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Things You Need To Know About Hydrogen As A Fuel

In the quest to achieve more sustainable motoring, there are three main players: biofuels (i.e. producing petrol and diesel that will run in conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles from renewable sources rather than fossil fuels), electric vehicles (we’ve heard heaps about these) and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCV).  Electrical vehicles seem to be the hottest of the hot at the moment and they grab quite a lot of the attention from the media and from the government.  To take one hot off the press example, they’ve just given the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this year to the guys who invented the rechargeable lithium-ion battery, even though this tech has been around for a fair few years now and first got onto the market in 1991.

However, let’s not completely overlook the other two members of the sustainability team. If you asked me to take my pick of the three, I’d go for HFCVs. This is because it gives the best of both worlds: the zero-exhaust factor of EVs and the ease of refuelling of ICE vehicles.

Hydrogen is the lightest element on the periodic table and it’s one of the most common elements on earth – actually, make that THE most abundant element in the universe.   As we all learned in school, good old water is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. In fact, you could say that all energy is, technically speaking, hydrogen powered.  Our sun is one great big ball of hydrogen undergoing a massive nuclear reaction (fusion rather than fission), and it’s the energy given off by this that is ultimately the source of all energy on Earth – even the fossil fuels, which are ancient forests that once trapped sunlight through photosynthesis.

If we could somehow replicate this process on Earth at a smaller scale, most of the world’s energy problems would be solved and it would generate all the electricity to meet our needs and more. However, the problem would be to stop it getting out of hand or an H-bomb would be the result. Cold fusion is the dream of many a scientist…

The first thing you need to understand about HFCVs is that when you put hydrogen fuel into the vehicle, the fuel isn’t burned the way that the fuel in an ICE burns. NASA uses this tech in rockets but it’s far, far too explosive for more down to earth uses. Instead, the hydrogen is used to generate electricity, which is released when hydrogen combines with oxygen to produce (you guessed it) water. This takes place in fuel cells, which do the job of converting good old oxygen and hydrogen to water.

Quite a lot of vehicles around the world use hydrogen fuel cell tech already. These are mostly forklifts and buses; however, cars are coming onto the scene and they’re beginning to get a fair bit of interest.

The big question about any sustainable energy source is to ask where it comes from and how one gets it – a question that people aren’t quite asking enough in the case of EVs, if you ask me.  In the case of hydrogen, there are two main sources. One is from electrolysis of water and the other is from steam reformation of methane. Of the two methods, electrolysis of water (where the water molecule is split into H2 and O by a current of electricity) is the cleaner of the two – as long as the electricity used comes from a sustainable source, such as wind, solar or hydro (using hydro to produce hydrogen seems appropriate). The other method uses methane – thus busting up and reducing something that is both a waste product and a greenhouse gas – but it also produces a bit of carbon monoxide during the production stage.  There are quite a few other methods out there but these are the most common.

Hydrogen is produced for commercial use already on quite a large scale. It’s used quite extensively in, of all things, the petrochemical industry during the process of refining petrol. You could therefore think of a switch to hydrogen fuel cell tech as cutting out the middleman.  The other major commercial use of hydrogen gas is in electrical power stations, where it acts as a coolant.

The biggest issue with hydrogen fuel is storage and transport, as hydrogen is a slippery customer that can explode and burn with the ferocity of rocket fuel simply because it is rocket fuel. On the other hand, liquid hydrogen is super-cold (even colder than the liquid nitrogen the doctor uses to remove warts and low-grade skin cancers) and needs to be kept that way. It’s the storage and transport issue that our very own CSIRO is working on.  Nevertheless, the potential is out there and is being used in many parts of the world. In the US, for example, there are already 40 retail outlets for refuelling hydrogen cars just in a single state (California), with more in other states and more to come.

Over here, we’ve already got one public hydrogen fuel station in Canberra, with more being planned. As renewable hydrogen is a hot topic (or maybe a cool topic, given that liquid hydrogen has a temperature of about –250°C), there are a ton of hydrogen projects going on at the moment, and there are hopes that renewable hydrogen fuel will become one of Australia’s biggest exports.  Just a couple of days ago, there was news out that Siemens was launching a big plant in Western Australia to produce hydrogen fuel, and that’s just the latest one. We’re going to be producing it ourselves, so it makes sense that we should put it on our cars as well.

10 comments

  1. John Aquilina says:

    Questions need to be asked re Hydrogen:
    How much energy is required to produce?
    How much energy is required to store it at such low temperatures?
    What is the cost of purpose-built transport vehicles which need to carry hydrogen at much higher pressures than CNG/LPG?
    These high pressures caused a disaster in Norway https://www.thedrive.com/tech/28489/a-hydrogen-station-in-norway-blows-up-truth-is-among-the-victims

    Electricity is distributed cheaply and conveniently. Everybody in cities has an energy outlet direct in their property. The convenience of charging at home is liberating. In some areas there maybe upgrades to the grid required, but this will lead to other advantages.

    There are already V2G (Vehicle to Grid) townships who are using the stored energy in vehicles to smooth out Peak demands in the grid. Car owners are being credited handsomely to provide a percentage of this stored energy when their Power provider needs help.

    Hydrogen could possibly work for large commercial applications as they are now.

    Battery Electric vehicles are No longer “the future”. They are here now!

    October 24th, 2019 at 1:20 pm

  2. Ben Hawkins says:

    Thanks for the very good article on hydrogen fuel.

    October 24th, 2019 at 1:26 pm

  3. Bruce Grime says:

    a good summary in layman’s terms of what hydrogen ‘fuel’ is all about.

    October 24th, 2019 at 1:36 pm

  4. Anthony Belcastro says:

    Great article, will save it for the grand children who would benefit of knowing the potential that one day they may be driving Zero Emission Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles.

    thanks

    October 24th, 2019 at 1:40 pm

  5. Bill Nixon says:

    As a chemist with many years experience in shipping, storing and bulk distribution of industrial chemicals I would disagree with a lot of the content in the article. Firstly, I don’t understand why anyone would call Hydrogen renewable.That it is not! Hydrogen is an element in the periodic table, a major chemical component of the matter that makes up our universe. Hydrogen atoms form part of most organic materials, including live creatures (like humans) and fossil fuels. It does not renew, or grow on plants or other organisms. There is a finite quantity of Hydrogen in the Universe, albeit so large you could call it infinite from a human point of view. Man cannot add to this quantity, all we can do by chemical or physical processes is to separate Hydrogen as a gas from molecules where it is already forming part of other substances, like natural gas or water. Mostly it is obtained from fossil fuels, making it a fossil fuel derivative. Hydrolysis from water is not favored because it uses more power (electricity) than the resultant Hydrogen can produce when burned or transformed into electricity in a fuel cell. So it is clear that although there are no emissions coming from the tail pipe of a HFCV it is in fact wasting energy and or or creating other forms of pollution elsewhere, the same as an EV using electricity generated by coal or gas. Even when solar or wind power is used, most scientists fail to mention the environmental impact from building solar panels and wind turbines, which is very significant. Sadly, as Al Gore would like to say, this environmental damage becomes “An Inconvenient Truth” the advocates of wind and solar power prefer not to mention, focusing exclusively on the post implementation benefits and ignoring the costs, both environmental and financial, to set up wind and solar farms.
    Having established that Hydrogen is neither renewable or environmentally so friendly, let’s look at the practical aspect of using it to power HFCV.
    Hydrogen is a gas, to store it you need cryogenic containers able to keep it cooled to -253 Degrees C, or very high pressure (about 10,000 psi) tanks to maintain it in liquid form, or adsorbed onto specific chemical compounds from which it can be separated usually by the application of heat. All of these storage forms are expensive, making Hydrogen an expensive form of fuel, and in many cases risky, as Hydrogen easily forms explosive mixes with air. It is not the kind of fuel I would like to carry stored in a tank beneath my car. The potential consequences of an accidental rupture and leakage of Hydrogen are too terrible to consider. Unless some new revolutionary method of storing Hydrogen is discovered by scientists, widespread use of Hydrogen for motor vehicles is unlikely to ever happen. Like cold fusion to produce energy and the alchemists quest to turn Lead into Gold, it will remain a pipe dream for scientists for a very long time.

    October 24th, 2019 at 1:54 pm

  6. Allan Oakes says:

    Great story, luv your work

    October 24th, 2019 at 11:18 pm

  7. Peter Carden says:

    I’m with you – think this is a transition similar to VHS and Beta.

    Hydrogen has got to be the way to go!

    October 25th, 2019 at 12:57 pm

  8. Andrew Bobey says:

    My guess is EVs are going to dominate market share long term. HFCVs will have a niche but that is all. The primary reason is EVs total energy efficiency is much higher better than HFCVs, and therefore lower running costs. People will figure this out.
    Cheers
    Andrew

    October 27th, 2019 at 11:59 am

  9. Stephen Vey-Cox says:

    The awful truth about hydrogen as a transport fuel | Auto Expert John Cadogan

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOntMxYA29U

    October 27th, 2019 at 1:34 pm

  10. Michael Bright says:

    Interesting reading the article and then all the responses.
    It still seems to fall into the 2 main camps Alternate fuels and Electrics.
    The Electric camp seem to discard or gloss over the fact that the production of the battery’s is an exceptionally dirty and toxic affair and charging still needs to rely on coal or nuclear power ( was down in Canberra early this year and the ACT government were talking up the fact that they were exporting power into the NSW grid from their green power generation BUT failed to mention that when the sun goes down and the wind drops they import coal fired power to run the state at night.)

    November 9th, 2019 at 1:16 pm

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