#1 cleantech news, reviews, & analysis site in the world. Subscribe today. The future is now.


Published on October 3rd, 2012 | by Guest Contributor


My Friend, Cleaner Cars, & Hydrogen Fuel Cells

October 3rd, 2012 by  

Editor’s note: If you haven’t noticed, we don’t write much about hydrogen fuel cells here on CleanTechnica. Quite frankly, it’s got some big hurdles that we’re not so sure it can overcome — at least, no time soon (and we need clean transportation to roll out soon). Nonetheless, this guest post offered up by one of our readers seems pretty on point. It does a good job outlining hydrogen’s key obstacles, but also notes the minor progress that is being made and some recent announcements. Have a look and tell us what you think:

by J.C. Mac

“Just tell them their fuel bill could be reduced by 15 – 20%,” I said to my friend, a long-distance lorry driver. We’d been discussing fuel alternatives for a few hours as my friend — also the chairman of his local green-watch committee — wanted to convince his employers to convert his HGV, currently guzzling dirty diesel for 8 to 10 hours each day, to LPG fuel.

Though LPG does offer significant savings on fuel bills, my friend’s bosses were not ‘financially equipped to transform their fleet’ – a to-be-expected response, really.

But it’s not just about the money.

Whilst the savings one can make from choosing a more environmentally friendly fuel supply stand for themselves — UK diesel costs, on average, 144.47 pence per litre; petrol costs 140.13 pence per litre; and LPG costs 74.21 pence per litre — the greatest benefit of LPG or other alternative fuels over diesel and petrol is the reduced impact on the environment. LPG, for instance, despite also being a fossil fuel, burns much cleaner than its dirty competitors.

A few weeks later my friend was sporting a badge saying ‘I’m L.P.Great’ and told me he’d converted his own car to LPG, thereby offsetting some of the damage done during his long-distance driving.

We then discussed hydrogen as an alternative to other fossil fuel products and he told me his bosses had investigated this as an alternative, but were concerned that hydrogen is still mainly extracted via fossil fuels.

Whilst hydrogen cell fuel vehicles produce zero tailpipe emissions – they only produce heat and water vapour – there is a fundamental issue that has plagued hydrogen production for decades; around 48% of global hydrogen is still produced through steam reforming of hydrocarbons (such as natural gas), which releases carbon dioxide as a by-product into the environment.

So just as important as knowing how your four-minute eggs were farmed, it’s as crucial to know how your hydrogen was produced. Unfortunately, most hydrogen produced in the world today is neither renewable nor clean.

Nonetheless, it is possible to produce ‘green’ hydrogen through renewable electrolysis, a process that uses renewable electricity to produce hydrogen when an electrical current is passed through water.

As the UK government, like many others across the EU, recognise more must be done to end an extant ignorant reliance on fossil fuels and dirty energy, green-fuel development (especially in the transport industry) has seen a boost in the financial backing of new initiatives.

As for my friend’s bosses being resistant to investing in a hydrogen-powered transportation infrastructure, there still remains (alongside the non-green production methods) a series of obstacles to overcome.

Good and Bad Side to Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles


  • A fuel cell has simple construction, is less complicated than a conventional gas or diesel engine, so mass production costs would become extremely low.
  • It is not subject to high temperatures, corrosion, or any of the structural weaknesses found in other engines.
  • It runs quietly, and its sole tailpipe emission is water vapor.
  • Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are far more energy efficient than gasoline-fueled vehicles, with double the efficiency of internal combustion engines.

Obstacles to Overcome

  • In order to introduce hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road, it is not only vehicle technology that must be changed, but also the entire fuel supply and distribution system. This doesn’t come cheaply. Conceptually, replacing the current oil-based infrastructure with hydrogen would cost billions of dollars.
  • Although abundant in the universe, hydrogen is fairly rare in our atmosphere, meaning that it has to be extracted (for example through electrolysis, as explained above) and currently, the process is not cost efficient.
  • On-board storage is a major issue. A hydrogen tank would currently be too large for a standard passenger car.
  • It is very flammable, which further adds to the on-board storage issues.

UK Projects Accelerate ‘Green’ Hydrogen Energy

Five UK initiatives will demonstrate how the use of fuel cell systems and hydrogen technologies in low-carbon energy systems and transportation can be integrated with other energy and transport components, such as renewable energy generation, refuelling infrastructure, and vehicles, to develop holistic systems working together.

“These projects will complement the joint government/industry project UKH2Mobility, which is currently evaluating potential rollout scenarios for hydrogen for transport in the UK,” says Mark Prisk, former Minister of State for Business and Enterprise.

The projects involve:

BOC, the industrial gases and clean energy business, will provide refuelling technology for Scotland’s first fleet of hydrogen-powered buses. Scottish & Southern Energy Power Distribution (SSEPD) will work with BOC to harness the electricity from a nearby wind farm to power a 1MWe electrolyser to split ordinary water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen produced will be stored for use with the bus fleet and can even be converted back to electricity to supplement mains supplies at times of peak demand.

The creation of the UK’s first end-to-end, integrated, ‘green’ hydrogen production, distribution and retailing system, centred around a fully publically accessible, state-of-the-art, 700-bar (10 000 psi) renewable hydrogen refuelling station network across London (led by Air Products Plc).

The delivery of solar-energy-generated hydrogen for Swindon’s existing public-access hydrogen refuelling station via an electrolyser, and its use in materials-handling vehicles and light vans at Honda’s manufacturing plant (led by BOC).

The integration, in the Isle of Wight, of an electrolyser-based refueller with renewable energy, enabling zero-carbon hydrogen to be produced for use as a transport fuel for a range of vehicles as part of the Ecoisland project (led by ITM Power).

The demonstration of a viable solar–hydrogen energy system, with benefits shared by multiple end-users of a business park in Surrey, through the 24/7 provision of green electricity and heat (led by Rutland Management Ltd, which operates Dunsfold Park and Aerodrome, home of AFC Energy).

Honda — An Ambassador of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology?

To encourage greater take-up of hydrogen fuel cell technology, there is a need for more corporate-funded initiatives to, amongst other things, help expand the number of hydrogen filling stations on our highways.

Ambassadors within the vehicle industry are also essential to establish greater commitment towards developing cost-efficient, mass-market vehicles and clean hydrogen production technologies.

Honda Fuel Cell Vehicle (Credit: Honda)

Honda recently announced it will apply learning from its fuel cell pilot programs to launch a mass-market vehicle powered by hydrogen in 2015.

The fuel cell car will be built as either a four-door sedan or a five-door hatchback and will be powered by an electric motor, with the fuel cell in place of a conventional EV’s battery.

Whether or not this is a clever press stunt by Honda executives keen to boost general sales, one has to acknowledge a giant step forward towards offering consumers another alternative to fossil fuels.

Tags: , ,

About the Author

is many, many people. We publish a number of guest posts from experts in a large variety of fields. This is our contributor account for those special people. :D

  • “New fuel cell sewage gas station in Orange County, CA may be world’s first”


  • Here is the Tri Generation Air Products/Fuel Cell Energy system runnning in Orange County, CA …
    Video Link


  • judy

    As wind and solar power make increasing contributions the need for short term and longer term storage of significant amounts of energy will become every more pressing. Hydro, compressed air and battery storage are not up to the size of the job. Only Hydrogen is.
    It can bestored efficiently using much less storage space than the other options and it also can be added to the natural gas grid up to 5% or even 10% level. This gives a massive opportunity for currently wasted renewables to be used and we already have the infrastructure! This is not some way in the future option – it is being trialled successfully in Germany now.
    Also it is apparently fairly straightforward to extract the hydrogen from the natural gas mixture if needed thus enabling local usage far away from the point of production at minimal transport or infrastructure cost.
    Hydrogen also provides more efficient energy for places where oil cannot be used because of contamination issues. eg ITM had a very successful trial earlier this year with Marks and Spencer providing Hydrogen fuel cells for fork lift trucks which were much preferred by the operators to the standard battery ones (because the power was more reliable, dodn’t tail off ove and much quicker to refill)
    As to hydrogen cars – apparently most of the leading car makers have serious numbers in production adn ready for use by 2015.
    So maybe it is time to remove the Hydrogen cynicism which is around?

    • Bob_Wallace

      That’s an opinion, Judy, and it’s not going receive universal agreement.
      Making hydrogen from natural gas is a terrible idea.

      Using renewable electricity to generate hydrogen from water and then turning that hydrogen back into electricity makes hydrogen 40% more expensive than using the electricity directly in EVs.

      The hundreds of billions of dollars that it would take to create a hydrogen infrastructure plus the 40% inefficiency would make the price per mile extremely higher than driving with electricity.

  • Janet

    reiterating the
    author’s point, we need to develop more completely ‘green’ fuels –
    EV vehicles still charging batteries directly from the grid… and
    we all know where that electricity originates from 🙁 !!

    • Bob_Wallace

      Yes, but our grid is improving. A few years back coal provided over 50% of our electricity. Last year coal was down to 42.2% and first half of 2012 the amount was under 35%.

      People can help out by contacting your Congress members and ask them to support renewable energy. Wind and solar continue to become cheaper. With some push from the government we could see installation rates soar.

  • Agnieszka Osiecka

    “looking at large scale batteries as being the best solution”….

    In terms of giant
    batteries I’d like to know where we get all the materials to make
    them on a large scale?

    • Bob_Wallace

      There are four interesting technologies that I’m trying to follow. None of them use hard to access materials.

      Probably the most promising is Ambri – the MIT liquid metal battery. Take a couple of minutes and watch the TED talk linked on this page… http://www.ambri.com/

      The issue of material cost and availability was the foremost consideration in creating this battery. And, as far as I can tell (as a non-chemist), these materials are not ‘used up’, once gathered up they should serve us forever(?).

      Anyone with the technical background to move us past my speculation?

  • Alex

    I wonder at the possibility of using excess wind/solar energy to extract hydrogen so hydrogen can be used as a fuel to power electricity generation during periods when solar/wind isn’t viable.

    • Bob_Wallace

      It’s one storage option. As things move along and the need for storage increases we’ll see various ideas considered, it’s hard to say which will win out.

      Some months back utility companies in CA were talking about building new pump-up hydro and possibly CAES in order to comply with a state regulation that a small percentage of peak demand power come from stored energy.

      Right after that multiple new grid battery technologies started making the news and I’ve heard nothing about the plans for pump-up. That may mean nothing, the utilities might be continuing their plans and staying quite. But I suspect it may be that they are looking at large scale batteries as being the best solution.

      Batteries can be bought as needed and installed where they are needed. They are packaged like shipping containers so they can be trucked to the site and plugged in. Since they can be “parked” on industrial wasteland and other low value real estate they will have fewer people resisting their placement.

      It’s going to be interesting to watch storage play out….

      • J.C.Mac

        Spot on, Bob.
        If we
        are to commit to an eternal fasting of fossil fuels and, by adopting
        more solar and wind into the majority of our energy infrastructure,
        solve the energy storage problem our governments need to provide
        adequate backing to research and energy reform in order to promptly
        rationalise our knowledge of wind, water and sun as definite

        All countries,
        especially in the UK currently, need a finance Chancellor who stands
        up to the oil and gas industries and their pusher men keeping us
        hooked on fossil fuels; there is urgent need for budget commitment to
        be taken away from the power sector and redistributed to renewables;
        an urgent need to get the right people in charge of where taxes are
        spent and, who are not so reckless as to cast aside the economic
        growth successes of ‘green business’ as unnecessary bonuses, start
        de-carbonising the power sector. Now.

        Finally, there are
        claims that pumped up hydrogen has energy efficiency capacity of
        85+%. Though it’s a shame hydro plants are still consumers of energy
        overall –

        Would be interesting to
        note what other technologies, if any, have been implemented into
        pumped-storage hydrogen plants – wind / solar etc – to drive water
        pumps directly. Any thoughts?

Back to Top ↑