Currently reading: Under the skin: Why hydrogen could be an easy cell
Less wasteful than a petrol or diesel car, easier to use than an EV - is now the time to stop dismissing hydrogen as a load of hot air?
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3 mins read
22 July 2019

Twenty years ago, DaimlerChrysler, as the two merged companies were called then, launched the A-Class-based Necar 4, the first production-ready fuel cell vehicle capable of being driven on public roads. The plan was for the first commercial version, dubbed, ‘Necar X’ to be launched on public sale in 2004. 

By that time, DaimlerChrysler said it would have spent over £1.1 billion on fuel cell vehicle development: it was that big and looked that certain. The board member responsible for R&D, Klaus-Dieter Vöhringer, said back then: “From 2004 to 2010, the population of fuel cell vehicles has to increase very fast otherwise the [refuelling] infrastructure will not grow.” He was dead right in one sense: it didn’t grow and fuel cell cars haven’t taken to the roads in large numbers. Yet. 

Some would say hydrogen fuel cells are the holy grail of sustainable propulsion because they emit nothing except water and heat from the tailpipe. So long as the hydrogen fuel they consume is produced sustainably, it’s an environmental free lunch with refuelling pretty much as easy and fast as it is with petrol or diesel. In common with a battery, a fuel cell ‘stack’ consists of hundreds of individual cells producing a little over one volt each. 

The favoured technology for cars and transport is the polymer exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell. A fine polymer membrane sandwiched between a platinum cathode and anode and two flow plates in a kind of double-decker sandwich make up each cell. Hydrogen travels through the flow plates on the anode side while air is pumped through the cathode side as a source of oxygen. Hydrogen protons are attracted through the membrane to the oxygen, making water, leaving the hydrogen electrons behind, forming a current in an external circuit. 

There have been lots of technical hurdles to overcome – including scavenging residual water from inside the cells, which would freeze at low temperatures, starting the stack in sub-zero temperatures, economic manufacture and robustness – but today fuel cell systems are advanced, if still pricey. An entire fuel cell system consists of a stack, a carbonfibre tank capable of storing hydrogen at 750 bar and a small lithium ion battery to deliver both the fast surge of power needed for acceleration and to store energy from regenerative braking. Tough hydrogen tanks split and release hydrogen rather than exploding if damaged and, in that sense, the world’s most plentiful element is safer than petrol. The rest of the powertrain is like that of any other electric car, with an electric motor and power control module to manage it all. 

It’s also 20 years since the formation of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, one of the world’s largest institutions pushing the development of fuel cell technology. With its 2030 Vision programme, it aims to get 1,000,000 fuel cell vehicles on California roads along with 1000 hydrogen filling stations by 2030. Maybe then, the fuel cell ball will really start rolling. 

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New train of thought

Hydrogen fuel cells are ideal for large vehicles as well as cars. Two Coradia iLint fuel cell trains from French firm Alstom have been running in Germany since 2018 and 27 more have been ordered by a transport authority. A Hydroflex train masterminded by the University of Birmingham and train maker Porterbrook began UK trials in June.

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nagromnewo 23 July 2019

Easier to use?

Apart from the many excellent comments, where does the ridiculous idea that a hydrogen car is easier to use than an EV come from?
One of the greatest advantages of the EV is that I hardly ever have to refuel anywhere other than my garage. I plug in when I get home, I unplug when I leave, just like my phone.
On the few occasions I'm on a road trip and have to charge away from home, it's just as easy as fueling up a gas car, except that I don't have to monitor it, so I can go to the bathroom, get something to eat and take the dogs out while it's charging. By the time I'm ready to move on, so is the car.
Add to that, the fact that there is no infrastructure for hydrogen. I have traveled all over the world, and I have never been anywhere that has cars, but doesn't have electricity.
ekranoplan 25 July 2019

Travel more!

Stacks of places don't have electricity!  Even parts of the UK had no grid up until 1960s!

Battery energy density os very poor and not improving rapidly unlike computer chips. A BMW i3 pack weighs around 250kg for ht enbase model 60Ah, more for the 94 and 120Ah versions.

 

A tesla pack in a model S around 750kg!

One litre of demonsised diesel weighs under 0.8kg but supplies 10kWh of energy. In ships it's burnt with 60%+ efficiency. In old, lighter weigh cars back in 1999/2000 it ran at 50% efficiency in cars like the Audi A2 and Lupo 3L to achieve 24kWh/100km much like todays Teslas at highway speeds. Whilst I own an EV it's the 18 year old 250,000 mile A2 that does the hard work / long slog journeys.In winter the EV range is pretty awful and has to be pre conditoned, range eaked out by not using the heater and the rapid charge becomes slow charging. The pack degrades with rapid charging and it never gets any lighter.

I agree we need to get rid of using fossil fuels. However, #srappingiswasteful and we can run older cars on renewable fuels without affecting food infrasturcture.

HiPo 289 22 July 2019

Sounds good, but . . .

Fossil fuel companies like the idea of fuel cells because fuel cells would give them a role in supplying hydrogen, much in the same way that they supply petroleum now. So there's a vested interest here.

Oil companies would lose a lot of income and influence if we all started driving EVs. Oil-dependent countries like Russia would also lose power if we all started driving EVs - think on. (Want to stick two fingers up to foreign despots? - then buy an EV!)

Whether fuel cells are actually better for consumers is another matter. They are currently more expensive than EVs and there is next to zero infrastructure. Also they will always be more complex and therefore more expensive to maintain. In fact you could argue that a fuel cell vehicle is just an EV with some expensive bits of complexity added. 

At the end of the day, they are both driven by electric motors, so improvements in one technology will benefit both.  But most people are betting that rapidly improving batteries will render fuel cells suitable only for heavy trucks and buses.

 

 

 

Will86 22 July 2019

Battery shortage?

Have we got enough raw materials to build batteries for every car in the world to be a BEV?  On the face of it a BEV and its recharging infrastructure seem more simple but thats no use if you can't get the materials to build them. We need to focus on providing a range of fuels for future motoring, not just relying on BEVs. 

fellwalker 22 July 2019

Will86 wrote:

Will86 wrote:

Have we got enough raw materials to build batteries for every car in the world to be a BEV?  On the face of it a BEV and its recharging infrastructure seem more simple but thats no use if you can't get the materials to build them. We need to focus on providing a range of fuels for future motoring, not just relying on BEVs. 

I logged in to ask that very question.

Whichever way, we must get off oil, coal and gas. 

ekranoplan 25 July 2019

#scrapping is wasteful

We should keep the most efficient existing vehilces going as long as possible - just like aeroplanes can be re-engined, exisiting diesels can run on HVO made from waste not food for massive reducitons in all emissions and higher MPG. See Helsinki buses.

xxxx 22 July 2019

Agreed

And in the short term petrol and BEV's will do nicely. Besides it's means my sports car will go on for a bit longer

Vertigo 22 July 2019

Will86 wrote:

Will86 wrote:

Have we got enough raw materials to build batteries for every car in the world to be a BEV?  On the face of it a BEV and its recharging infrastructure seem more simple but thats no use if you can't get the materials to build them. We need to focus on providing a range of fuels for future motoring, not just relying on BEVs. 

I dimly remember that there are enough lithium reserves identified to produce about a billion 60kWh lithium-ion batteries.

Other materials may be more scarce (lithium is literally in seawater, and I don't think that's included in the reserves), but here's the thing - there are a lot of ways to make a battery. The NiMH cells in a Prius don't use any lithium, manganese, cobalt, silicon or graphite. The only element common to both chemistries is nickel; about 3% of the world's nickel production is currently used in batteries so that's probably not an issue.

ekranoplan 25 July 2019

Lithium mining and porcessing impacts

Have alook at lithium minint in Bolivia - massive usege of water in already arid areas. Check out Cobalt mining in DRC......

 

Then rare earth metals....

 

https://www.nhm.ac.uk/press-office/press-releases/leading-scientists-set-out-resource-challenge-of-meeting-net-zer.html