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Debate: Hydrogen vehicles

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Should hydrogen vehicles be a major part of strategies to fight global warming?

Background and context

A hydrogen vehicle is a vehicle that uses hydrogen as its on-board fuel for motive power. Hydrogen fuel cell cars exploit the significant chemical energy in hydrogen through a process of electrochemical conversion. In this process of fuel-cell conversion, hydrogen is reacted with oxygen to produce water and electricity, the latter of which is used to power an electric traction motor.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have been proposed as a renewable, 0-emissions form of transportation. This is significant in the context of global warming because vehicles account for roughly one-third of all man-made C02 and greenhouse gas emissions. Hydrogen fuel cell cars, therefore, are being proposed as a possible solution to global warming. The main question, therefore, is whether hydrogen fuel cell cars can and/or should become a major component of strategies around the world to combat global warming. What are the pros and cons of hydrogen fuel cell cars in this context? Are they truly clean? Is it problematic that they rely on electricity to produce hydrogen, and that electricity is largely generated by burning coal? Are hydrogen fuel cells economically viable as an alternative form of transportation? Can hydrogen fuel cell cars help cut foreign dependencies on oil? Is it feasible to build a hydrogen fuel infrastructure and fueling stations to support hydrogen cars? Is it feasible to store sufficient quantities of hydrogen in cars and safely? Would hydrogen vehicles be practical for owners? And, finally, how do hydrogen cars compare with the other alternative and clean forms of transportation, such as hybrids, hybrid-electric, electric vehicles, or even public transportation? Is it better to invest in hydrogen than these alternatives? These are the questions that frame this debate regarding hydrogen fuel cell cars as a possible component in energy and global warming strategies.

Contents

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Global warming: Will hydrogen vehicles help reduce emissions, fight global warming?

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Yes

  • 0-emission hydrogen cars can slash emissions, fight global warming In fuel-cell conversion, hydrogen is reacted with oxygen to produce water and electricity, the latter of which is used to power a car. Water is the only waste product, not CO2 or any greenhouse emissions. Hydrogen fuel cell cars are, therefore, 0-emission vehicles that can replace millions of greenhouse-gas-emitting vehicles that contribute significantly to the global warming crisis every day.
  • Hydrogen produced from coal-electricity is still cleaner than gasoline. Some argue that it is no better to produce hydrogen fuel cells from electricity that is "dirty", such as coal-generated electricity. Yet, even if coal was the only source of electricity production (which it is not), hydrogen would still be cleaner than gasoline cars. The reason is primarily that it is more efficient to burn coal on a massive scale to generate electricity for vehicles than it is to burn gasoline on a micro-scale in individual vehicles. The later releases more emissions.
  • Electricity for hydrogen production can be made 100% 0-emission From an environmental and global warming standpoint, it is a good idea to move onto the electric grid for all of our energy because most future "green" energy will produce electricity. Nuclear, solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, wave, and tidal energy all produce electricity as their consumable energy product. By relying on electricity, hydrogen fuel cells will become increasingly clean as society transitions to these cleaner sources of electricity production.
"So far, hydrogen-powered cars are fuel for future thoughts". USA Today. 21 July 2008 - "While fossil fuels might be burned to produce much of the energy required for hydrogen production, some electricity would also come from burning biomass or from solar, wind and hydroelectric generation. Generally, these non-fossil fuel power sources are becoming a larger part of the electrical power generation grid and should eventually supplant fossil fuels."


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No

  • Hydrogen is only as clean as the electricity producing it Producing hydrogen requires energy. Some or even all of that energy comes from burning fossil fuels, particularly coal. In the United States, for instance, over 50% of all electricity is generated by burning coal, which is a major contributor to global warming.
  • Hydrogen vehicles will arrive too late to help climate change A National Research Council report that pegs 2020 for the arrival of the mass-market fuel cell vehicle. According to USA Today, "That's the best case scenario, of course, assuming technology, government, industry and the public all cooperate on bringing hydrogen cars to the nation's highways."[1] Yet, the IPCC says that steps must be taken immediately to stop global warming. This means that hydrogen fuel cell technology is out of sink with the immediacy of global warming.
  • Uneconomical hydrogen cars cannot grow to impact global warming. The only way that hydrogen cars can help the fight against greenhouse gas emissions and global warming is if they are economical and used widely. Because they are uneconomical, as is outlined below, they will not have a positive impact on global warming.
  • Supporting hydrogen cars is a form of phony "greenwashing" Supporters of hydrogen cars are often accused of "greenwashing". In particular, oil companies are often accused of supporting hydrogen vehicles because it gives the public the feeling that action is being taken. Yet, oil-interests know that hydrogen vehicles are not going anywhere. These companies are, allegedly, using hydrogen vehicles to distract the public from alternatives that are a true threat to oil profits.
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Environment: Beyond global warming, are hydrogen cars environmentally friendly?

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Yes


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No

  • Leaked hydrogen damages the environment like chlorofluorocarbons. A study from the California Institute of Technology says it is likely that mass-produced hydrogen will leak, which would be very damaging to the environment, because hydrogen destroys ozone in the same way that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) do.


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Economics: Are hydrogen fuel cells economical?

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Yes

  • Hydrogen cars will be economically viable soon, not in decades Wayne Cunningham. "Driving It. Why Hydrogen will fuel future cars." CNET. 11 Apr. 2007 - "Many articles I've read covering specific fuel cell cars point out the cost of the car, usually in the millions of dollars. But this dollar figure has no relation to any hydrogen fuel cell production vehicle that will eventually be offered for sale. These research cars are hand-built and use experimental technology created in limited amounts. The most expensive material used in these cars is the platinum covering the nodes in the fuel cells. Other than that, the car consists of motors, wheels, a frame, and body. And there are even fuel cells under development using different, cheaper materials."
  • Hydrogen cars will create new industries and jobs Dennis Weaver, an actor and public spokesperson for alternative energy, said in a 2008 interview with Motor Trends, "[hydrogen fuel cell vehicles] would give our economy a tremendous boost. Our economy has always been stimulated by new technology, by innovation, by new ways of doing things. When we went from the horse and buggy to the automobile, the automobile industry created a tremendous amount of new jobs we couldn't even foresee."[2]
  • Hydrogen is abundant and universally accessible. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. This makes it universally accessible. And, because it is inexhaustible, it is a renewable resource and effectively free.
  • Hydrogen has more energy per weight than any other fuel. Hydrogen is a very powerful element with an extremely large amount of energy in each molecule. It is, therefore, a valuable and economical source of energy.


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No

  • Hydrogen cars are very expensive Joseph J. Romm, PhD in Physics at MIT and assistant secretary of energy under US president Clinton, said in the movie "Who killed the electric car" (2006), "your average hydrogen car costs a million dollars. that's gotta drop."
  • Hydrogen fuel is a weak energy source by volume. While individual hydrogen molecules may contain significant amounts of energy, the problem is that hydrogen is very diffuse, meaning that there is not much hydrogen nor energy by volume. This is why compressing or liquifying hydrogen is necessary if it is to be used to power vehicles.


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Foreign oil: Will hydrogen fuel cells lower dependencies on foreign oil?

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Yes

  • Hydrogen cars will help end foreign oil dependencies Hydrogen fuel cell cars do not use gasoline or diesel. They use hydrogen, which is universally available in all countries. Hydrogen, therefore, will help lower dependencies on foreign oil. This is important to the economic and energy security of nations. This was the primary rationale behind a $1.2 billion investment by the US government in hydrogen cars. US President George Bush said, "hydrogen-fuel initiative to reverse the nation's growing dependence on foreign oil."[3]
  • Hydrogen can decrease tensions over oil and promote peace Dennis Weaver said in an interview with motor trends, "I think a global hydrogen economy--not just national, but global--would promote peace. In my opinion, most wars are fought over diminishing resources. Especially if that resource is extremely valuable, which we perceive oil to be."


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No

  • Uneconomical hydrogen cars can't lower foreign dependencies. If hydrogen cars are uneconomical, as is argued above, they cannot scale in a way that will lower dependencies on foreign oil.
  • Alternatives to hydrogen exist to lower foreign oil dependencies. There are many alternatives that can help lower foreign oil dependencies. The electric car is the most important means to lowering foreign oil dependencies. Relying on electricity supplied by wind, solar, geothermal, wave, tidal, nuclear, and coal energy, electric cars would adequately lower foreign oil dependencies. The hydrogen fuel cell car is unnecessary.


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Infrastructure: Is a hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure possible?

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Yes


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No

  • Hydrogen cars would need a new fueling infrastructure. Joseph J. Romm, PhD in Physics at MIT and assistant secretary of energy under US president Clinton, said in the movie "Who killed the electric car" (2006): "you have to have the fueling infrastructure. We have 183,000 gas stations someone's gonna have to build at least 10,000 or 20,000 hydrogen fueling stations before anybody is gonna be very interested."
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Storage: Can hydrogen fuel be effectively stored in cars?

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Yes

  • Hydrogen storage in cars is available and affordable Amory Lovins, CEO of Rocky Mountain Institute. "Twenty Hydrogen Myths". 20 June 2003 - "Myth #7. We lack a safe and affordable way to store hydrogen in cars. This problem was solved several years ago. Such firms as Quantum (partly owned by GM) and Dynetek now sell filament-wound carbon-fiber tanks lined with an aluminized polyester bladder instead of the traditional solid metal liner (cutting weight by half and materials cost by a third). Such carbon tanks have ~9–13 times the performance of an aluminum or steel tank, but can’t corrode and are extremely rugged and safe, unscathed by crashes that flatten steel cars and shred gasoline tanks. The car isn’t driving around with highly pressurized hydrogen pipes, either, because the hydrogen is throttled to the fuel cell’s low pressure before it leaves the tank. Such aerospace- style tanks holding up to 700 bar (~10,000 psi) and proven over 1,655 bar (~24,000 psi) have been tested by GM and others in fuel-cell cars and are legally approved in Germany; U.S. authorities, who have licensed 5,000-psi (~350-bar) hydrogen tanks, are expected to follow suit shortly. Linde AG recently installed a 700-bar German filling station for Adam Opel AG."


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No

  • Hydrogen fuel cells require technology breakthrough Joseph J. Romm said in an interview with Motor Trend: "we need three technological breakthroughs for these vehicles to be realistic in the near term: a fuel-cell-membrane breakthrough...Right now, the membrane's durability is about 1000 hours, and it's easily poisoned by such things as sulfur in the air. These are nontrivial problems, and they'll have to be solved while simultaneously reducing the cost of the fuel-cell's membrane by a factor of 100."[4]
  • Hydrogen can't be compressed to give sufficient driving range Joseph J. Romm, PhD in Physics at MIT and assistant secretary of energy under US president Clinton, said in the movie "Who killed the electric car" (2006): "No known material to human kind can store enough hydrogen in the car to give you the range people want."
  • Liquefying hydrogen requires extremely low temperatures. Liquefying natural gas requires temperatures of -423 degrees F in a superinsulated tank. This is not feasible to suitable for mass consumption.
  • With no lubricity hydrogen is highly volatile in handling. This means that fuel-handling systems must be hardened and hermetically sealed. This is complicated, expensive, and prone to error. It also poses risks for drivers and maintenance workers.


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Safety: Are hydrogen fuel cell vehicles safe?

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Yes

  • Hydrogen is non-toxic, unlike most fossil fuels. Most fossil fuels are toxic and emit toxins when burned. Carbon monoxide poisoning is one of the most common form of death that can result from burned gasoline. Hydrogen, however, is entirely non-toxic. It can, therefore, save lives.


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No

  • Hydrogen fuel cell containers are weak/dangerous at present. Joseph J. Romm said in an interview with Motor Trend: "the storage issue is a potential show-stopper--it's clear that you can't build a hydrogen economy around high-pressure on-board storage. It would be fatal to H2 cars if they were prematurely introduced into the marketplace with this inadequate storage technology. I don't think your average soccer mom or dad wants to be a foot away from 5000- or 10,000-psi hydrogen canisters--which in industry are treated with great respect, put in separate facilities with blow-out walls, and so forth. We need--according to the American Physical Society--a whole new material for storage, and if you were to ask me how long might it take, the answer is it could take a very long time."[5]
  • Hydrogen is flammable and dangerous Patrick J Coyle. "The Hydrogen Debate Continues". Suite 101. 9 Jul. 2007 - "Hydrogen is a light, very flammable gas. It burns at a much wider range of concentrations in the atmosphere than propane (Wald), and requires less energy to ignite. This means that hydrogen is much more likely to catch fire than are hydrocarbon fuels currently in use."
  • An accident could end the political future of hydrogen cars An explosion from an on-board hydrogen tank risks the political future of hydrogen fuel cell cars. This is a real risk that governments should consider before investing too much in a hydrogen economy. Public support could quickly evaporate.


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Practicality: Are hydrogen fuel cells practical?

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Yes

  • Hydrogen cars require less maintenance than gasoline cars. Dennis Weaver said in an interview with Motor Trends, "Running on hydrogen extends engine life and reduces maintenance, as no carbon builds up in the combustion chamber or on the spark plugs and the blow-by gases are so clean that the oil rarely needs to be changed (just topped up periodically)."[6]


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No

  • Hydrogen cars are hard to start in sub-zero weather.[7]
  • Hydrogen fuel is susceptible to fuel contamination.[8]


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Vs. electric: Is hydrogen superior to electric vehicles?

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Yes


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No

  • Hydrogen cars cannot be charged at home like electric cars. Electric cars can be charged essentially anywhere the electric grid extends, including, most importantly, a car-owner's home. This contrasts very sharply with hydrogen cars that will only be chargeable where special hydrogen fueling stations are built, and none are yet constructed.
  • Hydrogen is more challenging than alternatives Joseph J. Romm, PhD in Physics at MIT and assistant secretary of energy under US president Clinton, said in the movie "Who killed the electric car" (2006), "Hydrogen is a much tougher alternative fuel than any other alternative fuel we've ever pursued."


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Vs. hybrids: How do hydrogen fuel cell cars compare to hybrid vehicles?

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Yes

  • Hydrogen cars can become 100% clean; hybrids cannot. Hydrogen vehicles emit only water from the tail-pipe, while hybrids still burn gasoline and emit CO2 and other greenhouse gases from the tail-pipe, albeit in smaller amounts than ordinary gasoline cars. It is important to eliminate the emission of greenhouse gases from the tail-pipe and move to electricity-based cars, such as hydrogen cars, that can become 100% clean as electricity moves to entirely 0-emission sources of power.


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No

  • Hybrids outshine hydrogen cars in performance and price Joseph J. Romm, author of "The hype about hydrogen", said in the movie "Who killed the electric car" (2006), "Miracle 5 is you have to hope an pray the competitors in the market place don't get any better because right now the best car in the market place just got a lot better. The hybrid vehicle. Still runs on gasoline you can fuel it anywhere. It has twice the range of a regular car. And if battery technology keeps getting steadily better than the best hybrid and then plug-in hybrid in the year 2020 will be vastly superior to the best hydrogen car."


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Pro/con sources:

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Yes


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No

See also

External links and resources

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