I’ve ranted about it on YouTube, I’ve driven a wonderful car, the fantastic Honda FCX Clarity which runs on it. I’ve discussed the possibility of shipping being powered by it with the chief engineer on a 4,000 birth luxury liner. I’ve watched it being produced and used as a propellant on Scrapheap Challenge, I’ve seen how explosive it can be on Hollywood Science. It’s amazing stuff. It will never run out. It’s the most common element in the universe.
Yes indeed Ladies and Gentlemen, I am of course referring to hydrogen. The magic gas, the wonderful savoir of our world.
In the future, we will all be powered by hydrogen.
Of course that sentence has to be delivered by a mature American voice over artist, someone who knows what he is talking about.
However, the most common place I hear about hydrogen is on the Twitters. If, as it often does with me, the subject of electric cars or related topics comes up, this will inevitable result in a swathe of tweets from people, I have to say usually men, who state with ease, ‘battery cars don’t work, the future is obviously hydrogen.’
Who can argue with that, certainly not me, I don’t know what the future will bring. I do however recall that hydrogen as a fuel for cars has been touted for a long time.
A very very long time. At least 35 years, regularly, whenever there is a blip in the oil price. Billions of pounds and dollars have been spent on developing amazing technologies to make this possible. Much of the investment coming from the fossil fuel industry. Why them?
Well, this is where the subject gets contentious. This is where researchers on shows like Top Gear get a little dewy eyed. Hydrogen is indeed ubiquitous in our universe, but it does tend to be superglued to other elements in a rather profound way. To separate it takes a bit of doing, it takes rather a lot of energy. A huge amount of energy.
Okay, to put it simply it requires 4 times more energy to separate it than it produces. This is if you split water using electricity.
If you steam it out of natural gas, it still requires bucket loads of energy but not quite as much. Those massive oil refineries with gleaming stacks and fuming chimneys and flames doing a ‘Blade Runner’ impression, they are very good and doing weird things like steaming natural gas.
It is also a by-product from industrial processes like the production of chlorine. There’s plenty of it about, true we would have to build a massive, complex and very well designed infrastructure to make the use of hydrogen as convenient and safe as the present use of fossil fuels. True the cost would be in the hundreds of billions but it could be done.
It would be easy to poo poo hydrogen cars as being too expensive but obviously as the technology develops it will get cheaper. The same is regularly said of electric cars, indeed their cost is often used as a criticism. However, a battery powered car is currently going to set you back around £25,000. If you could buy a hydrogen fuel cell car now, (there are none on sale by the way) it would cost around £2 million. The Honda FCX Clarity really is one of the most beautiful cars I’ve ever driven, but you can’t buy one. Even if you’re George Clooney or Jane Fonda (she leases one I believe) you can’t buy one.
I would predict that using tired and trusted market analysis, in ten years time a battery powered car will cost around £10,000, there’ll be millions of them, produced in huge numbers. Hydrogen fuel cell cars will have got much cheaper to, a quarter of what they cost today, probably under £500,000.
The infrastructure to refuel them will appear, in California, Washington DC and outside Shell headquarters. With a big sign.
I don’t think it’s going to work. It’s not appropriate use for what is, undoubtedly, a brilliant bit of tried and tested technology.
I mentioned ships at the beginning, I believe it’s possible I will see a hydrogen fuel cell powered ship in my lifetime, that would be an incredible use. I really hope someone will work on a train that uses hydrogen as a fuel source. Both those uses might be appropriate.
As was recently reported by the BBC, it’s probably not appropriate as an aviation fuel (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11707135) even though millions of pounds have been spent trying.
The only really constant thing I have learned over the last 35 years about this subject is that we are always promised hydrogen powered cars, and we never actually get them. We are told they will work, we are told that hydrogen is the future, and meanwhile, we can carry on buying fossil fuel at a rate that boggles the mind. Billions of liters an hour, every day.
And there is an alternative now. In fact, I’m just about to drive across London in one. It’s an electric car powered by rechargeable batteries that runs about 80% efficient from pit to wheel, wind turbine to wheel or nuclear power station to wheel. Tried and tested, by me. Today.