The primary factor that makes gasoline the preferred fuel for most passenger cars is energy density, which means it packs a lot of energy into a small space. Hydrogen, which powers fuel cell vehicles, is actually almost three times as energy dense as gasoline by weight. A kilogram of hydrogen packs as much energy as 2.8 kilograms of gasoline, according to the Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels website.
Several automakers like Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, and BMW are hard at work perfecting hydrogen fuel cells for light duty passenger cars. We all know by now that hydrogen fuel cells create no harmful waste products. In operation, they produce electricity, water, and heat. That’s it. So in a fuel cell powered world, there would be no climate killing emissions at all — just like there are none with battery electric cars.
The biggest drawback to using hydrogen as a power source for automobiles is that the refueling network is virtually non-existent in the US and sparse at best in Europe. This week, Bloomberg is reporting that BMW chief executive, Oliver Zipse, is a firm believer in fuel cell powered passenger car. In fact, he thinks 30% of the cars his company sells could be powered by hydrogen in the future.
BMW Chief Executive Officer Oliver Zipse sees the zero-emissions technology as a climate-friendly option for as many as 30% of its customers. “The key is to build combined hydrogen gas stations for passenger cars and trucks,“ Jürgen Guldner, who leads BMW’s hydrogen technology program, told Bloomberg in a recent interview. “It’s much easier to set up hydrogen stations for larger truck fleets as logistics operators already show interest in this.” Development will benefit from plans for hydrogen trucks, he says, as the drivetrains for commercial and passenger vehicles share many of the same parts.
Older readers may remember when diesel-powered passenger cars were all the rage in America in the 80s. Back then, motorists with diesel engines under the hood had to go to truck stops to buy fuel for their cars. Apparently Zipse and BMW see a similar situation coming for fuel cell powered cars. Hydrogen fueling stations are expensive to construct — much more so than EV charging stations — so it makes sense to build a few of them at large refueling hubs and ask drivers to go there to get their hydrogen.
The people that build Volvo trucks agree with that approach. In 2021, Volvo AB began working with Daimler Trucks to find ways of lowering the cost of hydrogen trucks. The two companies plan to begin making hydrogen fuel cell powered truck by 2025. Volvo says if carmakers join in on building hydrogen infrastructure, that would help speed its roll-out.
“The more we are who can unite around this network, the faster it will happen,” Volvo CEO Martin Lundstedt said. “It will probably be similar to what we see in the case of diesel. There you have coordination and piggy backing even if there are specific pumps and such.”
Last August, the BMW factory in South Carolina produced a fleet of 100 iX5 SUVs that were then shipped to Germany to be outfitted with fuel cell systems. They are being used in a two-year-long test of the technology in Europe, the US, and Asia. Zipse sees hydrogen cars as the preferred option for drivers frequently making longer journeys who struggle with patchy charging infrastructure for battery-electric cars. Interestingly, those fuel cell systems are provided by Toyota, another company that fully embraces the prospect of hydrogen powered transportation.
BMW is deep into the development cycle for what it calls it Neue Klass vehicles. They are expected to be battery powered, but the company may be hedging its bets and making provisions for them to accept fuel cell powertrains as well. Right now, fuel cells are not cost competitive with battery-electric cars from a production standpoint.
Costs need to come down to the level of pure battery powered cars for mass production, Guldner said. “Currently, our hydrogen tanks have a large diameter,” he said, which wouldn’t fit into vehicles made on the “Neue Klasse” vehicle architecture. “We’d need to shrink hydrogen tank cylinder diameters considerably to fit them.” Easy to say; not so easy to do. It’s like saying the size of battery packs need to be reduced by 50% or more. It’s a good goal, but how realistic is it?
Hydrogen — The Dream That Won’t Die
Last December, my colleague Tina Casey wrote an excellent synopsis of BMW and its fuel cell aspirations. In it, she quoted Frank Weber, BMW’s head of development, as saying, “We are certain that hydrogen is set to gain significantly in importance for individual mobility and therefore consider a mixture of battery and fuel cell electric drive systems to be a sensible approach in the long term. Our BMW iX5 Hydrogen test fleet will allow us to gain new and valuable insights, enabling us to present customers with an attractive product range once the hydrogen economy becomes a widespread reality.”
Maybe so, but the elephant in the room that no one talks about is what the source of all that hydrogen will be. Europe is better at making “green” hydrogen then the US, but worldwide, most commercial hydrogen comes from reforming methane, a process that creates quite a lot of carbon emissions.
Hydrogen advocates like to blithely assert that excess electricity from wind and solar will be used to power electrolyzers that split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and that could be true in the far distant future when renewable energy is so abundant that most of the world gets it electricity from renewables and much of it would simply go to waste or get curtailed, which is the same thing.
But the world is a long way from that point yet. Instead, nations are panting to increase LNG production to replace the supply of cheap methane that used to flow from Russia to Europe prior to the brutal assault on Ukraine a year ago. If there ever is a time when excess renewable energy is looking for something useful to do, green hydrogen may be a more viable alternative that it is today.
EV opponents snicker at the inadequacy of charging infrastructure, but it seems a little silly to think that people will gladly go out of their way to find a truck stop to refuel their hydrogen-powered cars. So far, and until further notice, hydrogen is little more than cover for fossil fuel companies to blind us with blandishments about the future and for automakers to continue making the high profit models that have sustained them for years.
In other words, hydrogen is eyewash meant to make it seem that heroic efforts are being made to save the planet when in fact little if anything is being done. For the fossil fuel crowd, it will still be business as usual far into the future.
It’s not that hydrogen couldn’t play a role in decarbonizing transportation. It could, but not any time soon and certainly not soon enough to address the climate emergency that is upon us.