The Hydrogen Complex

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26th May 2014




The dream of a future with hydrogen powered transportation is finally turning into reality, as companies like Hyundai launch vehicles using a technology that delivers its main emission as water vapor.

California is leading the way to provide fertile ground for hydrogen vehicles, but the long term viability of hydrogen remains in doubt: there's a need for technological advancements and critical infrastructure that goes far beyond just the vehicle, suppliers, and service points. 

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The 2015 Hyundai Tucson hydrogen fuel cell
Hyundai will be the first to market with a production ready Tucson model arriving this Spring, ramping up production to 1,000 units in 2015 and to 10,000 annually shortly thereafter. The small SUV gets pretty good range - up to 350 miles per tank - and with the growing number of refilling stations in their target market, use of a hydrogen powered car is now solidly realistic for eco-conscious consumers. The vehicles are targeted to California, where a recent $46.6 million grant has sparked the development of hydrogen filling stations in both southern and northern parts of the state.  

A total of 28 stations are expected to open over the next year in California, with the bulk of them managed by Newport Beach startup FirstElement Fuel Inc.  The CEO of FirstElement is Joel Ewanick, a former Hyundai and General Motors marketing executive, who also landed help from Toyota with a further $7.2 million in funding support.  Plans are to see at least 100 stations in California over the next several years, but it won't be enough to support wide-spread adoption of hydrogen cars.

Why the flurry of activity now? New California EPA zero emission standards hit California in 2015, requiring more than just EV sales in the state.

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Toyota's FCV technology reduces storage to two tanks
There are two types of hydrogen technologies, fuel-cell and internal combustion. BMW was an early leader in internal combustion hydrogen technologies, typified by its very limited production 7-series hydrogen car released a few years ago. However, internal combusion technologies for hydrogen have so far proven to be inferior to fuel cell technologies, which replace electric energy storage technologies with hydrogen storage technologies for powering the vehicle. The results are more efficient.  As a result, even BMW has changed its approach and is now actively licensing Toyota's fuel-cell hydrogen technology for development of new vehicles in its BMW i Series, including a rumored i8 hydrogen sports car on the cards for later in the decade.

General Motors and Daimler are also said to be working on hydrogen technologies, but have released no concrete plans on when hydrogen vehicles will hit the market.  In fact, like EV in the 1990's, most major car manufacturers publicly down-play the future of hydrogen vehicles, talking about the high energy usage to produce hydrogen as a fuel, and the complications implicit in its storage, delivery and use - not to mention the new infrastructure it requires.

So even with the development of basic infrastructure like filling stations and the arrival of production volumes from major manufacturers, hydrogen has many detractors.  It is notoriously difficult to store and manage, and the methods available for producing hydrogen for filling stations either involve large amounts of water or methane, with significant energy to get the hydrogen into usable formats.  In its current state, hydrogen is just not that green.

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Hydrogen stations can theoretically produce their own fuel onsite
Once in the tank, hydrogen has a funny way of embrittling metals, requiring heavy and expensive storage tanks to maintain safety.  In older technologies, hydrogen even evaporates through metal, requiring use inside of 7-10 days before disappearing completely. These and other challenges make hydrogen's use as a viable and sustainable process dependent on new innovations in its development and deployment. Such innovations can't occur unless a market for hydrogen develops first, however stunted or short-term inefficient.

The introduction of commercially viable hydrogen vehicles to the driving public is in part due to California legislation mandating zero emission vehicles in the market by 2015.  This has spurred major automakers to tackle EV programmes and hydrogen technologies with serious resources. In the end, it is pushing the infrastructure for hydrogen forward.  Hydrogen has the potential to be a truly revolutionary power delivery mechanism for vehicles, but it has a long way to go before it beats electric in its total carbon footprint.

It's easy for the world to say hydrogen will never work, especially given the uphill battle it faces, but California should be applauded for its efforts to kickstart the infrastructure that gets the world on the way to new solutions for zero-emission transportation. It should be a goal to get to sustainable mobility energy sources that are abundantly available, and California is the only place taking active steps to pull the automotive industry out of its myopic addition to internal combustion.

It may take awhile and need a lot more innovation to be truly viable, but hydrogen remains the best 'future energy source' out there. Its just too bad 'the future' is showing little sign of arriving anytime in the near future, even with California's efforts.