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Saturday, May 14, 2016

WILL HYDROGEN VEHICLES BE SUCCESSFUL?

Let me first establish some credibility:
  • When I worked in the U.S. Congress 38 years ago I drafted the original Senate version that eventually became the Matsunaga Hydrogen Act.
  • I was part of the group that in 1989 created the National Hydrogen Association, which in 2010 merged with the U.S. Fuel Cell Council.
  • I chaired the U.S. Secretary of Energy's Hydrogen Technical Advisory Panel.
  • The Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, which I directed, became a National Hydrogen Research and Education Center.
  • I was selected Hydrogen Man of the Year by the National Hydrogen Association, where the previous awardee was Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
  • I wrote several articles on hydrogen for the Huffington Post.
At first glance, hydrogen appears to be the ultimate fuel:
  • Close to 75% the total mass of the Universe is hydrogen.
  • Our Sun and all the stars generate energy by fusing hydrogen.
  • When combusted, the products are energy and water.
  • Some day, aviation should be powered by hydrogen, for it is the lightest fuel/volume.
But is the world ready for ground transportation using this expensive gas?  The use of an internal combustion engine powered by hydrogen can be eliminated.  Fuel cell cars are already on the market.  There is good reason for this mode of transport, for fuel cell cars can take it up to five times further than conventional lithium batteries, and the vehicle is lighter and charges much more quickly.  Both fuel options today will still largely use fossil fuels, for renewable energy has not made much of a contribution to grid electricity, and 95% of the hydrogen in the U.S. comes from natural gas.  Here is one comparison of the Toyota Mirai versus the Tesla electric car.  Tesla, however, is now taking orders for their $35,000 Model 3 (below), which will become available next year.


The problem is that there is no such thing as free hydrogen.  Some compound, such as methane, will need to be converted into a gas, hydrogen, which will then need to be compressed or liquified, all of them energy-intensive processes, adding to the fuel cost.

Plus, the infrastructure for hydrogen is still unavailable and costly to install.  And, during the past quarter century at least a hundred different models of cars, truck, motorcycles, etc., have been built by a variety of manufacturers, and nothing has sold.
So why are Toyota, Honda and Hyundai fuel cars beginning to appear?  The Toyota Mirai will cost you nearly $60,000 and the Honda Clarity will be priced around $63,000, while the Hyundai Tucson compact SUV is being leased.  Toyota has opened up its 5,600 patents to other companies (at least, until 2020) to build an international network.

On the near horizon are Nissan, Daimler (Mercedes) and, even, General Motors.  Fuel cell cars have always been 5 years away, but, apparently, you can today buy one.

I continue to have doubts about the long term potential of electric cars.  Fuel cell cars will have a very, very difficult ten year transition, and low gasoline prices will only hurt development.  The Chicago Mercantile Exchange has oil futures at $57/barrel in December of 2024.  USA Today says that in 2027 FC vehicles will, maybe, be 0.1% of car sales.  That sounds about right by my calculation.  If Tesla is in business that long, I'll be somewhat surprised.

So, then, what is the solution?  Well, I've long touted bio-methanol from biomass to power a direct methanol fuel cell.   Methanol is the only bio-liquid capable of being directly used by a fuel cell.  Plus, and this is hard to believe, one gallon of methanol has 1.4 times more accessible hydrogen than one gallon of liquid hydrogen.  I've long wondered why automobile manufacturers did not recognize the attractive of a bioethanol - direct methanol fuel cell system.  

Here is one of several Huffington Post articles I've written on this subject.  And that one was posted seven years ago.  However, there has been a recent leap in DMFC patents, so, maybe, there is hope for this pathway.

Tomorrow, the conclusion of Kenji's Golf Safari, then, I fly from San Francisco to Seoul.  And why do I always go to South Korea, anyway?

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