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Hydrogen Powered Cars Will Never Work

One of the most important issues for a commodity fuel for vehicles is that it be convenient and safe to transport. For quite a while LP Gas has been available as a cheaper car fuel. Even with increasing petrol prices it’s acceptance is well below 100% due to extra expense in storing the fuel (high pressure and more insulation are required), the more expensive technology in the engine to heat the fuel before injecting it into the engine, and the extreme difficulty in creating something as convenient as a Jerry Can for transporting LPG.

LPG is mostly comprised of Propane and Butane. Propane has the lower boiling point of -42.09C. Hydrogen however has a boiling point of -252.87C and therefore is much more difficult to store and transport.

The next problem with hydrogen as a fuel is that it has a very low density. The energy density per volume of liquid hydrogen is 10.1MJ/L while the energy density of petrol/gasoline is 34.6MJ/L. Not only is liquid hydrogen difficult to transport but the vessels you transport it in need to be 3.4 times the size! Having a 3.4x larger fuel tank in a car may not be a huge obstacle, but then there is the issue of trucks used to transport it to fuel stations which are already at maximum size so the truck fleet will need to be 3.4x larger with more people driving them etc.

Once these problems are solved there are a variety of safety issues. Hydrogen burns with an almost invisible flame, sustains a fire when at a concentration of between 4% and 75% of the air and ignites at a low temperature. For an explosion you need a concentration of between 18.3% and 59%. I won’t risk promoting foolish behaviour by describing details, but when younger I have performed experiments with ethanol and witnessed experiments with petrol that demonstrate that they are both far less dangerous. Page 22 of this document by the US Bureau of Transportation and Statistics gives more information about the fire risks posed by hydrogen fuel. Page 35 of the same document describes fuel cells as being 45% efficient and an internal combustion engine for methane gas as being 30% efficient thus giving overall efficiencies of 33% and 29.5% respectively. Of course using an Atkinson Cycle engine will give a significant efficiency benefit over an Otto Cycle engine and outweigh this. Also it should be noted that fuel cells tend to require expensive materials such as Platinum in their manufacture.

Hydrogen is promoted by clean-coal advocates (not that any form of coal power is clean) and the nuclear industry (electrolysis is one way of using a huge amount of electricity). But there are many better options for powering cars that are available right now at minimal cost, these include bio-Diesel, ethanol, and plug-in hybrid or electric vehicles.

82 comments to Hydrogen Powered Cars Will Never Work

  • All very confusing when we were told that hydrogen is natural and its emissions drinkable. What about Hyundai’s new SUV about to be launched? Pls explain in layman’s terms why it doesn’t work. Not the weight issue, I understand that. I would be happy to fill up three times a week if I had to, but your saying that it uses more energy elsewhere than present fuels.

  • etbe

    Michael: If hydrogen is burned in an internal combustion engine (IE the type of engine most cars have) then the emissions will include nitrogen oxides, they produce acid rain and you don’t want to drink them.

    Energy is required to transport fuel. Petrol and Diesel fuels are energy dense and can be transported easily with minimal fuel use. Hydrogen needs to be compressed before transport and kept under pressure at all times. This uses energy and decreases the efficiency of the entire process.

  • John

    Here is an Australian answer to the energy crisis. Question: is this fraud or real? You aussies might be able to check it out and report back on this site.

  • SAMUEL

    Certainly are some interesting ideas floated around this place. You are mostly WRONG. It is so simple to run an ICE from hydrogen that you dont even need a fuel pump, carb or fuel injection. DOH! Its already a gas! This is what those components try, quite unsuccessfully, to achieve.
    To run an ICE on hydrogen, throw away all that expensive computer operated stuff, including the computer. Place an adjustable ‘jet’ just like the idle jet on your lawnmower to handle the idle. Then place another on on the accelerator but with a ‘full on’ configuration which goes infinitely from zero to full on. Thats all there is to it.
    As for tanks…gawd no! Onboard production of hydrogen, as it is burned in the engine is too simple because the distribution system we have for petrol would be completely shattered and not used for hydrogen. Electrolysis is simple, hundreds of years old and is being used TODAY in hundreds of thousands of autos and over the road trucks, clandestinely. Why would you tell anyone? Cause the govt would move swiftly to either outlaw it of tax it to death.
    Hydrogen economies are already here but not in the way the oil companies had intended….and why pay out the kazoo for a hybrid car when all you have to do is to find the right hydrogen generation system, spend 30 minutes putting it on your car and have luxury, safety, comfort and 50 mpg all at the same time?
    So, I can tell you it works. I have several. If you all want to continue to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic…go right ahead.

  • etbe

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perpetual_motion
    John: see the above link about Perpetual Motion.

    Samuel: The “computer operated stuff” is designed to increase fuel efficiency and reduce emissions, which is what this discussion is all about (hydrogen power being one of the least effective ways of doing so).

    Electrolysis takes huge amounts of electrical energy. Taking water, splitting it with electrolysis, then burning it to generate enough electricity to run the electrolysis is another form of perpetual motion.

    For reference, I won’t be approving any more comments about perpetual motion. If you don’t believe everyone who knows anything about science then that’s fine, just go and try to build such an engine yourself.

  • etbe

    Samuel: Please read the link about perpetual motion, also please study science.

    As I said previously I’m not approving more comments advocating perpetual motion. As you have commented already your comments will initially appear, but if they are about such things they will be deleted.

  • I think this is a pointless argument, eventhough i m just a kid, I think hydrogen driven cars will be the final sulusion.

    1. Bio-fuel need to be grown.(TAKES A RIDICULUS LONG TIME!!!)
    2. Battery powered cars needs to be charged first(TAKES A LONG TIME)

    Besides, the “BIG BAD OIL COMPANY” would run out of luck

    They would have trouble finding large bodies of “GOLD” (oil). This WILL send the gas price blowing sky high, and the public would give them a blow they would never recover from. (they won’t use gasoline or natural gas anymore)

  • etbe

    WHAT: Being a “kid” doesn’t prevent you from contributing to the discussion, but failing to do some background research is a serious obstacle.

    The issue of growth speed is not the time taken to produce something but the average quantity produced per year. You could just as easily say “it takes a ridiculous long time for an oil tanker from Iran to get to a first-world country”. The issues with bio-fuels are related to the amount of land space available for growing food. Recent developments related to using algae and bacteria to produce fuel have the potential to allow previously unusable land to be used for fuel and may solve this problem.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toyota_Prius

    If a battery powered car is charged from a regular power socket (IE a socket that could be used for a computer or other appliance) then you are limited to about 2.4KW (the majority of Australian power points are limited to 10A plugs which means 2.4KW – other countries are similar). So if you wanted to charge the battery in a Prius (which according to the above URL has batteries that can store 1.7KWh) then you are looking at about 40 minutes for a full charge. The people who modify a Prius to be a plug-in hybrid often increase the battery capacity so you might have 3.4KWh giving just under an hour and a half of charging. Incidentally a Prius+ could be charged from a 10A plug during a shopping trip (they have plans for electric charging points in shopping center car parks), while watching a movie, or on many other short trips.

    http://www.accesscomms.com.au/reference/AustMainsPlugVariants.htm

    If you were to charge a Prius with a higher capacity circuit (EG the type of circuit commonly used for powering electric ovens – see the above URL for details about the 20A plugs) then it would take half the time.

    There are also options of two-phase plugs which have higher voltages and higher current capacity (generally only used for industrial equipment at this time) which could be used. They could charge a 3.4KWh Prius+ in 20 minutes or less.

    Charging an electric vehicle would take longer than a plug-in hybrid. A friend just told me about his new electric car which can drive for 75K on one charge and takes 8 hours to charge on a 10A plug. He had the option to get a 20A plug or even two-phase for shorter charge times, but there’s the issue of where you can plug it in. But an 8 hour charge is fine for driving to work (although he usually charges his car at night as he can drive to work and back without needing a charge).

  • Bristow

    I think your working for shell or BP by coming up with this crap about hydron cars, this sort of comment is a last ditch effect to screw the man on the street by miss information. When you are being fleast at the petrol station and your own country for tax revenue, and it costs you more than you earn to get to work, anything that can save you money is good. LPG is rising in price too. Ps my state has even put up the price of water rates if.

  • etbe

    Bristow: I am not sure who your comment is addressed at.

    Hydrogen power has been used for many years by the car companies as a way of sucking tax money from governments for research that has delivered no good results. While proven technologies such as petrol-electric hybrid vehicles, technology to make cars lighter and more aerodynamic, and battery cars have been neglected.

  • Ken Rodgers

    Many of you sound like you’re very knowledgable, maybe you can explain something to me. Hydrogen cell vehicles emit water vapor. While I might agree that overall it might not harm the environment because of the sheer size of the oceans sending water vapor into the atmosphere, what about in areas like LA, where the air would have to go over mountains leave the basin, causing the air to cool and rain to fall in LA along with flooding, what about the midwest with the appalachians, what about the Boston-Richmond corridor with all those cars. What happens in winter when the air is colder and can’t hold as much vapor. Would that cause more snow?

  • etbe

    Ken: Firstly petrol has approximately two hydrogen atoms for every carbon atom. So for every molecule of CO2 in the exhaust there will be a molecule of water. So it’s not as if current vehicles emit no water (on a cold day you can see water condensing from the exhaust of petrol vehicles). A vehicle with the size and technology of a Prius running on hydrogen would emit less water than a Hummer running on Petrol or Diesel!

    Next the amounts of water are quite small. When you compare to the amounts of water arriving in an area by rain it’s lost in the noise. We are talking about a few swimming pools of water every day, spread over the area of a major city.

    The effects of emissions from current car engines (oxides of nitrogen and sulphur among other things) would have some effect on local rain fall which would be more significant in terms of the amount of water in a region.

    The effects of CO2 from car exhaust in causing global warming will have massive effects on rain patterns all around the world.

  • Just adding to this thread – this came up on Treehugger today:

    http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/06/driving-hydrogen-equinox.php

    It’s an interview and test drive of the GM Equinox (SUV) hydrogen fuelcell vehicle. The main points I got from this were:

    - range: 320km on full tank (4kg of hydrogen – how many L is this and what pressure!?), he claims no leakage over 30 days…
    - tanks don’t really impact space – but we’re talking about a huge car here
    - car is otherwise like the standard – just the ICE replaced with fuelcell and electric motor.
    - fuelcell produces up to 94kW.
    - 100 built so far and seeded with families for test purposes

    I’m curious how much it cost – not sure why they didn’t ask that question.

  • etbe

    320Km is not too bad, but as the article notes it’s low compared to petrol cars. You can currently get hybrid and Diesel vehicles that can do 1000Km on one tank.

    The claim is that no pressure drop in 30 days, that sounds a little disingenuous. AFAIK the pressure is determined by the temperature regardless of the amount of liquid inside. Once there is not enough hydrogen in the tank for there to be any liquid the pressure will drop, but that would be when it’s close to empty.

    94KW is not much, even normal cars (not SUVs) typically have more power than that. 94KW at low speed would be good for towing, but SUVs are almost never used for that purpose.

    There’s no point asking about the cost. Manufacturing a test run would cost at least 5* the regular price, maybe 10* or more. It might cost them $300,000 to make each one that has little relevance to the price if they ever manufacture them in quantity.

  • Michael

    http://www.pureenergysystems.com/news/2004/08/27/6900038_SolarHydrogen/index.html

    Here’s a link to do with hydrogen panels being developed in Australia.

    I’ve also noticed websites that have hydrogen ‘kits’ that are used to increase fuel efficiecy of normal petrol and diesel engines. Do they work or are they just scams?

  • etbe

    http://etbe.coker.com.au/2008/06/11/perpetual-motion/

    Michael: See the above URL for information on the HHO scam.

    As for hydrogen panels, it’s good that they can do it with titanium now (previously they used platinum). After producing the hydrogen you still have to compress it and transport it to where it’s used. Electricity is in many ways easier to manage.

  • Chris Stilwell

    Very interesting conversation, all about LARGE power alternatives, but what about hydrogen as an addition to fossil fuel? Do products like “Water Fuel Cell Technologies” is offering atually work? I am not a tree-hugger, and therefore believe that GOD has the fossil fuel problem nailed down “to THE day” but the “little guy” still needs a way to cope…

  • chipperfish

    All, if you think that Power is a non starter then you may want to take a look at a company called ITM Power. On 9th July they launched a home electrolyzer and demonstrated a vehicle running on a combination home brewed hydrogen and petrol combination.

    This is the precursor to some abitious plans to roll out a commercial vehicle capable of achieving 100 miles on just hydrogen later this year (ITM Power and Roush).

    Incidentally the electrolyzer uses a PEM made from plastic not platinum. Platinum is now history in hydrogen production. Using this technology they are achieving hydrogen power for the equivalent of 30c per litre.

  • etbe

    chipperfish: You refer to a vehicle which can currently run for 30 miles on hydrogen and where they plan to extend the range to 100 miles. Compare that to petrol powered vehicles which have a minimum range of 400Km (250 miles) and which are being extended by features such as efficient Diesel engines and hybrid technology (some Diesel vehicles are advertised with a 1000Km range). Their idea that hydrogen can be used by fuel-intensive vehicles such as vans and trucks is a joke. Pure electric vehicles are currently delivering in excess of 70Km between charges (and can be charged anywhere). Being able to produce hydrogen in your home does not mean that you could get some anywhere that you might want to drive.

    Most trucks need to be replaced by electric trains, there is no other sustainable way of moving large amounts of cargo over land.

  • etbe

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrogen_embrittlement

    The above link should be of interest. Apparently hydrogen can weaken some metals (particularly the harder alloys of steel). Of course you can make the fuel system out of aluminium but it’s another engineering issue to consider.

  • SAMUEL

    RESPONSE TO “EMBRITTLEMENT”
    The hydrogen in an internal combustion engine is not exposed to ‘high strength steel’ which is affected by the intrusion of the hydrogen into the steel.
    The exposure in an internal combustion engine is cast iron and aluminum pistons.
    Thanks for your information….
    Sam

  • chipperfish

    ETM: You may scoff at the thought of Hydrogen power vans becoming a reality. In fact the first orders have been taken for such vehicles from Roush Ltd (100 mile range)and will be available from August 08.

    Using the technology flagged in post 69 hydrogen can now be produced whether at home or at a depot at half the price of UK gas and 1/3 of the price of UK diesel. It’s a no brainer!

    Will trucks be driven on Hydrogen in the short term? Probably not. Remember, this is cutting edge technology which is producing Hydrogen fuel at a lower cost than gas. This is only the start, the price and performance can only get better.

    Electricity works, yes. The problem with electricity is that you can’t control the supply of renewables. Solar is only produced for half a day and if your ruling out Hydrogen then it is stored in batteries. Wind, it’s erratic and over supply will need to be stored in batteries.

    or You could use wind and sun to electolyze water and store surplus energy as Hydrogen.

    Efficient diesels are great but such is the demand for oil based fuels that the price is only going to get higher and may even offset any improvements in diesel efficiency.

    In China only 45 of every 1000 people have a car (in the US it 705/1000). Factor in China/Africa/South America and what do you think this is going to do to the demand in coming months/years?

    “Will Hydrogen Powered Cars ever Work?”. The reality is yes and NOW.

  • etbe

    http://www.petrolprices.com/

    chipperfish: According to the above URL UK unleaded petrol costs on average 119.5 pence per liter (that is equivalent to $AU2.44 – about 50% more expensive than petrol in Australia). If hydrogen can be produced at half the price of ULP then it would be 2/3 the price of Australian petrol (which is about $1.65/L).

    http://www.gasbuddy.com/

    According to the above URL US ULP costs $4.061 per US gallon, that would be $US1.07 per liter or $AU1.09 per liter. So if hydrogen is costing half the price of ULP in the UK then it’s more expensive than ULP in the US (and thus the products in question are priced out of the largest potential market).

    Also you have made an algebraic error, to solve the equations X=A/2 and X=B/3 then it must be that A=1.5*B. However Diesel fuel apparently doesn’t cost 50% more than ULP, it’s actually about 11% more expensive (which in fact makes it significantly cheaper to run a Diesel vehicle than a petrol one due to the greater energy density of Diesel fuel and the greater thermal efficiency of Diesel engines).

    https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/print/uk.html

    According to the above URL in 2001 97.5% of UK electricity was produced from polluting non-renewable sources, so it’s not as if producing hydrogen from electricity in the UK is going to do any good for the environment. Also when climate change starts doing serious damage to the UK they will want to cease using coal power as quickly as possible and inevitably electricity prices will go up. Batteries are a more efficient way of storing electrical energy than hydrogen produced from electrolysis, so once electricity becomes more expensive the interest in hydrogen vehicles using such technology will disappear.

    A 100 mile range is not very good. For a petrol car you expect 400Km (250 miles) and some Diesel vehicles can go 1000Km (600 miles) on a single tank.

    http://etbe.coker.com.au/2008/04/12/a-bio-fuel-petrol-station/

    You can use the sun to grow plants which can then be used to make Diesel fuel and petrol, such fuels are already on sale in most parts of the world, I regularly use E10 petrol/ethanol mix and there is a petrol station in Melbourne selling B100 bio-Diesel (see the above URL).

    As for reliable supply of renewable electricity, that’s easy. You create a HVDC grid spanning a continent with wind power plants spread out evenly. The wind does not vary much across a continent.

  • pure electric car…

    ZAP has been a leader in advanced transportation technologies since 1994, delivering over 100,000 vehicles to consumers in more than 75 countries. At the forefront of fuel- efficient transportation with new technologies including energy efficient gas s…

  • enviro freak

    Hydrogen Rules

  • enviro freak

    If you are an oil enthusiast you can burn in h*ll!!!!!!!!! :P

  • none

    Electric cars have one massive prob… the batteries… you have to replace them… and where do the old ones go? to the tip with all the crap inside them leeching into the soil… hydrogen is the only true renewable and viable energy source for motorvehicles right now, end of story.

  • etbe

    none: Batteries from electric cars are bought-back and recycled.

    Even if someone wanted to miss out on the buy-back from an old battery and essentially throw money in the tip it would be illegal to do so in most first-world countries. There are usually strict laws about dumping commercial quantities of anything. You can legally put a 500g battery from home use in the bin, but a 100Kg battery pack from an electric car has legal requirements for it’s disposal.

    Please learn about the technology before making further comments.

  • drbob

    I too doubt Hydrogen will ever be directly used to power cars for the masses, for the reasons you state. However hydrogen produced from water by electrolysis could be combined with CO2 from the atmosphere to create synthetic hydrocarbons for use in conventional combustion engines.

    No need to change the energy infrastructure of the planet, just make the petrol in large central facilities instead of pumping it from the ground. The big problem is inventing a sufficiently cheap, safe, reliable energy source to power the synthesis. Nuclear fisson plants could provide enough energy but that’s just swapping extinction via global warming with extinction via radiation poisoning. Massive solar power plants could work, as could fusion power if they ever get it to work.

    ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_storage#Synthetic_hydrocarbon_fuel

  • etbe

    drbob: The way to make hydrocarbons from CO2 and water is to grow plants.

    Not only does nuclear fission have problems of disposing of radioactive waste, but there are problems with mining it (requires Diesel fuel and the ore is highly toxic) and terrorism risks.

    Solar and wind power is the way to go for production of electricity. Bio-fuels for powering cars which need a larger range than electric vehicles can provide.

  • me

    the cheapest way to create hydrogen is to take it out of methane which in turn emits another greenhouse gas.