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Hydrogen Refuelling: Expensive & Ineffective

Compared to gas, diesel, or electric options, hydrogen distribution and fueling will be more expensive, lose a lot of hydrogen, be harder to use, be dangerous in a way people aren’t familiar with, and won’t deliver any environmental benefits to speak of. Yet major automotive vendors and some politicians continue to speak in favour of it.

It’s worth reviewing the major challenges related to hydrogen distribution and refueling to get a sense of what hydrogen fuel cell car manufacturers are up against as they try to find anyone to build the refuelling infrastructure that they need.

Hydrogen Is The Slipperiest Molecule In The Universe

Hydrogen escapes, with distressing ease and speed, anything which isn’t built to extraordinary tolerances. Expanding a complete distribution network to tolerances a couple of orders of magnitude above those required for gasoline is expensive.

An existing industrial distribution network exists, but it doesn’t need to provide similar coverage to gas stations — and there are about 168,000 of those in the USA right now, about one for every 1,900 people. That’s at least one order of magnitude above current hydrogen outlets for industrial use at anywhere near the scale of gas stations, and likely more. Maintaining that network so that normal degradation of seals, hoses, couplings and tanks doesn’t result in unacceptable losses will be expensive.

By comparison, gasoline can be carried in a pail and poured through a cheap plastic funnel into a gas tank with a crappy twist lid. Electrical outlets exist everywhere and don’t spill electricity, and batteries lose charge very slowly.

Most hydrogen advocates don’t seem to understand the technical aspects of this at all, and few of the ones who do seem to understand the economic implications.

Untrained Humans Have To Use The Nozzles

As a corollary to the first point, the point of getting hydrogen from a storage tank into a car’s tank is still going to require a human being who expects that it’s going to be pretty much the same as putting gas into a car. But it won’t be. Effective hydrogen couplings are more complex and tight fitting, and require interlocks that gas pumps don’t have today.

At minimum, people will have to take a heavier and bulkier nozzle, insert it correctly into a more complex fitting, and twist something until the fittings lock precisely. The large mass of people in the world are going to be the weakest link in this process. It will get screwed up regularly with significant losses of hydrogen.

Nozzles Likely Won’t Be Standardized

Right now, the tolerances for pouring gasoline or diesel into vehicles are extremely loose. Gasoline is a liquid at pretty much any temperature humans are going to be pumping it and it doesn’t vaporize particularly quickly. Gas pump nozzles can be a bit bigger or smaller with no impacts. Gas can intakes can be a bit bigger or smaller with no impacts.

But hydrogen nozzles will be much more technically specific and many countries and manufacturers will have their own ideas about what the ‘best’ nozzle is. Standardization bodies exist just as they do for electric cars, but they will be just as routinely ignored. Countries will go their own ways. Manufacturers will go their own way.

There will be multiple coupling technologies, not one. And hydrogen refueling stations will have to choose which subset they support. And those pesky humans who are going to be doing the refueling are going to get confused and will be pissed off that their particular car won’t be able to be refueled at half of the hydrogen stations.

If you think this is overstated, look at electric car charging plugs. There are two competing international standards — CHADeMO and SAE — and at least three vendors are going their own way with completely different charging approaches, or appear to be, most notably Tesla (whose approach is superior and was necessary to achieve the necessary recharge times for its Supercharger network, but still…). Many electric car owners end up carrying around at least one and probably two adaptors so that they can plug into different networks. And adaptors for electricity are cheap and easy compared to adaptors for hydrogen.

You Can’t Underestimate Human Fear

If hydrogen vehicles actually took off, a variety of parties for their own reasons would start running clips of the Hindenburg 24/7. Various types of irrational instincts would kick in with a large subset of the populace who don’t and won’t understand that gasoline is more dangerous than hydrogen.

There would be backlash. Social license battles would be constantly fought over siting of hydrogen refueling stations. People who think nothing of living next to a gas station would be terrified about living next to a hydrogen station. A bunch of people would refuse. There would be protests. From The New York Times:

WHEN Rebecca Markillie of ITM Power in Sheffield, England, attends trade shows to promote her company’s ambitious plan to build hydrogen fueling stations for cars in Britain, she sometimes must calm skittish consumers. “You get people saying, ‘Oh, no: hydrogen. That is dangerous,’ ” she said. “And you go, ‘Well, why do you say that?’ And straightaway, the only knowledge of hydrogen would be the Hindenburg.”

And because of the second point above, there would be accidents. Someone would have a crappy, sparking electronic device and misuse the complex coupling and a bunch of hydrogen would escape into the air unnoticed — and poof, you’d get a little hydrogen air-fuel bomb going off and everyone would freak out, ignoring all of the gas station fires over the years.

And that doesn’t even begin to deal with intentional misuse. To paraphrase the immortal words of Derek Zoolander, “it doesn’t mean that we too can’t not die in a freak [hydrogen] fight accident.”

It Won’t Reduce Climate Change Emissions

All of the arm waving in the world doesn’t get around the reality that the only industrial source of hydrogen is steam reformation of natural gas, and that hydrogen vehicles will have about 15% higher CO2 emissions than diesel engines per 100 km.

“According to a 2001 NREL full lifecycle assessment, the total CO2 emissions for a kilogram of hydrogen produced from natural gas is 11.9 kg, with 25% of total emissions coming from process, storage and transport.”

And that’s if the natural gas is actually carefully pumped and stored so that there are no methane emissions, which are much worse in the short term for climate change than the CO2.

Diesel cars get better mileage than gas cars, but diesel emits more CO2 for the same energy, with the result being that diesel cars are a bit better for CO2 emissions than gas cars. Hydrogen cars are going to be in the same range or worse than gas cars well-to-wheel. They will have no tailpipe emissions, but they will depend on fossil fuel extraction and processing with high resulting CO2 emissions nonetheless.

This is why the US looked at the entire thing and intelligently shifted to supporting electrification of transportation. And why intelligent consumers looking for a non-polluting alternative to cars are scratching their heads over why anyone is still promoting hydrogen-fueled transportation instead of electric vehicles.

And before electrolyzation of water using renewable energy is trotted out, electricity still costs money, hydrogen cracking from water requires a lot of electricity and “well”-to-wheel comparisons of hydrogen electrolysis to fuel cell vs battery electric vehicles clearly show 3-4 times greater efficiency for battery electric vehicles. Why would a consumer pay 3-4 times as much for the same service, especially when it’s less convenient?

Expensive And Ineffective

The first four points lead to one inescapable conclusion: hydrogen distribution networks will be very expensive compared to gasoline, diesel, or electrical distribution networks. They just won’t make economic sense. And the last point makes it clear that there is no good reason to spend the money.

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Written By

is Board Observer and Strategist for Agora Energy Technologies a CO2-based redox flow startup, a member of the Advisory Board of ELECTRON Aviation an electric aviation startup, Chief Strategist at TFIE Strategy and co-founder of distnc technologies. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future, and assisting executives, Boards and investors to pick wisely today. Whether it's refueling aviation, grid storage, vehicle-to-grid, or hydrogen demand, his work is based on fundamentals of physics, economics and human nature, and informed by the decarbonization requirements and innovations of multiple domains. His leadership positions in North America, Asia and Latin America enhanced his global point of view. He publishes regularly in multiple outlets on innovation, business, technology and policy. He is available for Board, strategy advisor and speaking engagements.


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