SHIFT: Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are a fraud

Who wouldn’t like the idea of a fuel cell car running on clean, pure hydrogen, the universe’s most plentiful element? Its byproduct is sparkling, drinkable water, with none of that pesky pollution spewing out the tailpipe. And then if there's any energy left over when you're done driving, why, you could use that car's fuel cell to power your house! We can get rid of gasoline! And fuel cells, hey, they use those in spacecraft, don't they? This is some modern stuff, and at first glance, hydrogen appears to be a viable solution to all our energy problems.

Well, think again. Hydrogen fuel cell cars are a dumb idea, and those who are pushing them are frauds. They want to advance their own agendas, and couldn’t care less whether their cars are practical or not. They just want to make more money. In fact, their tired ideas for fuel cell vehicles have already been left in the dust by electric and hybrid vehicles, and there are a lot of good reasons why.

Not for Sale
Fuel cell cars are available today. But wait, you can’t really buy the Honda FCX Clarity — you must rent it for $600 a month. Why? Because if this wasn’t a publicity stunt, you’d have to buy the FCX for its real cost. The car makers are secretive about how much it's costing to build these vehicles, but you can bet it's well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece.

To give you an idea, mass producing a fuel cell-powered bus is going to cost $200,000 extra just for the engine, according to its designers at Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Pretty good, though, considering that just two years ago, the average cost of a fuel cell vehicle was a cool million dollars.

This huge cost issue is just the tip of this expensive iceberg. While some companies that are seeking funding for their fuel cell vehicle schemes say otherwise, the cars are notoriously impractical. I smell boondoggle.

Is Hydrogen a Fuel?
No, hydrogen is not really a fuel, but an energy storage medium. It's more akin to a battery that soaks up energy when it’s extracted from something else, and then delivers that energy when it’s used. And, it takes a lot of energy to create that hydrogen. The energy must come from other sources, such as natural gas, or elaborate electrolysis using platinum membranes that separate the hydrogen and oxygen in water, using, um, electricity. What? Using electricity to make hydrogen that's then turned back into electricity? Yes, it’s the laws of physics at work, where you have to put in energy to get some out. So you must use electricity or gas (or maybe solar energy) to make this stuff. So yeah, it works like a battery, except a whole lot more expensive. Why not just charge up an electric car instead?

Can’t we just mine hydrogen from the ground?
No, there's no such thing as a hydrogen well. It doesn’t just gather in one place like oil or natural gas does, but quickly dissipates into the atmosphere because of its simple atomic structure. Because of that number-one position on the periodic table, hydrogen is difficult to store and corrodes pipes. It’s a clever escape artist, and can even slip between the molecules of steel or aluminum containers. So hydrogen can't be stored long-term — it must be created on the spot by stripping it from other molecules.

These fuel cell cars need four times the volume to store an amount of energy equal to that of gasoline. Even though the energy-generating equivalent of hydrogen is lighter than its gasoline counterpart, you need a 60 gallon tank to store the same amount of energy that’s in 15 gallons of gasoline. These cars won’t go far before it’s time for more hydrogen.

Where will you get that hydrogen?
The oil companies would like to provide the infrastructure for such a “hydrogen economy.” The oil companies say to you, "No, don’t use electricity from your house to charge up that electric vehicle — depend on the oil company’s filling stations to get where you want to go, as you’ve always done."

Good luck with that, though, because so far there’s just one retail hydrogen station in the U.S. (run by, you guessed it, an oil company), far short of the thousands needed to make this hydrogen economy anything more than a pipe dream. The other experimental stations are nothing but showboat propaganda fronts that expend far more energy than they create. Anyway, the oil companies would be happy to invest in that costly infrastructure, because they know they'll get their money back. But it'll be coming out of your hide, just like it always has.

Plenty of Guff
bush_hydrogen_00.jpgThere are a variety of impractical ideas for using hydrogen to propel cars, but they're years — and maybe even decades — from being cost-effective. Most of these schemes seem to suspiciously somehow involve the oil companies keeping their greedy paws in the “hydrogen economy.” To give you an idea, one great proponent of the “hydrogen economy” is energy expert, former oilman and conservation guru George W. Bush.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow
We're all for innovation, but the fantasy of cost-effective hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is just a distraction from the real work that needs to be done: perfecting electric and hybrid natural gas/electric vehicles, charged by electricity generated by clean and renewable nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal and hydroelectric power. These technologies are here now, and the associated batteries are getting more efficient at a rate that’s significantly faster than the snail's pace of impractical fuel cell technology. Maybe someday hydrogen fuel cells will be practical for personal vehicles, but not today, and not for a long time to come. Don’t be fooled by the self-serving frauds that keep trying to tell you otherwise.