Hydrogen as a transport fuel; Part 1: Automotive

3 Min Read

This is the first article in a series that will explore the use of hydrogen as transport fuel. The series will focus on uses cases in:

Hydrogen’s use as an automotive fuel has both strong advocates and strong detractors (notably those who hold long positions in a certain electric car manufacturer).

Indeed, Elon Musk called hydrogen cars ‘mind-bogglingly stupid’. Yet, automotive manufacturers are investing significant resources in developing hydrogen powered vehicles, notably Toyota, Honda and Hyundai. Municipalities all around the world are investing in infrastructure to support refuelling. Does Elon have right it, or do his comments on hydrogen cars stem from cynicism and protectionism for his own competing brand?

The primary advantage of hydrogen powered vehicles vs. conventional automobiles is clear. Hydrogen vehicles to do not emit CO2 or particulates.

There are notable benefits of hydrogen powered vehicles compared to battery powered vehicles, including weight (batteries are heavy), range (hydrogen vehicles can travel over 400km on a tank), refuelling experience (hydrogen cars take five minutes to refuel).

There is debate over the environmental credentials of hydrogen cars vs. battery powered vehicles.

Hydrogen vehicles requires two electrochemical conversions to run (to make hydrogen and then to convert it back into electricity to drive the motor) and therefore is less efficient than simply storing energy in a battery. Supposing these vehicles were powered by hydrogen reformed from natural gas and electricity generated from gas powered station, respectively, the environmental impact of running a battery powered car would likely be lower.

Would this concern still be valid if we come to live in a world with excess renewable generation? (No it would not, since excess renewable power would most likely be stored as hydrogen anyway)

The manufacture of battery powered vehicles is far more damaging to the environment than either hydrogen vehicles or conventional vehicles. Battery manufacture is extremely energy intensive and requires intensive mining of cobalt and other minerals.

Battery of a Chevrolet Bolt

At the moment, the cost of hydrogen at the pump (~£15/kg), the scarcity of filling of filling stations (around ~10 in the UK, ~60 in Germany, ~50 in California, ~20 on the East Coast, USA), and relative expense of hydrogen vehicles (£60,000 UK, $50,000 USA), mean that hydrogen vehicles are not yet a mass market solution.

However, the significant investment in infrastructure that we are observing, along with more competitive pricing with time as the manufacture of vehicles scales and supply chains for fuel emerge strongly indicate that Elon’s sentiment is not shared, at least with corporations and governments willing to invest heavily in the emergence of a hydrogen sector.

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A hydrogen price assessment in the Altroleum platform

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