Hydrogen Fuel Cell Critique

Kevin Chung

The hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCV) have long been considered the new breakout alternative to our looming dependency on fossil fuel. It is widely known that when combusted with oxygen, hydrogen fuel produces virtually no greenhouse emissions, but rather mere water vapor. The pure chemical conversion of fuel to exploitable electric energy also makes hydrogen a prime replacement for our future vehicle fuel source. FCVs have been utilized in energy research since the 1960’s, specifically in the field of transportation since 1993, when the first hydrogen fuel cell buses began to operate (Truett). However, FCVs still remain the fantasies of future technology, despite decades of hard research, and seem miles away from practical application in the real world. Pundits see the lack of hydrogen fueling infrastructures as the primary obstacle to hydrogen fuel cell technology as well as the main reason for its lack of popularity in the market currently (Jensen). Surveys also suggest that the general population is very unfamiliar with the technology and deem it foreign and fiscally difficult to use (Truett). However, through studies of prominent automakers, developers of this energy source plan to commercialize into the markets of front-runner nations, such as Canada, Japan, and the United States. A better understanding of hydrogen fuel cell is needed for its spread of practical usage.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are automobiles that utilize hydrogen as their fuel source, much like batteries with external fuel source. They produce energy through a process called electrolysis, which combines isolated hydrogen fuel and oxygen from the atmosphere to generate electricity. The generated electricity then powers an electric motor that operates a car much like an electric vehicle (Cardinal). Most vehicles utilize a type of fuel cell called polymer exchange membrane (PEM), which consists of two electrodes (one anode and one cathode), a catalyst, and a membrane. As the PEM takes in H2 fuel, the diatomic hydrogen is split into two hydrogen ions, creating free electrons that are rerouted, around the PEM, to the electric motor; the waste hydrogen ions are fused with oxygen from the atmosphere to form water vapor as byproduct (Lampton).

Yet, despite its guaranteed cleanliness, fuel cell vehicles have not caught the attention of shareholders and the automakers. One reason for its lack of popularity is that the general public is not yet comfortable with the hydrogen technology, deeming it dangerous and risky, and sometimes impractical. In a study of surveys conducted in October 2003 by Tykey Truett at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, of 410 students in Germany that were questioned, a majority (9%) still associate hydrogen with “hydrogen bombs,” 3% with threat/danger, and a 0.3% of the students related it with the Hindenburg tragedy; also, of those 410 students, a very few could answer correctly the emission gas from hydrogen processes (Truett). The results were very similar with the survey of bus passengers (every tenth passenger was surveyed; 80 were female, 65 were male; the average age was 40 years). A great majority of them displayed lack of faith in the cleaner technology. Although they recognize the necessity of the transition that must take place, most were unsure of the safety of this technology they believe was still unpolished. Truett also shows that, through the Rocky Mountain poll conveyed in 2002, that most Americans in the region find reducing U.S. dependency on foreign oil to be of high importance, with majority of that group believing that the United States must develop new green vehicles that perform on alternate fuels. This uncertainty of actions to take has caused fuel cell vehicles to tumble in the market for decades, and has left it stagnant in the impeding race for the next energy dependency.

Market buyers may be swayed away from FCV’s due to its unfamiliarity as well as its high cost and care demands. Currently, the “chicken-and-egg” dilemma is also a prevalent issue relating to infrastructure that hinders the growth of FCVs. The “chicken-and-egg” dilemma refers to the conflict in which the consumers and investors blame each other’s inefficiency as their reason for lack of participation (Jensen). Investors fault the lack of market and consumers as their reason to not forgo the production and investment into the fuel cell vehicle industry; likewise, the consumers attribute the lack of improvements in technology and practicality, as well as the unavailability of hydrogen infrastructures as their reasoning against fuel cell vehicle purchases. For example, in the state of California, there are only about a dozen hydrogen-fueling stations available to the public; this fact is even more astonishing due to the fact that California leads the nation in the amount of hydrogen-fueling stations available to the public (Cardinal). In the current market for fuel cell vehicles, the most essential progression is the widespread integration of hydrogen fuel infrastructure elements (i.e. fuel production, fuel transportation, fueling stations) in our economy; whether vehicular or residential, fuel cell systems can provide power only after energy has been delivered from the primary source (Jensen).

However, it is this process that remains stagnant. Although the technology and efficiency of fuel cells themselves have increased tenfold since their introduction in the early 19th century, their supporting technologies, such as the hydrogen isolation processes, have remained primitive, with most of the methods still relying heavily on carbon-based fuels as their main source of energy (Jensen). In fact, it is estimated that by the end of its life cycle, carbon pollution related to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen isolation will outweigh that of fossil fuel refining (Dincer). The most common practice of hydrogen extraction and purification is through the usage of steam reformation, and hydrogen plants rely on fossil fuels as their main source of heat, feedstock, and electricity, ironically negating, if not worsening, the environmental benefits that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles can have. This reliance on fossil fuel during hydrogen production also poses an issue in that the rising cost of fossil fuel can drive up the final price of hydrogen, making the end product all the more inaccessible to the public (Dincer). This means that contrary to our belief, hydrogen fuel cells will not necessarily be more price-competitive with fossil fuel in the long term, if this system is continued. Even worse, due to the lack of popularity in the market, production volumes are too low to match the manufacturing costs, and consequently, manufacturing costs must remain unnaturally high. Unless current production technology improves, the progress of FCVs may remain sluggish.

However, there are solutions that can be taken to help reignite the interest in hydrogen fuel cells. First, public support is the easiest way to break this cycle of rising manufacturing cost – the more popularity and demand there is, the higher the amount of production, thus lowering the overall cost. Though there may be a risk of a complete failure of this energy sector for the martyrs, public interest is not limited to just dollar votes. Consumers can express their interest through petitions, demanding an initiation of widespread hydrogen fuel production. A prime example of such grassroots movement is the rise of General Motors’ EV1 in the early 1990’s. General Motors first introduced the car through a lease program, which gained a huge fan base within years, encouraging GM to produce more EV1’s for consumer usage (although the EV1 was quickly discontinued by GM in fear that its regular cars would plummet in sales due to the high popularity of the EV1) (Paine). In response to the high levels of carbon emission during the production cycle of fuel cells, several alternative methods have already been improvised, preparing to be commercialized. One method is to incorporate gasoline reformers onto the vehicles themselves (Jensen). Successfully incorporated gasoline reformers will allow FCVs to fuel directly at gas stations, negating the need for new hydrogen infrastructures. Gasoline reformers partially combust conventional gasoline to produce “hydrogen-rich gas” that is ready for FCV use, although there is only 70% efficiency during the conversion process with additional losses to follow. Also, gasoline reformers ignore the fact that the world is depleting of fossil fuels and that renewable energy sources are need. This method also overlooks the heavy pollution emitted during the process of refining petroleum for conventional use. Another method of bypassing the need for hydrogen infrastructures is the utilization of methanol as hydrogen carriers (Jensen). Methanol is a viable alternative to pure hydrogen since it is easy to access and store – methanol is commonly found as an additive to gasoline and can be easily produced from natural gas. Also, methanol is a liquid at room temperature, unlike hydrogen, and has a relatively high energy density, making storage much easier. However, we run into the issue of efficiency and cleanliness. With our current technology, it is far more efficient to extract hydrogen from natural gas than to extract methanol from it. Methanol is also very toxic and water soluble, imposing a possible threat of breeching into the groundwater supply if stored improperly. The main appeal of methanol reformers over gasoline reformers is that, again, infrastructures are already in place and that they are much cleaner than their gasoline counterparts. This solution, nevertheless, imposes the “chicken-and-egg” dilemma, with industries reluctant to change their main product as methanol rather than conventional gasoline.

Hydrogen fuel cell and fuel cell vehicles have long been the center of attention as the apparent energy crisis looms over us. However, due to lack of proper administrative and consumer practices, what was considered as a savior from our fossil fuel depletion was long considered a fantasy for the optimistic, a practice that was too good to be true. On the contrary, recent criticisms show that, though there are many steps to be taken before a full dependency of hydrogen as our primary source of vehicular fuel, those steps have been precisely outlined, and the right procedures need to be taken to make the progress. Our markets must evolve with the changing needs of the people in order for hydrogen fuel cell and FCVs to survive. For instance, since hydrogen relies on multiple methods of production, the future of this market may lie in trading fuel cell technology, rather than the fuel itself (which is the case for gasoline and petroleum) (Dincer). In this never-ending cycle of “chicken-and-egg” dilemma, there is hope – with the proper guidance, the decades of work that lay ahead for the transition to hydrogen-dependency, as well as the decades of stagnancy, could be resolved within our lifetime.

Works Cited

CARDINAL, David. (2014). “Toyota is ready to sell fuel cell cars in 2015 after a decade of prototypes”. ExtremeTech <www.extremetech.com>.

DINCER, Ibrahim. (2008). “Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies for Sustainable Future”. Jordan Journal of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, Vol. 2, No. 1. Pp.1-14.

JENSEN, Marc W., ROSS, Marc. (2000). “The Ultimate Challenge”. Environment, Pp.10.

LAMPTON, Christopher. (2009). “How Hydrogen Cars Work”. HowStuffWorks <http://auto.howstuffworks.com>.

PAINE, Chris (Dir.), DEETER, Jessie (Prod.). (2006). Who Killed the Electric Car?. Sony Pictures Classics.

TRUETT, Tykey. (2003). “Literature Review for the Baseline Knowledge Assessment of the Hydrogen, Fuel Cells, and Infrastructure Technologies Reform”. U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy.