “Elon Musk is true…. it’s higher to cost the electrical automobile immediately by plugging it in”[4].  In impact, hydrogen instead gasoline supply for passenger autos might merely be mooted to attenuate any sense of urgency round peak oil and international heating, and so extend fossil gasoline dependence whereas tempering any momentum in direction of an early shift to pure electrical automobiles. 

In abstract I’ll depart it to the latest phrases of futurist Tony Seba from an interview with David Orban. 

“Mainly, it’s storage [not an energy source].  So, the query is then ‘Can hydrogen compete with batteries?’, particularly lithium ion batteries and what’s coming, and the reply is ‘No’.  Hydrogen is a traditional one to 1 substitution.  Mainly, [replacing] pure fuel for hydrogen, [replacing] gasoline for hydrogen.  It’s probably not a disruption.  It’s extra political than something, however if you happen to have a look at purely the economics it doesn’t make any sense.  In the event you have a look at the environmental facets it additionally doesn’t make any sense.  You understand as a result of 95% of hydrogen comes from pure fuel however even when it got here from water, the water utilisation the useful resource utilisation is simply insane. I imply from a water perspective mainly it might be preferable to make use of gasoline than to make use of hydrogen after which you must construct this trillion-dollar infrastructure, which once more ‘Who’s going to pay for it?’.” ……..  “So the hydrogen infrastructure…..consider it as like a pure fuel infrastructure. You want large refineries, you want pipelines, you want fuel stations.  So it’s a model new infrastructure in any respect ranges, whereas the electrical energy community….we’ve an electrical energy community.  We’re going to enhance it however we have already got an electrical energy community.  So the charging stations, you simply have to plug into the prevailing community.  So if you’ll, it [EV charging infrastructure] is a marginal funding within the current community versus a model new infrastructure community. You understand I have a look at issues from purely financial causes and you realize, from an financial perspective it is mindless. I imply you’re going to have all of the hype however you ask me that if in ten years we’re going to have a hydrogen community, my reply is an unqualified ‘No’.”                (Seba, T. 2020)[11]


John Murray



  1. Tillemann,L., (2015) The Nice Race: The World Quest for the Automobile of the Future. Simon & Schuster. New York.
  2. Fletcher, S., (2011) Bottled Lightning: tremendous batteries, electrical automobiles and the brand new lithium financial system. Hill and Wang.  New York
  3. Lambert, F., (2017) Toyota admits ‘Elon Musk is true’ however strikes ahead with gasoline cell anyway https://electrek.co/2017/10/26/toyota-elon-musk-fuel-cell-hydrogen/ accessed  27/10/2017
  4. Muoio, D., (2016) Elon Musk explains why hydrogen automobiles are ‘extremely dumb’ Enterprise Insider http://www.businessinsider.com/elon-musk-hydrogen-cars-are-incredibly-dumb-2016-1/?op=1&r=AU&IR=T
  5. Smit, R., Whitehead, J., & Washington, S. (2018) The place Are We Heading With Electrical Autos? Journal of Air High quality and Local weather Change Vol 52 No 3 Sept 2018https://researchgate.internet/publication/328782184_Where_are_we_heading_with_electric_vehicles accessed 4/12/2018
  6. Lambert,F., (2019) Hydrogen station explodes, Toyota halts gross sales of gasoline cell automobiles, is that this the tip?  Electrek   https://electrek.co/2019/06/11/hydrogen-station-explodes-toyota-halts-sales-fuel-cell-cars/ accessed 19/5/2020
  7. Szymkowski, S., (2019) Following hydrogen facility explosion, fuel-cell automobile homeowners left stranded. CNET Roadshow https://www.cnet.com/roadshow/information/hydrogen-fuel-cell-car-california-explosion/  accessed 19/5/2020
  8. KPIX CBS SF Bay Space Explosion Units Off Fireplace at Chemical Plant in Santa Clara Jun2 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S8ZAc38piQM  accessed 14/6/2020
  9. The Korean Instances. Hydrogen tank explosion kills 2 in Gangrening The Korean Instances http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2019/05/281_269400.html  accessed 14/6/2020
  10. Baxter, T., (2020) Hydrogen automobiles gained’t overtake electrical autos as a result of they’re hampered by the legal guidelines of science. The Dialog https://theconversation.com/hydrogen-cars-wont-overtake-electric-vehicles-because-theyre-hampered-by-the-laws-of-science-139899 accessed 4/6/2020
  11. Tony Seba (2020) on Looking for the Questions Stay with David Orban – Rethinking Humanity with Tony Seba STFQL63 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mGzrcmDrFfo accessed 14/8/20
  12. Oil Spills and Disasters Timeline on Infoplease.com https://www.infoplease.com/world/disasters/man-made/oil-spills-and-disasters-timeline accessed 10/8/20



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September 2022