Hydrogen Fuel Cells are Not New!

Electric cars can, in theory, be powered by hydrogen fuel cells. People are excited about fuel cells. Compared to batteries, they would be instantly rechargeable! However, there is a lot of hype about hydrogen at the moment which is very misleading.

You would never think it from all the spin, but fuel cells have been around for a long time actually!

This diagram is a version of Sir William Grove's drawing of the original Hydrogen Fuel Cell, which he called the "Gaseous Voltaic Battery". His drawing was published in 1842 in The Phillosophycal Magazine and Journal of Science.

diagram of hydrogen fuel cell

But, I'm afraid Sir William Grove's Hydrogen Fuel Cell will not replace the car battery in the near future because it is simply not a viable alternative to gas.

Let's cut through the great fuel-cell-distraction and get to the truth. Here is a summary of why hydrogen is a non-runner:

  • Hydrogen is too polluting to produce and takes energy to produce.

  • It is not a renewable energy like wind, sun and wave.

  • It is too volatile and dangerous and problematic to store and transport.

  • It is too clumsy and big to fit inside an electric car.

  • There are better alternatives which do not pose any of the above problems and which can use renewable energy sources, which is the crucial point!

Cells, Lies and Cynical Politics!

In 2003, during his State of the Union address, George W. Bush, announced the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative.

I watched the State of the Union address with a friend, who nearly fell off his seat!

"Wow, I can hardly believe my ears, this is too good to be true!" he said.

"Yes, it is too good to be true," I said. "Because it's never going to happen. It's just a distraction."

"Isn't anything that replaces oil good, what's the problem?" asked Marco, disappointed.

"There are huge issues with hydrogen. It has to be produced, so it's not renewable for a start. And it uses energy in production. And it's a volatile, dangerous substance."

"So why is everyone talking about hydrogen then?"

"Some oil interests are pushing for hydrogen and driving this agenda. Perhaps they see themselves controlling it the way they control oil. The gas infrastructure is going to become obsolete if they don't find something similar to replace the gas with. All those filling stations and lorries on the road supplying them from depots. If we all change to renewable electricity, they won't be needed. In theory they could supply hydrogen at filling stations, just as they now supply gas."

"Okay, forget hydrogen filling stations. What about the fuel cell in your car?" asked Marco.

"People pushing for fuel cells know they are the least practical replacement for gas, and the least likely option to reach the mass-market. If we waste time trying to develop fuel cells, we prolong our dependency on oil."

"What the heck is a fuel cell anyways?" said Marco, getting interested.

"A fuel cell can generate electricity within your car and creates no by-products, other than water and heat. It is efficient, quiet and pollution-free. Except you have to make the chemicals to put there in the first place. And if we all used fuel cells in our cars, there could be a lot of moisture created in the atmosphere, possibly with its own climate-change consequences. Could mean a lotta rain!"


"Okay, a fuel cell uses chemicals to produce electricity. Wow, I'm having I'm getting flashbacks to Mrs Farrell's science class.… We made electricity out of a potato and then got it to power a clock. Then we generated electricity from beakers of liquids with electrodes stuck in them….but was that a fuel cell, or a battery?"

"Don't ask me," shrugged Marco, "I flunked Science."

"Well, I guess a car fuel cell isn't all that different. So, a fuel cell is a gadget that converts electrochemical energy into electrical energy! So, a hydrogen fuel cell converts hydrogen and oxygen into water, producing electricity as a by-product."

"How is that diferent to a normal battery?"

"The difference between a fuel cell and a battery is that a fuel cell doesn't need recharging because it recharges itself. There is a constant flow of chemicals reacting, to produce electricity. A battery, on the other hand, is a storage device for finite amounts of electrical energy. It has to be filled up again."

"Doesn't that make hydrogen fuel cells better than batteries then?"

"No. There are huge problems that would have to be overcome. Such as how to fit a hydrogen fuel cell into a family car. And how to manufacture the hydrogen to begin with. Hydrogen itself is not an energy source. It uses energy in production and causes pollution. Then there is the problem of how to extract and store hydrogen to supply the fuel cell."

"And a certain group of people would still control our energy source."

"Hey, you're learning fast Marco!"

And the Distraction Continues...

Mr Bush's State of the Union announcement was followed up by legislation which, purportedly, "aims to make fuel cells affordable and practical by the year 2020." A billion dollars has so far been allocated under this program to fuel cell research.

Nobody within the electric car world really believes that fuel cell technology for mass-market cars is ever going to happen. Taxpayers' money could have been put to better use by developing battery technology, or incentivising electric car sales, or even buying out the intellectual property rights to better batteries that are not being used by the companies that own the rights.

Watch this space....while the oilmen's politicians distract the public with talk of fuel cells and hydrogen,

  • Big Oil will be allowed drill for oil in Alaska

  • Climate change will continue

  • The ice caps will melt further.

  • And perhaps there'll even be another oil war.

Because hydrogen fuel cells will not replace oil, or solve our environmental problems. And all the problems that oil has caused us will continue. Hydrogen talk is just same old same old....

A couple of years after his State of the Union announcement, President Bush was still talking about the wonders of hydrogen, at a Renewable Energy Conference. Here he is, see the wind turbines in the background. If you didn't know the full story, you'd almost think something was being done to save the planet from climate catastrophe.

Here is what he said on this occasion....

"Ultimately, in my judgment, one of the ways to make sure that we become fully less dependent on oil is through hydrogen. And we're spending $1.2 billion to encourage hydrogen fuel cells. It's coming, it's coming. It's an interesting industry evolution, to think about your automobiles being powered by hydrogen, and the only emission is water vapor."

Unfortunately, Mr Bush's words are yet another case of cynical politics in action---seeming to do one thing, which the people like, while doing another completely different thing, which vested interests like.

And what does "fully less dependent" mean?

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