Electric Currents

With All Due Respect Sir, Fuel Cell Cars Are Still EVs

Jun 27, 2016

Are electric cars a technological dead end and are carmakers missing an opportunity by not working more aggressively to help the planet transition to a bright hydrogen-fueled future?

One Eurof Thomas of Cardiff in Wales wrote the following note to the Guardian in the presently still "United" Kingdom.

The advent of mass-produced, electric-driven vehicles… augurs a global cultural change. But switching to EVs worldwide will involve considerable investment in new infrastructure, not least because of the inherent inefficiencies of storing and transmitting electricity.

Are the car-makers missing a great opportunity here? Almost unnoticed, alternative energy generation has mushroomed, growing by many times more than anticipated. Night-time wind power opens the way for the mass production of hydrogen through the electrolysis of tap water. Hydrogen is easy to store and transport, and fuel-cell vehicles emit nothing but water vapour. The deep-water wind turbines of the near future will take care of nimby objections to land-based turbines and large-scale hydrogen production through solar photovoltaic projects in, say, North African countries could provide a long-term export industry that supports economic prosperity and political stability. A neo-electric revolution is an attractive prospect but the dawning Age of Hydrogen is surely a better bargain.

There a significant number of misconceptions in his comments that I feel compelled to correct starting with "switching to EVs worldwide will involve considerable investment in new infrastructure…" Actually, pretty much most of that infrastructure is already built in the form of the current electric power grid. A US study years ago concluded that pretty much most of the US car fleet (84%) could be recharged overnight from excess generation capacity without adding a single new power plant. A similar study was done in the UK by the National Grid. Now while it is true that transmitting electricity over that grid has inherent inefficiencies built into it -- most of the loss comes on the generation side, not the transmission side -- increasingly we're seeing more and more local, distributed generation being installed, both from natural gas peaking plants and renewables: wind and solar in particular.

As to "storing" electricity, that's precisely what electric car batteries do; and the more EVs out there, the greater the storage capacity. In fact, Nissan recently envisioned a future where electrics are the "Fuel Station of the Future," as seen in the video below.

Just last week, Elon Musk has announced plans to acquire SolarCity as part of long-term strategy to tie energy generation, storage and EV mobility into a single, integrated business. He is, of course, famous for his distain for hydrogen, calling them "fool cells."

While hydrogen looks like a promising path forward towards a more sustainable transportation future, a reading of research over the last decade tells me that electrolysis is expensive, hydrogen is hardly "easy to store," and its damned difficult to transport. Take getting it from those deepwater turbines. Do you electrolyze it there and put it in a seafloor pipeline and pump it ashore or do you send the electric current via underwater cable to a hydrogen generation station on shore? Then how do you distribute it? You can' t use existing pipelines. Distributing it via compressed tanker trucks means each vehicle can only service about 50 cars before it would have to return to station for a refuel. Our roads would be clogged with fleets of heavy "lorries" - to use a British term - shuttling compressed or liquified hydrogen to and fro.

Storing hydrogen sounds easy, but being the world's smallest atom also means keeping it contained is difficult and expensive. And to provide any useful driving range, it has to be compressed to thousands of PSI, typically around 10,000 psi or frozen to -423.17 °F (-252.87 °C)

Finally, there's the Guardian's headline to Mr Thomas' letter, "(F)orget electric cars. Hydrogen power is the way forward".

Apparently neither Mr. Thomas nor the headline writer at the Guardian is aware that cars powered by hydrogen - other than abortive attempts a decade ago to use it as a 'fuel' in internal combustion engines - are electric cars. The type of hydrogen vehicles of most interest to automakers today use fuel cells to electro-chemically generate an electric current when you recombine two hydrogen atoms with a single oxygen atom. That electric current can be used in one of several ways, but the most efficient way is to charge the EVs battery pack, which in turn powers the car's drive motor. This is the way virtually all of today's production FCEV's (fuel cell electric vehicles) operate.

While this sounds wonderful elegant: cars that "recharge" in minutes instead of hours, drive hundreds of miles on a zero-carbon source of energy that can be recycled infinitely, and produce as their only emission pure, distilled water vapor, the picture isn't as rosy as all that. Every step in the process from the moment those giant wind turbines generate an electric current out there in the North Sea or English Channel to the moment the EV's electric motor converts its electrons back to rotary motion is beset by parasitic inefficiencies more akin to eventually turning crude oil into mechanical energy in your average ICE-age motorcar.

With all due respect, sir… keeping those electrons flowing as effortlessly as possible still makes more sense than sending them through the Rube Goldberg-like chain of processes available to us today.

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