Mr Musk calls fuel cells ‘fool cells’, but we shouldn’t ignore hydrogen
I’ve often heard people ask why we don’t just develop more hydrogen cars, and leapfrog the whole battery electric vehicle (BEV) option that is now so firmly underway. After all lithium-ion batteries are expensive, heavy and pose some big sustainability challenges. Not to mention ‘range anxiety’ at the point of use, and the risk of an unscheduled half-hour recharge to continue on your way (especially if you’ve used more charge than planned from wipers and heating in our unpredictable climate). It’s good news for the fast-food restaurants and phone accessory kiosks, of course. I heard of one EV owner who now has a collection of five different tripods for his phone – his latest apparently has built in studio lighting. But let’s face it, there’s only so much KFC most of us can eat . . . isn’t there?
Imagine, if only we could just fill up in the kind of turnaround time we’re used to, using instead the most abundant element in the universe, which only emits water vapour as a by-product of its use? Oh, wait . . .
But hold on. I’ve a feeling Elon’s blunt appraisal comes from more than H2 simply being a threat to his own business model. Perhaps the most fundamental issue with hydrogen lies within the transfer of energy from generation to point of use. Because for something like a Tesla, and BEVs generally, about 80% of the energy from the electricity originally generated at the power station gets through to the car’s battery. By contrast, the processes involved in producing and processing hydrogen translate to something closer to just 35% when reaching the car’s fuel cell. What’s more there is already a BEV energy supply infrastructure in place, and it’s called the national grid.
Game over? I don’t think so. There is already a lot of well-funded work to improve that energy transfer, not least in the UK, and it’s supported I might add by some of the world’s biggest auto manufacturers. I can’t imagine they are looking at these big projects if they don’t think there’s something in it. Indeed, if hydrogen can be produced using renewable energy in the first place (its generation is currently heavily reliant on the use of fossil fuels), then its abundance could well balance out the other issues in the longer term.
As renewables gradually gain more of the mix in the generation of our power, I suspect the existence of both models will be far from mutually exclusive. And for now, it clearly looks like there are very important things happening for hydrogen in the aviation, rail and commercial vehicle sectors. But I wouldn’t totally rule out the everyday hydrogen car just yet, Elon.
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Written by Jeremy Whittingham, Advanced Engineering