No, We're Not There Yet! The Trouble With Hydrogen Cars

The IntersectionBy Sheril KirshenbaumJun 11, 2010 7:12 PM


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One of the perks of being a Hill staffer is access to cool new technologies when lobbyists visit. And so in 2006, I looped around D and 2nd in a hydrogen car. When I asked the nice man who brought the vehicle about safety and the inherent 'chicken and egg' problem (cars and fueling stations - which comes first?), he provided a clearly scripted response intended to brush off public concerns. I was sure he'd repeated it dozens of times that afternoon and--needless to say--I wasn't convinced. * * * * * * * On Monday when I announced my new position with UT's Webber Energy Group, some commentors inquired about hydrogen. In short, despite all the hype, it's unlikely to become a significant source of energy. I'll explain what makes this energy carrier appealing, followed by outlining its detractors, especially regarding use in personal vehicles. Hydrogen has superior energy density compared other fuels (a whopping 120 MJ/ kg in the liquid form). You may remember that George W. Bush often brought up the way its combustion yields water avoiding emissions. He committed over $1 billion to the development of a hydrogen car. And it's true that fuel cells can produce electricity with high efficiency and no moving parts. They are quiet and can also be designed at different scales depending on intended use. So far, so good.

BUT hydrogen is not available in enormous reservoirs in the Earth's crust and requires energy for production. Although current high cost and unreliability should become less prohibitive as technology improves, the distribution issues that would be required for use in personal cars are more difficult to overcome. On top of that, liquid hydrogen must be maintained below -241 C so storage poses problems. Finally, there's the enormous elephant in the room: Safety. Hydrogen is highly flammable with an ignition energy 1/10 of gasoline. So yes, the prospect of using hydrogen has some appeal. It's most plausible in fleet vehicles like buses which would require fewer filling stations. However, it's unlikely we'll all be whizzing around in our own personal hydrogen cars anytime soon.

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