Alt Fuel # 5 – Hydrogen fuel cells

Another very pertinent solution: hydrogen fuel cells. It’s already being tested in the U.S. state of California, and the “ambassador” of hydrogen as fuel is the Honda FCX Clarity. Like a Prius, not the most handsome of cars, though no doubt the kind of people the first customers tend to be won’t be daunted by this. Perhaps the strangest thing is the fact that I learnt about this from the moronic, anti-enviromental petrolheads from Top Gear. Not only do they seem to like it even though it doesn’t pollute, apparently Clarkson and Co. think this is the only way to the future.

A small caveat is also in need. This is just about fuel cell technology, meaning I won’t be talking about hydrogen as an ICE fuel, as exemplified in the BMW Hydrogen 7, since this solution doesn’t seem to be heading anywhere, IMHO.

So what are the pros and cons of this technology? This is a rather complex issue for me since I’m not that well versed as I am with the other alt-fuels I wrote about. In fact, I was pretty ignorant of fuel cells up until now because they simply don’t regularly make the headlines of the green car blogs I usually visit. So I’ll do my best with what I know:

– Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and you don’t exactly have to kill whales or warm the planet to get your mitts on it. So it’s already got an advantage over petrol and diesel from the start.
– It’s silent and clean, with water vapour being the only emission.
– Batteries have craptacular autonomies, unless it’s a hybrid. Fuel-cell cars don’t need batteries. They use the hydrogen to create electricity to drive electric motors.
– In my belief, people have a hard time changing habits. I reckon the average driver will feel more comfortable pumping liquid-something into his car than fidgeting with electric cables. Then again, most people are stupid and think LPG will explode if you look too hard at the gas-tank. With fuel cells, they’ll see a pump that says “Hydrogen” and read “Hindenburg”.

– Hydrogen may be the most abundant element in the universe, but you can’t simply mine it or pick it off trees. It has to be extracted and compressed, which at the moment isn’t a cheap and easy process. I think conventional technological evolution will take care of the extraction and compression, though I’m not sure what the sources to extract from will be. Ideally, we’d have hydrogen production plants that produce it from sewage and rubbish. Only God knows the amazingly heinous crimes Big Business commits when coming in and taking over a new sector. In practice we’ll probably make it from coal mined by wage-slaves from Argentina or something stupid like that.
– Moving from current cars to hydrogen ones. Transition, transition, transition. I can’t say it enough: if you suddenly shift from one type of fuel to another, the kind of vehicles left obsolete will fill junkyards brim-full so quickly you won’t have time to recycle them before they’ve poisoned every river and leaked oil into farmlands. So unless someone comes up with a cheap and easy way to install fuel cells in current cars (whoever does will become extremely rich), and this isn’t unfeasible, the transition from oil to hydrogen can, and, as a matter of necessity, should, take ages.
– Tiny practical matters. Since hydrogen is compressed, if you run out you won’t be able to walk to the nearest filling station and fill up an empty water bottle like you can do with petrol (LPG has this drawback, but no-one with an LPG car ever runs out of fuel because we have two tanks :D).
– Temperature. When your emissions are water, temperatures below 0º can have nasty effects when your car’s idle and the bits that make it go are full of condensation. Though, like diesel (diesel used to clog up like treacle when it was cold), I really think tech evolution will take care of this.
– The fuel cells take up quite a lot of space. And I still haven’t found out how it stacks up economically to current fuels or how good (or not) its consumption stats are.

I don’t know what else to say for the time being. It’s a serious candidate for the fuel of tomorrow and may give EVs a run for their money. Electricity may have a big head start, but looking at the two, I think fuel cells may play catch-up rather quickly.

Further info:
Fuel cells
Hydrogen vehicles

Hybrids and Plug-In Hybrids
Plug-In Electric Vehicles
Biodiesel, bioethanol and such
Carbon-neutral Algae-based fuels
Hydrogen fuel cells
Hybrid Retrofitting


One Response to “Alt Fuel # 5 – Hydrogen fuel cells”

  1. Alexander Says:


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