Hydrogen Fuel-Cells For Vehicles

Earlier, on August 12, we took a look at whether hydrogen could be used in cars and trucks, and the problems associated with using hydrogen in these vehicles – But, are there related applications?

The four major problems with using hydrogen are: storage on the vehicle; producing hydrogen; transporting hydrogen to service stations; and the current extremely high cost of fuel cells.

It’s time to look at where hydrogen fuel-cells are being used now, to see how they are fitting into niche applications. Experience gained from these niche applications may presage possible future use in cars and trucks — especially if the cost of fuel-cells come down.

One niche application has been the use of hydrogen fuel-cell powered fork-lift trucks and material-handling trucks in factories and warehouses. Hydrogen is stored on these vehicles at 5,000 psi.

Three recent examples have been the BMW factory in Greer, South Carolina, Sysco Corporation’s new warehouse in Houston, Texas and the Central Grocer Inc.’s distribution center in Joliet, Illinois.

Hydrogen, fuel-cell powered material-handling vehicles have an advantage over battery powered fork-lifts, pallet trucks and other material-handling vehicles. It takes less than three minutes to refuel a fork-lift truck with hydrogen, while it takes twenty minutes to change out a discharged lead-acid battery pack. Operator costs are cut because of the reduced downtime and the need to no longer have a fully staffed battery-charging center.

They also eliminate fumes and toxic materials from the workplace.

The problems and costs associated with disposing of lead-acid batteries are also eliminated.

Information on the cost of the fuel-cell isn’t readily available, so it’s not possible to know whether these applications are cost effective. One downside to material-handling applications is that the liquid hydrogen has to be transported to the factory or warehouse, and then stored as a liquid until it is vaporized and piped to fork-lift filling stations.

A second niche application has been the use of hydrogen fuel-cell powered farm tractors.

This has the interesting twist of using hydrogen produced on the farm from waste.

New Holland has been promoting the “energy independent farm” where farmers produce hydrogen from either electrolysis, or from natural gas reforming where the natural gas is produced from fermenting by-products and biomass.

Hydrogen fuel-cell powered tractors have the same advantages as do fork-lifts, such as eliminating the need to recharge lead-acid batteries and disposing of them when they are worn out.

The NH2 tractor is a 106-hp tractor that can do everything a comparable gasoline powered tractor can do.

These niche applications have the advantage of cost savings that allow the hydrogen fuel-cell to be reasonably competitive, though the elimination of CO2 emissions is also driving their use.

Hydrogen fuel-cells have made good progress in niche applications.

Whether the price of hydrogen fuel cells will come down sufficiently to allow them to be competitive for use in cars and pick-up trucks remains to be seen.

I’ll be writing about this in January, after the Holidays. Are PHEVs the best strategy?

[Scroll down for earlier articles.]

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0 Replies to “Hydrogen Fuel-Cells For Vehicles”

  1. Energy density for hydrogen is poor. Gasoline is about 1 million Btu/cu-ft. Natural gas is about 1000 Btu/cu-ft and hydrogen is about 340 Btu/ft-cu at STP. With a pressure of 5000 psi, or 340atmospheres, the energy density of hydrogen is then raised to 115,000 Btu/cu-ft. This is pretty high-pressureded vessels to be toted around.

    For a long time in the future, hydrogen will be more costly based on energy content than either gasoline or natural gas. The niche items cited are being subsidized by government or paid by the user at a higher cost than conventional energy sources.

    The hydrogen fuel cell is expensive. The hydrogen fuel is expensive and expensive to store. I don’t see much future for the fuel cell in transportation. James Rust

    • As you noted, Hydrogen has inherent problems.
      The August 12 article discussed the problems with hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.
      My January article will focus on an alternative to PHEVs, which is the expensive road we are now traveling.

  2. Question: I understand the byproduct of hydrogen powered vehicles is water vapor. If sometime in the future the majority of private and transport vehicles are hydrogen powered would there be a resulting probmen created by the water vapor exhausted from these vehicles?

    • The simple answer is no. It will probably be water rather than vapor.
      You can calculate the amount of water from hydrogen fuel-cells from future automobile usage and compare it with water vapor from the oceans, trees etc. and see that it is a trivial amount.

  3. Hello Donn, Just wanted to let you know that FOX news just did a segment on the exact subject your three part blog on electric cars, the grid, demand et al.
    Naturally the story was directed to the average American’s intelligence, that being somewhere around a third grade graduate, but it was nice to see this serious subject
    emerge in the news.

    Keep writing I’ll keep learning.

    Thanks
    Your Pal
    David Peggs

  4. I didn’t see the FOX news segment, but wish I had.
    I hope they did justice to the subject.
    It’s important for Americans to understand the complete story with all the costs included.

  5. Hydrogen fuel cells are an enticing alternative, however the amount of energy needed to create it (from electrolysis) is greater than the energy output after going through a fuel cell. Storage/filling, as you hit on in your blog, can be complicated.

    Lead acid batteries are a thing of the past for electric cars, most use either lithium or Nicad based batteries because they are smaller, lighter, easier to recharge, last longer, etc

    Basically the biggest issue with hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles is that in the long run they burn a good deal more energy than just a straight electric powered car. I think the technology is worth exploring, and perhaps we will come up with a chemical solution for producing hydrogen on mass scale as opposed to cracking water with large amounts of electricity.

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