The danger of a fuel cell infrastructure

A cursory review of the “Comparison of hydrogen, methanol and gasoline fuels…” in the Journal of Power Sources 79 (1999) 143-168, brought up a curious argument. Joan Ogden, Margaret Steinbugler and Thomas Kreutz suggest the following, on page 166:

Defining ‘infrastructure’ to mean all the equipment (both on and off the vehicle) required to bring hydrogen to the fuel cell, we find that the cost is comparble for hydrogen, methanol and gasoline POX fuel cell vehicles. Hydrogen appears to entail the lowest capital costs.

By how much? And what does that cost look like relative to other more stable and safe sources of fuel that also do not require long-haul centralized distribution? They do not say. Instead, they back away from their own conclusions by offering optimism about hydrogen.

The cost and efficiency estimated for various types of fuel cell vehicles depend on our assumptions, which may change as technology progresses. For example, future improvements in onboard fuel processor technology or development of fuel cells with higher performance on reformates could increase the vehicle efficiency for methonal or gasoline vehicles; better methods of hydrogen storage might lead to lower cost for hydrogen vehicles.

The last sentence is especially important. The amount of security required to properly distribute and store hydrogen fuel is not actually difficult as much as it is incredibly expensive. And the expense is not because of the materials involved, but rather due to the need to retrofit or build out a new system with a constant state of surveillance to avoid loss or damage of this form of energy. Compared to energy sources like biodiesel, which are actually used to clean up petroleum spills and distributed as one of the most environmentally stable forms of fuel, a highly expensive and centralized system of hydrogen seems like exactly the wrong thing to build in a climate of fear from terrorist attack or sabotage.

Since the article is focused on which fuel cell technology is best, it lacks important perspective on whether a fuel cell is really the right choice among all alternative sources. While the US military is running all their engines now on diesel, and spending billions on improvements to supply-chain logistics, this article gives a prediction about fuel cells that is hardly based on real-world experience and thus rather uninspiring:

The capital cost of developing hydrogen refueling infrastructure is comperable to or less than the total cost (on and off the vehicle) for methanol or gasoline fuel cell vehicles. The lifecycle cost of transportation is slightly less for hydrogen than for gasoline or methanol fuel cell vehicles. Like compressed natural gas or methanol, hydrogen faces the issue of reaching beyond centrally refueled fleet markets.

Fuel cell vehicles, even hydrogen, will have to be more realistic before their claims can be validated. For example, today’s gasoline engines could be more efficient, but the car manufacturers and the petroleum companies do not seem inclined to make it happen. They blame the consumer, but no matter who is at fault the fact remains that there has been little/no progress made for over a decade even though the capability exists. And I think we all know that most Americans, especially those driving on the open road at high speed, prefer large, heavy and “safe” feeling vehicles. So economic and cultural factors are important. On the other hand, electric vehicles have long been known to be capable of long distance travel at high-speeds in spite of the efforts by the car manufacturers and petroleum companies to undermine their development. So, with this in mind I have to ask why this report did not point out the more obvious conclusion that hydrogen power-plants fueling electric vehicles would solve the problems of hydrogen distribution as well as power-plant and vehicle emissions. The hydrogen fuel dream could thus be realized, but only as a competitor to other plants but not on an individualized level. Then, after the means of securing the energy had been developed and tested extensively, it would be more reasonable to propose extending it to consumer fueling-stations. Although in the meantime, people might also realize that a diesel-hybrid is far more practical, inexpensive and safe.

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