Sunday, May 03, 2015

Hydrogen fuel cars you can buy now

In the previous blog post, I have exposed my disdain for the hype surrounding mass production of something as ordinary as lithium-ion batteries. Electric power has been used for a very long time – one comparable to that of the combustion engines. It works but whether it should replace the combustion engines or fossil-fuel-driven power plants should be left to the free markets and those shouldn't be distorted by subsidies.

The same thing holds for the hydrogen fuel cells. They are actually an old paradigm, too. In fact, they were first proposed in 1838. However, until recently, the technological hurdles have been huge and that's why hydrogen fuel cells still sound as science-fiction of a sort. For many years, you could have driven hydrogen-fueled hybrid buses produced in Pilsen but you didn't expect to buy a hydrogen fuel car yourself.

That will change in two months. Toyota has been producing Prius for many years. It's the ultimate car for the green hypocrites and the brainwashed people who want to send a green message. Even in 2014, Prius remained the world's #1 bestselling electric car.

Next month, in June, Toyota will stop making the current generation of Prius plug-in hybrids. They will prepare a new generation so be sure that the company won't leave this business altogether.

But there is a product which is potentially much more exciting: Toyota Mirai. In Japan, it's been selling for $57,400 or so for 5 months. That's slightly cheaper than the cheapest version of Tesla Model S. The Japanese government plans to subsidize each buyer of a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle by $20,000 or so. In mid 2015, Mirai will start to be sold in California. In September 2015, Germany, U.K., and Denmark will be added to the mix, before other countries join in 2017.

At this moment, it is not about mass production at all. Toyota has capped production of Mirai at 3,000 copies a year. When all expenses are counted, the company is subsidizing these first hydrogen cars – perhaps by as much as $100,000 a piece.

Robotic Kid, by Czech band "Mirai" – the same name as the Toyota hydrogen car (the word means "future") – after their Czech-Japanese singer.

Canada's CBC talks about Ballard, a Canadian firm, that is selling hydrogen fuel cell emergency power systems. It has some costumers that find the product economically useful. Elon Musk called the whole hydrogen fuel industry bullšit, and that's why the researchers working on it have filmed the video embedded at the top. They showed he is right: they can literally power their car with bullšit, namely hydrogen extracted from huge piles of cow manure.

The hydrogen fuel cells and lithium ions are comparably economical. The hydrogen path is probably a little bit worse economically. But I do think it's sensible to think that this difference arises because much less effort and money has been invested to making the hydrogen fuel go mainstream.

Currently, most hydrogen fuel is produced from natural gas. I don't see anything wrong about it: hydrogen is a nice new way to store the energy. The methods to produce hydrogen may change in the future, or not, but whatever the trend will be, hydrogen may still be viewed as a competitor of batteries. Toyota Mirai has an electric motor inside, after all. If electricity becomes abundant (fusion...), one could always create hydrogen fuel by electrolysis of water. It does seem sensible to think that this is what stationary batteries of the future will do.

A little bit like in the case of fusion (but it's not fusion LOL!), hydrogen as a fuel seems to be the ultimate holy grail of clarity. You store hydrogen, get some oxygen from the air, and you merge these atoms to produce the dihydrogen monoxide which is not too toxic. As long as people avoid the hysteria about the dihydrogen monoxide's efforts to destroy the whole planet, everyone must agree that what goes from the pipeline is the cleanest possible compound you can get.

The greentards who are worried should better remind themselves what dihydrogen monoxide looks like ;-) before they sign another petition to ban it.

Particular projects in engineering may encounter lots of hurdles as well as surprising ease. The best sources of energy for a car or a private jet in 2050 may have many forms. But from a chemical viewpoint, it seems obvious that "hydrogen", the simplest element, looks like a more natural "ultimate" fuel than some complicated mixtures of lithium and toxic halogens that we find in Li-ion batteries.\[

2{\rm H}_2 + 2{\rm O}_2 \to 2 {\rm H}_2 {\rm O}.

\] That's quite a simple reaction, a prototype of beauty that you may learn and whose right hand side you can drink. The realistic idea that our energy storage may be moved to hydrogen and this reaction is something that makes me say Wow – unlike plans to produce many ordinary lithium-ion batteries.

When Toyota Mirai was introduced 5 months ago. Unlike Prius, this model looks aggressively attractive. Japanese accent guaranteed. 300 or 430 (California) miles range. 5 minutes to refuel. The hydrogen fuel costs are currently $2-$5 per "gasoline gallon equivalent" (gge), i.e. the operation is not much more expensive than gasoline, and the price may go down significantly.

If a government should be subsidizing some technologies, and it should not, it should better be the technologies that the market didn't spread and hasn't worked on for pretty much random reasons – or because these technologies looked like a long shot. In particular, everything seems to work about the hydrogen fuel cars and the only thing that prevents them from going mainstream is the nearly non-existent (but straightforward to build) infrastructure to refuel the cars (they may be refueled very quickly).

The evolution of Li-ion and similar batteries and the gadgets using them has been rather slow and gradual. Lots of people have been working on it, there's some progress – perhaps up to 11% improvements in a year – and no "extra support" is really needed or likely to yield breakthroughs. On the other hand, hydrogen fuel is understudied, underfunded, and for those reasons, I think that the attitude of the Japanese government to subsidize hydrogen fuel cells sounds much more reasonable than some other (or the same) governments' efforts to subsidize mundane technologies that already exist.

Lots of attempts to make hydrogen fuel mainstream have appeared in the recent decade, however. General Motors' plans in 2005. Claims about cheap hydrogen fuel from any plant. Most of these things fade away. But I think it's true that they partly fade away because their less revolutionary competitors are being subsidized.

Subsidies for uninnovative solutions such as the mass production of lithium-ion batteries have been and are directly harming technological progress.


  1. Some 15 years ago I decided to install a hydrogen fuel filling station in Berlin. For buses.
    As it has been heavily subsidised by the then Minister of Environment of Schröder's government and boss of the Greens, J.Trittin , it passed the economical hurdle of some 1.5 M€ for just 1 filling point.
    But during inauguration where Trittin was becoming quite lyrical about bright carbonless and Green futures, I would remind him in my speech that he shouldn't get over excited.
    If what happens in the car is H2+O2->H2O, one has to remember that the H2 is coming from steam reforming so that also happens :
    CH4 + H2O + (much) energy -> CO + 3H2.
    H2 has then to be compressed (we used 500 bar) and transported. Liquid H2 would have been better but we couldn't implement the logistics that exists at Cap Canaveral for Titan rockets - the costs would then go through the roof.
    Unfortunately high pressure H2 fragilizes metals and one doesn't sleep very well with the idea of 500 bar H2 in a tank which might start to develop micro cracks.
    So much for just the logistics.
    But there is more.
    If I already have CH4 why should I spend energy, compressions and all kinds of huge costs to feed a H2 car when I can directly put CH4 in a car engine ?
    Also one will perhaps find one day cheap catalysts for the FC (I doubt it will be soon) but in the meantime it is platinum.
    I am pretty sure that constructing a FC vehicle costs more than 70 000 $.
    So while I share your opinion about Lithium batteries, the H2 way to personnal mobility is the worst solution of all and will probably stay so for quite a long time. To have an idea about the time scales, I would say that H2 will start to be interesting for cars and planes when fusion reactors will start to be usual industrial practice.
    It is then not surprising that even if people have liked to talk enthousistically about H2 for last 20+ years, the markets decided that it was not Worth listening.

  2. Here in Perth, Western Australia, we ran some hydrogen fuel cell bus trials about a decade ago. They were an expensive flop; each bus costing a million dollars a year to run. (Not including capital costs.)

    Hydrogen was highly compressed and was as a byproduct of oil production.

    Fuel cells need to get rid of a surprising amount of heat. The buses had roof-mounted heat exchangers but they struggled when temperatures remained continuously well about 35°C throughout the day. The "waste heat" problem was exascerbated by the slow response of the fuel cells to dynamic operating loads. They wouldn't "throttle back" quickly enough so excess heat was dumped via resistors. There was insufficient decoupling between the generator and the motive requirements.

    While "responsible" Ministers pour icing sugar over the results, attributing blame for failure on Daimler Chrysler, the technical reports are damning. It's not appropriate technology. Not even for inner city buses.

    They should be running nuclear-powered trolley buses like Pilsen. ;-)

    IIRC, BMW abandoned hydrogen fuel cell technology a few years ago.

  3. Hydrogen vs. batteries vs. carbohydrates

    1. Hydrogen:
    The standard to transport hydrogen is now 700 bar tanks with liners that keep diffusion at bay so you can enter your garage without peril. Energy balance: as pointed out by T. Vonk: production of Hydrogen and compression have to be subtracted. Where Hydrogen is useful, namely for rockets, air resistance does not matter as much, otherwise the volume of hydrogen gas is a big issue for mobility. Storing it in an adsorbed mode, fluid, splitting it chemically, etc., all adds complexity and mostly subtracts more energy.
    Is a good starting point and for mobility what matters is Energy Density (MJ/L), as it minimizes air resistance with a small tank.

    2. Batteries:
    Weight of batteries matters too. Electric cars with large batteries are energy destroyers with every acceleration/deceleration cycle. The low specific energy (even if it would go up an order of magnitude!) makes for inefficient cars, because one always drives the mass around. A light gasoline car, as in the X-Prize winning Edison 2 or the 1l VW car ist much more logical. Piech understood that. The only other way for electrical cars to win is small batteries and a grid to pickup energy from while moving long distance.

    3. Carbohydrates:
    CH4 works, so would propane or butane, even with a little H2 mixed in. The distribution grid is in place. Even the renewable guys start looking at that option to transfer their wind and solar power with some buffer and move it over distance. It works and is an option with about 35% loss end to end including conversions.

    4. What else?
    Maybe a magnesium energy cycle? Could be promising for mobility, low volume per energy stored.

  4. There is no technology available that beats gasoline and diesel in terms of either energy density or convenience or safety. All of these scams are being driven by an irrational fear of global warming (some more would be desirable) and conniving criminals looking for government handouts.

  5. There is only one safe, economical, efficient and easy to adapt way to drive electric, and that's diesel-electric. No need to change infrastructure, using existing well proven technology, no loss of invested capital in distribution of fuel. Hydrogen has so many drawbacks as in it's problem to store in large quantities due to density, the extraordinary high quality containment materials needed due to the tiny size of the molecule, it's capacity for corrosion of transport lines, the inefficiency to produce it, the risk of catastrophic failure in case of simple traffic accidents to name but a few it's really an absurd suggestion.

    Till the that time comes a safe micro power-plant based on matter/energy conversion becomes reality let's be reasonable. There's centuries worth of methane available to be upgraded to diesel it's beyond daft to not use that in the mean time.

  6. I think the problem is the other way around: global warming is being driven by an irrational fear to conventional energies and specifically fossil fuels.

  7. The Second Law damns Enviro-whiner fuels - ya gotta make them from scratch, extensively rediddle them, and said chemistries are inefficient for yields and waste. For gaseous fuels, /_\(PV) = energy, 101.325 joules/liter-atmosphere. Every compression throws away a chunk of energy as process waste heat.

    Hydrogen is champion smartlessness. Everything leaks hydrogen, including virtual leaks (elastomer seal diffusion). Hydrogen has the widest LEL-UEL range - BOOM. Hydrogen flames are invisible and nearly undetectable. Leaked hydrogen enters the stratosphere where it eats ozone to become water. Stratosphere humidification then provides substrate for Ozone Hole chemistry.

    Government - the least efficient, most expensive (corrupt) way to make and execute deformed decisions and economic cloudy days. We must treble our efforts and shift Carbon Taxation on Everything one decimal place to the right. Klimaschtuzstaffel! ? "Die Fahne hoch, die Reihen fest geschlossen..."

  8. I don't think Hydrogen fuel cells are being underfunded. Actually active research is going on. Problem is Li batteries have far more applications, and do not have technological hurdles of hydrogen fuel cells, they are used every minute by all of us in all sort of devices.

  9. RRWORB Announcement — Patent Pending

    Building on recent advances in GM technology I have now developed a seed prototype to grow a remarkable crop that will eliminate all our energy provision and storage problems at one stroke, and bring an end to climate change. Scalability is the keyword here. All I need now is for keen investors to send me lots of money so that I can set up a mass production facility across the Great Plains and enjoy the life of Riley.

    I don't want to give away too many details at this stage but I can say that my wonder crop will use the power of the sun to grow recyclable ready-wound organic rubber bands. Hence the catchy product acronym.

    Dear Luboš, can I use your site to set up a PayPal link so that I can collect all the money? You're in for 10% of the gross proceeds if you say yes. Thanks.

    IN DEVELOPMENT: The Edition
    A GM crop that will grow recyclable ready-tensioned highly polished organic stainless steel springs. These will be for the luxury market and will be New Bluefang-enabled to operate from your iPhones. App coming to the App Store soon. Watch this space!

    P.S. Preliminary tests show that crushed RRWORB sprinkled on cornflakes cures all forms of venereal disease. And cancer.

  10. We've seen Boeing's planes and Teslas catch fire, but hydrogen car explosions seem an order of magnitude worse.

  11. Somebody stole Gaddafi's design.

  12. The best way is to redesign the cities.

  13. Well, I agree with both of you ;)
    But what is the source of irrational fear, whatever the fear is?

    A) stupidity, lack of education, psychology 101 of group thinking, herd mentality
    B) somebody taking advantage of the widespread stupidity (with the salt that they may have helped create it via MSM daily declarations)

  14. It seems to be a obvious linear combination of both states ;-)

  15. Newsflash! Newsflash!

    My company just found out that 10 fat-asses on a government dole, randomly picked from McDonald, pushing a wheel for 1 hour, can produce electricity enough for a day of consumption of a working family.

    This is super environment-friendly technology that also contributes to the weight loss and lowers the probability of a heart-attack.

  16. You are partly right, Bob, especially in the case of diesels. I love diesel technology (Sadi Carnot got it right; didn’t he?) I have owned eight of them if you include my wife’s Audi Q5 TDI. Pure electrics cannot compete in range but they sure as hell can compete in convenience.
    A neighbor of ours has a Tesla Model S and just loves it. Zero stops for gas and practically zero maintenance (just tires every 40-50,000 miles) is very, very nice. He is, like me, retired and a fresh overnight charge every morning gives him at least 250 miles of opportunity to drive a superb automobile anywhere he wants.
    I have a 2012 Audi A6 Prestige, which is also a great car, but the 5-year cost of ownership is slightly lower for the Tesla and the gas stops and periodic maintenance are a headache for me. Tesla seems quite capable of beating a superb competitor. The cost of electricity for my neighbor’s car is under one-fourth of my fuel cost and that tips the economic balance in favor of the Tesla.
    Fuel cells (hydrogen-based cars) have far less range, much more (very, very costly) maintenance, at least twice the unit production cost, poor performance, and an almost complete lack of supporting infrastructure (refueling stations).
    Of course the big factor in our U.S. future is the enormous abundance of natural gas. It can be converted into electric power at 61% thermodynamic efficiency and Tesla’s two motor designs are pushing 98% efficiency. Sadi Carnot did get it right.

  17. Of course; CO2 is our friend. It has saved millions of people from starvation through increased crop yield. We need to generate more of it.

  18. The increased kinetic energy due to battery mass is not all wasted. In fact, with two drive motors (all wheel drive), most of it is recoverable and there is not any net cost penalty due to battery mass. Even extremely hard braking can be done electrically, thereby storing the energy for the next acceleration. One day we will look back on friction brakes as a stupid waste.
    I will add a negative comment about pure electric carts. If you live in a very cold climate and want to keep your car in an unheated parking place, forget pure electrics for at least a decade.

  19. I understand everything you are saying, Tom, but pure electric cars are here now and fully competitive in the upscale and high performance markets. Loss of subsidies would slow but not stop the transition to electrics because the fundamental economics are driving it, at least here in the US. The downscale movement into the general car market is going to be more difficult but the legal requirement for ever increasing miles per gallon and ever decreasing tailpipe emissions seem to be inexorable. Musk’s gigafactory should drop battery costs by 30% or so and technology will surely continue to eat away at battery cost per mile.
    Musk has claimed that doubling the energy storage per kg of current batteries would enable intercontinental airliners to be battery driven. That seems preposterous but I intend to take a serious engineering look at it.

  20. No worries. In Northeast we can use coal plants to warm them up as well as charge them ;)

  21. Off-topic: Have you written somewhere about this microwave quantum vacuum engine that NASA is supposedly developing?

    It sounds like a crackpot idea, yet it just got tested in a vacuum chamber ...

  22. Hi, the previous thread on the batteries is full of that stuff.

    Today, it's been 15 years since Casimir died so I may write some more technically oriented post on why the Casimir effect doesn't allow any macroscopic negative energies and traversable black holes and war speeds etc. whenever a classical limit is appropriate.

  23. H2 is a nasty degrades metal, is extremely volatile, loves to escape confinement around and through gaskets, and is a bitch to store safely...why any thinking person would go this route when there exists a huge amount of CH4 for the taking is beyond me.

  24. OT lubos:
    texas shows how it should be done.
    nominees for the next darwin awards come to mind...attempting to shoot up a free speech gathering in texas...effing geniuses...

  25. The jetta TDI has a 600+ mile range, FWI

  26. I didn't realize fossil fuels were carbohydrates...I thought oil was...a fat.

  27. LOL, I once got a "4" (D) from high school chemistry (a battle with our 800-pound teacher, not gorilla) but I think that I got good enough.

    What was meant were hydrocarbons - compounds of C,H only - not carbohydrates - simple and composite sugars.

  28. hey whatcha think about our good old boys in texas?
    no begging for their lives in the street, at the mercy of some thugs....
    je suis bubba.

  29. Alcohol is a carbohydrate and fuels both the car and driver. it is particularly cheap and plentiful in some States like Nebraska I believe due government subsidies for growing corn for this. They have not sen fit to make it suitable for human consumption so drivers must still purchase that inside the gas station and not at the pump.

  30. Dear David, your points are important. What I like about hydrogen despite these things is that the waste product is nicer and doesn't dissipate, so with enough energy, one will be once able to convert H,O to H2O and backwards all the time.

    It will always be harder to "produce" CH4, am I wrong?

  31. LOL, Rehbock, it's a pure detail in chemists' terminology but I assure you that no alcohol belongs among carbohydrates.

  32. lubos what you think about this engine its inventor claim it work based on same principle as emdrive .

  33. Can a fuel cell only oxidize hydrogen gas? Is it conceptually possible to use with natural gas or other liquid hydrocarbons su h as gasoline or diesel?

  34. The smiley face was to assure I was not being too serious as my agenda was "driven". 😉 To my understanding carbohydrates is generically compounds entirely of the three elements and also alcohols if aliphatic with OH functional group.

  35. LOL, really no, Rehbock. What you describe is pretty much called an organic molecule. "Carbohydrates" are a much narrower group that only contains sugar - the sweet ones and the less sweet ones.

    Carbohydrates are only C-H-O compounds with the 2-to-1 ratio of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, so that their C-H-O content may be written as

    C_m (H2O)_n

    "Hydrates" in "carbohydrates" really refers to water.

    So it's like "adding carbon and water", with no losses. For example, fructose is C6-H12-O6. A perfect carbohydrate. On the other hand, alcohols contain much more hydrogen than carbohydrates.

  36. well lobos, you are correct, as almost always, it seems.

  37. a buddy (Phd in biochemistry and an MD as well) tells me that alcohols are esters...and have zero glycemic load.(for our diabetic friends)

  38. Right, I was interested in the difference between alcohols and sugars because of those Candida yeasts...

    Alcohol is a great source of energy except that it makes the liver work a lot - and Candida produces lots of other toxins that make the liver busy. That's the only disadvantage. Otherwise, if the liver could deal with anything, alcohol would be a good food for Candida overgrown folks, too.

  39. And maybe not! ;-) I would probably not like such an explosive thing that intensely reacts with everything, either.

    But storing energy in huge reservoirs of simple elements still looks more systemically clean than trying to pile huge piles of rather rare elements such as lithium.

    Maybe the hydrogen should be stored in some more sexy way, by pressure or magnetic confinement - I am talking rubbish now. ;-)

  40. can't we just run the fuel cells off of ch4 with a catalyst upstream from the FC?
    if not, I go for the oxidative process that produces air for plants to breathe (CO2), as a benefit.

  41. "It will always be harder to "produce" CH4, am I wrong?"
    This strongly depends which starting materials are available. For very good reasons pretty much all of the technical H2 is made in a process starting from CH4 or other natural hydrocarbons and not via electrolysis.

  42. Mass is more costly than you think. It's the scaling factor on rolling resistance, which consumes are very significant fraction of fuel on most cars. During city driving, say less than 35 mph (56 kph), rolling resistance dominates air resistance of a typical car body shape.

  43. Lots of people are studying hydrogen adsorption in graphene and other molecules. Still CH4 is a great way to store H, and is plentiful, easy to work, and fertilizes plants that make food.

  44. So does my wife’s Audi, which is much more powerful.

  45. I detest the addition of methanol to our California gasoline. It is uneconomic without subsidies, it degrades performance and it tends to be hard on the engine.

  46. I assure you mark, that I am not confused. Rolling resistance is not even proportional to weight for given ride comfort. In city driving it is not important all because most of the energy loss is through conventional braking. With fully optimized regenerative braking, which requires all wheel drive, you would be looking at wonderful fuel economy or terrific range for a pure electric.
    Rolling resistance depends on tire design. There are huge variations in tires and big improvements are possible. Simply avoidance of underinflation is vital.

  47. just pointing out that a modestly priced diesel powered vehicle, with no taxpayer funded subsidies currently achieves a range approximately 3 times that of a tesla, in good weather, w no air conditioner.
    If you feel comfortable taking poor peoples' earnings to finance a masturbatory exercise in crony capitalism go ahead, exploit the poor,

  48. Was it just me? Or did anyone else half expect the car to explode into a giant flaming mess when the farmer started it? OH THE HUMANITY...

  49. Alcohols aren't esters. "In chemistry, esters are chemical compounds derived from an acid (organic or inorganic) in which at least one -OH (hydroxyl) group is replaced by an -O-alkyl (alkoxy) group.[1] Usually, esters are derived from a carboxylic acid and an alcohol." (wikipedia)

  50. Alcohol is a horrible source of energy for the human body - we can't do much with it.
    "During conversion of ethanol to acetaldehyde, hydrogen ion is transferred from alcohol to the

    cofactor nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+) to form NADH. As a net result, alcohol

    oxidation generates an excess of reducing equivalents in the liver, chiefly as NADH."

    Or, for more detail -

  51. I wouldn't want to argue physics and engineering with you (medicine and physiology and biochemistry are what I know) but it seems to me that if such a battery were possible, it would already be being built.

  52. thank you andy.

  53. I tend to agree w you andy. the presence of subsidies is confimation that at this time electric vehicles are not competitive with conventional automobiles.
    it is a travesty that the working poor in the States are subsidizing the follies of the rich. sad really.

  54. The 'great minds' of the left always screw the working man. He should never look to those leeches to safeguard his interests.

    It's not sad, David. It's criminal.

  55. What do I think? I think they did well.

    But there's plenty of room for improvement. After all, those ragheads weren't the only muslimes in Texas. But there shouldn't be ANY at all. They need to finish the job. That's what I think.

  56. stop it john...your polluting the thread.

  57. John has on many occasion given the white power Nazi signal tendencies. So if you like to cooperate with him just like some of your ancestors did, fine with me, but don't blame people calling you the self hating.