Innocence Lost, Uncategorized

Innocence Lost: Hydrogen’s Dirty Secret

The majority of car manufacturers are now at least tolerating the fact that the future looks bleak for internal combustion engine. There is, however, a small stronghold for internal combustion engines. Today we look at the last fighting chance of internal combustion engines.

Current petrol- and diesel-powered cars use, well, petrol and diesel. The last hope for internal combustion engines is hydrogen fuel – a clean-burning fuel that sounds super awesome. Fuel up in exactly the same way as your current ICE car, hypothetically acheive the same range, with the familiar sound of a big V8 under the hood. Sounds great, right?

Nyet! Firstly, Toyota’s Mirai four-door sedan, the only commercialized and widely available hydrogen-powered car, actually only achieves a similar range to a current Tesla Model S P100D. Besides this, refueling infrastructure is scarce and expensive, with less than 20 refueling stations in California, and less than 1,000 worldwide. According to CIO, a report produced by Information Trends anticipates less than 5,000 hydrogen refueling stations worldwide by 2032. Compare this with Tesla’s existing network of over 5,000 Superchargers worldwide at the beginning of the year, and their plans to double this number by the end of the year.

Hydrogen fuel has a lot to overcome before it can compete with this substantial pre-existing network of EV charging stations – which is growing rapidly according to IHS Markit. More than 1,000,000 EV charging stations were in service worldwide in 2014, with the number expected to reach 12.7million by 2020. Many of these are home chargers, and that is a statement in itself. People will be going electric simply because of convenience.

The most flattering shot I could find of the Toyota Mirai. Source:

It is probably worth noting here that the Mirai, despite being hydrogen-powered, doesn’t actually have an internal combustion engine; it is instead a fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV). Hydrogen-powered ICE vehicles aren’t very common, and generally take the form of buses.

So why do I say that hydrogen is the last hope for internal combustion engines? Frankly, it isn’t. Even companies that are still taking hydrogen seriously are working on fuel cell technology, which hardly counts as internal combustion. It is, perhaps, more accurate to say that hydrogen is the last hope of fossil fuel giants. The United States of America Department of Energy has already published a scintillating infographic showing plans for hydrogen production, which includes phrases such as “Natural Gas Reforming” and “Coal Gasification” as major production methods, alongside greener methods of production. Let’s look more in depth at these two methods of hydrogen production.

Natural Gas Reforming

Natural Gas Reforming involves the use of steam to remove impurities from a methane source. It also accounts for the majority of hydrogen production in the United States.

Pressurized to around ‪362psi, high-temperature steam (around 700°C-1000°C) reacts with methane to produce hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and small amounts of carbon dioxide. Which makes production of hydrogen pretty expensive – and dangerous. Also to be considered in this case is that greenhouse gases are still produced as by-products of hydrogen. It is worth noting, though, that this is still cleaner than combustion of petrol or diesel to power cars. However there is little room for improvement.

Coal Gasification

Very similar to natural gas reforming, Coal Gasification also uses high-temperature steam under high pressure. Unlike natural gas reforming, coal gasification, as suggested by the name, breaks up coal into gases instead of divorcing the component gases of natural gas. This requires heat, and therefore, it requires energy. Huge amounts of it.

Heat is produced by partial combustion of the coal, with oxygen input painstakingly regulated to limit the amount of coal burnt in the process. This heat produces steam, which then releases the gas contained in the coal. The product of this long, convoluted process is Syngas – made up of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Mineral components of the coal form a glass-like slag, which is completely inert, and generally useless. Small amounts of the mineral matter leave the gasifier with the gas, and must be removed further down the line.

Sulphur impurities in the gas form Hydrogen Sulphide and Carbonyl Sulphide, from which Sulphur is easily extracted. Nitrogen oxide, a major pollutant of petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles, is not produced in the process. Ammonia is produced instead, which has a multitude of commercial uses – especially in cleaning products. It is stripped from the gas stream during purification.

While both processes are significantly more efficient than production and consumption of fossil fuels, the bar is set pretty low where efficiency is concerned. And more importantly, they are both significantly less efficient than battery production, which only has to be carried out once for each car if the batteries are well-made. A lithium battery can last around 30 years if properly used; when their state-of-health becomes too low for use in a car, they can be re-purposed for grid storage or home energy storage. After that, they are almost completely recyclable.

Fuel cells, meanwhile, are expensive to the point of being prohibitive. The Tesla Model S has a base price of around USD$76,000, whereas the Toyota Mirai, with an interior that looks like it was stolen from the rejected prototype of a BMW submarine, comes with a base price of USD$57,500. The catch? You can’t use the Mirai to drive across the United States, since California has the highest concentration of hydrogen fuel stations in the US, and that concentration is pretty pathetic. Most of these stations are also only found in 3 major cities. In the modern market, that just doesn’t cut it.

Not quite as hideous as the bodywork, but still, really??

So my thoughts on the “hydrogen future” that a small handful of car manufacturers see? The most positive thing that I can call it is wishful thinking. The lack of infrastructure makes Hydrogen fuel extremely difficult to use. It is so hard to find fuel that Toyota is offering complimentary hydrogen fuel for three years with every new Mirai sold. That shouldn’t even be an issue, let alone one that requires the manufacturer to incentivise people to buy into the new fuel type. Electricity is readily available, and if used to power cars directly, requires much less new infrastructure than hydrogen.

Hydrogen is also highly explosive – as a kid I had the opportunity to create some in a chemistry lab. The first attempt didn’t work, but the second attempt was a little too successful. I can see why it is used to propel rockets, but I wouldn’t recommend storing large quantities of it in the middle of town. On the off-chance it does explode (and I do mean the OFF-chance, it doesn’t happen often) it could wipe out a small town.

The good news is that hydrogen seldom explodes in that manner. The bad news is that to directly cause the same amount of destruction as petrol exploding doesn’t require anywhere near as much hydrogen, or anywhere near the number of incidents. So, quid-pro-quo really, isn’t it?

What do you think? Will the world see a hydrogen future, or will hydrogen fuel simply slip into its cave for all eternity, forever stuck in the aerospace industry, but never quite touching the ground? Don’t forget to share and subscribe, and leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Check out our follow-up article here