Fuel cells. Clean, green, and the way of the future. At least, that is what some major automakers would have you believe. There are, of course, a few *minor* complications with their plans. Let’s have a look, shall we?
Last month, in my post Innocence Lost: Hydrogen’s Dirty Secret, we explored the ramifications of hydrogen fuel in a world of hydrogen-powered cars. This included the roadmap to a fully hydrogen-fueled vehicle fleet as envisaged by the United States of America Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a quick examination of the environmental effects of the various steps to complete hydrogen-dependency.
We investigated the explosive nature of hydrogen – and it’s tendency to escape containment. Containment which is, by the way, both expensive and hard to find. The scarcity of hydrogen refueling stations certainly does nothing to help the case, especially considering the difficulty people will experience trying to get their heads around proper use of a hydrogen fuel pump.
Then, of course, there was production itself. Short-term production plans pitch hydrogen as a by-product of fossil-fuels such as petrol or diesel. Mid-term, we would be producing hydrogen via coal gasification, in which coal is burned in a carefully controlled environment to maximise efficiency. Only in the long term would we see the environmental benefits of hydrogen fuel – thanks to algae farming.
Algae farming is one way of producing hydrogen fuel and biodiesel, and currently very popular among proponents of fuel cells and biodiesel. Which makes sense – algae can help clean up the environment, while providing a completely renewable fuel for our futuristic combustion vehicles. Alternatively, it can also be used to produce hydrogen for a different type of combustion vehicle, or for a somewhat redundant class of electric vehicle known to Tesla CEO Elon Musk as the ‘fool cell.’
As for vehicles such as the Toyota Mirai, all one needs to do to work out the feasibility of hydrogen fuel is look around to find some place to buy it. Outside of California, there aren’t many of them (less than 1,000 worldwide), whereas electric car charging stations are not only widespread, but also have less requirements than a dedicated fueling station. Since the cars can’t drive and charge at the same time (like every ground-based vehicle I can think apart from trolley buses and electric trains), it is logical to have them parked specially to charge. Except – if the car has to be parked to charge, why go out of your way for it? Why not have it charging when it is just sitting there twiddling its wheelnuts (or whatever it is that cars do when they get bored)?
EV charging stations are extremely compact – so they barely intrude on your garage space. Because of this, they also fit nicely into public car parks. So the problem of fueling an EV is solved just by nature of the fuel. Anyway, enough waffling. Back to algae farming:
Algae farms are big. Really, really big. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, since it is, after all, a farm. And it may not even seem like an issue. The problem with this, though, is that the more land we dedicate to production of hydrogen and biofuels, the less land we have for food production. Given that many countries are already awash with poverty, I don’t think reducing our food production capacity is going to be a good idea.
The proliferation of poverty is hardly an ethical choice to keep us moving. Where human lives are at stake, no price is too high to save them. The choice is to run vehicles on hydrogen, a redundant fuel that takes enormous amounts of land and energy to produce, or feed the world’s hungry. Seems like a no brainer to me. Electricity can be produced using wind turbines – under which you can grow crops, graze stock, or build cities, hydroelectric dams (which, while creating large bodies of water which take up lots of land, are extremely effective ways of producing electricity), solar panels, the list goes on. So algae farming for biofuels? Thanks, but no thanks. I like food.
Nuclear power plants can produce hydrogen with almost no polluting effects. Which also sounds great – until we look at Chernobyl, or Fukushima. So while it is possible, and maybe even practical, for nuclear-powered countries to use hydrogen produced by nuclear power, there are still risks involved. Risks can never be fully eliminated, of course, but a nuclear meltdown is not worth the risk in my books.
Production of hydrogen by electrolysis of water is just as brilliant as algae farming – instead of global famine, we will instead have a global water shortage. 1.4 billion vehicles with average fuel tanks of ~55 litres, plus aircraft and ships? I am sipping a cup of tea as I write this, so put me down for a no.
So we again run into the problem that hydrogen and biofuels are impractical if humanity aims to keep progressing into the future. Only with electric cars does humanity stand a chance in the long-term. Is the current generation of electric cars perfect? Of course not! But they still represent a massive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, so getting started now will help. Check out my Resources page to learn more.
What are your thoughts on hydrogen and biofuels? Have I missed something? Am I completely wrong? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and don’t forget to share and subscribe!