Hydrogen: Entering The Limelight, Or Still Not Ready Yet?

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Every so often when discussing alternative fuels, the subject of hydrogen comes up.

Some carmakers, including Mercedes-Benz and Honda, have been pursuing hydrogen as an alternative to gasoline and diesel for several years now, and at the recent 2011 Frankfurt Auto Show Mercedes created a stir with its F125! fuel cell plug-in hybrid concept, its vision of a future S-Class.

But is hydrogen really ready yet? Ward's Auto is reporting its return, but we can't help feeling that's a little presumptuous. As often as hydrogen fuel cells are mentioned as our future fuel, their negatives are ignored.

Fuel cells of the future

A vision of the year 2025, the F125! concept pairs a plug-in electric system and hydrogen fuel cell to match silent running with high performance - 0-60 mph in under 5 seconds and a top speed of 137 mph. Range was touted at 621 miles.

A representative for Mercedes at the Geneva Motor Show back in March told us of the maker's interest in hydrogen too - that it was attractive for medium-size vehicles, with smaller cars like the Smart and A-Class heading towards an electric future and larger ones taking the plug-in hybrid route.

This makes sense - electric vehicles are undoubtedly suited to short journies where charging can be handled at home.


Hydrogen has its own benefits - as a liquid fuel, it can be delivered as quickly as regular gasoline at a pump, and while propulsion is entirely electric, range can be much greater from the hydrogen's energy density.

Hydrogen advocates are also reducing some of the system's negatives - size was a previous issue, but modern units are compact enough to fit into a compact car. Safety in an accident has also been improved. GM's work with fuel cells has reduced the amount of expensive platinum needed, reducing the cost by $5,000 per vehicle.

It also shares all the usual benefits of electric vehicles - silent running, mechanical smoothness and surprising performance, all courtesy of an electric motor.

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Comments (16)
  1. Great article.

    Although you already have it pretty well covered, let me try a different take.

    Hydrogen is NOT a fuel. It is an energy carrier much like electricity. You can not mine hydrogen from the ground, you have to make hydrogen gas. Making hydrogen gas requires that you put energy into it. So it is simply a "vehicle" (if you will) for moving energy around.

    The same is true for electricity. Electricity cannot be mined, it must be made from some primary fuel like coal, natural gas, or better wind/solar/hydro.

    So neither hydrogen or electricity are primary fuels.

  2. Thanks for the clarification, John. I almost made the error of describing electricity as a fuel in the article but re-worded it as I knew this topic would come up! I do agree that hydrogen is the same - while you can fill up your car with it as you would gasoline or diesel, it still then needs to be converted into energy in a fuel cell, rather than being directly burned as energy (though I think BMW has toyed with an ICE that burns hydrogen rather than gasoline, so in reality it's both a carrier of energy AND a fuel, depending on how you use it).

  3. Hmm, I have a feeling you are not quite getting what John was trying to say here Antony.... The point is not that hydrogen needs to be converted in a fuel cell, the point is that the hydrogen itself is not a fuel because there is no pure hydrogen around on our planet (Jupiter is the closest place you will find it...). Hydrogen is just energy converted in a different form so it can act as an energy carrier that can in turn be turned into electrons in a fuel cell. Of course all these energy conversions cause massive losses which is one of the main drawbacks of the concept.

  4. ...I think I'm actually adding to the confusion here by using the wrong terminology ... Maybe the correct terms are to say that hydrogen is a fuel alright, just not a primary energy source, because it has to be produced in an energy negative process.

  5. Yeah, that's more like it. Hydrogen is absolutely a fuel as it's very combustible (as anyone who witnessed the Hindenburg disaster would attest). But as you say, not a primary energy source. I mentioned in the article it's particularly difficult to produce in any reasonable quantity without a lot of energy input.

  6. ...Hydrogen is absolutely a fuel as it's very combustible (as anyone who witnessed the Hindenburg disaster would attest). Sorry but the combustion witnessed was not of H2; H2 does not burn like that.

    Antony, you should do extensive research on H2 with H2 experts instead of relying on the BEV posters here. Much of the data spouted here is outdated by at least 4 decades and specific to only a fraction of the H2 economy.

  7. Agreed. It's a pretty good article.

    Being pedantic, I would only pick up on the liquid fuel comment. Most H2 cars use pressurised gaseous hydrogen, which takes a while longer to fill than petrol. Pumping the tank up to 7000 PSI can take as long as some demonstrated EV fast chargers, and doing so also wastes even more energy.

    As you have said in the article, electrolysing hydrogen from water takes lots energy and considerable amounts of water. In fact it has been calculated that it would be the equivalent of an entire city's water supply and a country's worth of power stations just to run an airport! In the case of EVs, hydrogen takes 3x the energy and hence gives 3x the emissions.

    This paper sets out the issues: efcf.com/reports/E21.pdf

  8. The electric grid is already in place so why waste time with hydrogen? Hydrogen won't just require an infrastructure it will require the birth of a whole new global industry. The only thing required for an electric car infrastructure is.................installation! GO ELECTRIC!!

  9. GM, Hyundai, Daimler, Toyota, Honda and more will introduce fuel cell vehicles by 2014 / 2015. The smartest will introduce them as either high performance sport / luxury cars or as powerful SUV's and trucks with real towing capacity - the latter are market segments BEV's will never touch. Infrastructure is still a problem for fuel cells, unless someone introduces a gasoline fuel cell (onboard reformer of gasoline into hydrogen as a backup to pure hydrogen accessibility).

  10. Give it time EVs are and will be just as capable as any other car.

  11. I do have my doubts. The Japanese worked on Li-Ion for at least 10 years to improve power / energy density for use in laptops, and made amazing strides, doubling and re-doubling battery life, while reducing size / weight. I would be very surprised if there is still the 2X - 5X energy / power density improvement available in that tech necessary to make EV's useful for SUV's and trucks used to tow boats. If a new tech is required, then we are at least a decade away.

  12. " electric vehicles are undoubtedly suited to short journies where charging can be handled at home"....the classic fallacy every fuel cell advocate is trying to sell us. The suggestion being that in 5 years from now (it's always just 5 more years...) all the problem with fuel cells will miraculously be solved while battery's main drawback -long recharge times- will still exist.

    But only today Honda has announced it will use a 20KWH Toshiba SCiB battery for it's Fit EV to be launched in 2012. This tech can be recharged to 80% in 15 minutes. The tech isn't perfect but shows that fastcharging batteries are actually here already while the laws of physics will make very sure that hydrogen will always be 5 years in the future...

  13. I agree, hydrogen is just another complicated way of soothing range anxiety.

  14. Still we will be bound to fuel station..Fuel Cell technology is not going to give us freedom from Fuel station, and we will be paying for Hydrogen fuel at whatever price corporates will tell us.
    But we can charge electric cars at home at our Convenience and if we use Solar Cells to generate energy the cost of charging is very less. By seeing current development in electric cars batteries and Solar Cells, in next 10-15 years we will be driving cars for free. Means solar cells will generate enough amount of energy for our car and we will not pay a single penny for driving or refueling.

  15. Hydrogen is a complete diversion predicated on the theory that the only way to move us down the road is to burn something. Who is stupid enough to believe that producing hydrogen is going to use less fossil fuel than producing gas, diesel, or electricity? If you see hydrogen as an energy storage system then consider the efficiency loss to create it and then burn it - its just too expensive for our wallets and our environment.

  16. Why create electricity to then create hydrogen to then "burn it" back to water again releasing power. Electricity stored in the batteries of tomorrow has far less conversion losses. H2 is just "level 2" batteries. I like "level 1" - actual batteries. Which will improve in energy density and charging speed. I don't even mind overnight charging speed, really. If cars would all be built like the Volt with "EV first, Engine second", things would be functionally the same as today but with incredible gas mileage (ie. rarely using gas at all).

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