Are Hydrogen Cars the Answer?

This is Part 2 of a three-part series on Vehicle Fuels and Technology.

1. Plug-in Cars: The Lowdown
2. Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles
3. Fossil Fuels and Biofuels

The author of today’s post, Sheryl Canter, is an Online Writer and Editorial Manager at Environmental Defense.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles got a big boost when President Bush made them part of his 2003 State of the Union address:

Tonight I’m proposing $1.2 billion in research funding so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles… With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom, so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free.

That generated a lot of interest in hydrogen cars! So what are they, and can they become mainstream in the next 20 years?

Honda FCX fuel-cell car.
Honda FCX fuel-cell car.

Hydrogen fuel cells take in hydrogen and oxygen, and put out water, heat, and electricity – no pollution at all. Sounds good, but there’s a catch – producing the hydrogen fuel can itself generate significant greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. And that’s not the only serious problem.

Honda is the first company to put a fuel cell demonstration car into the hands of ordinary consumers. Yet as Steve Ellis, Honda’s Manager of Fuel Cell Vehicles, told me hydrogen-powered cars are not likely to be mainstream for another 10 to 20 years. Many industry analysts put the number at well over 20 years, and some think it will never fly. All agree it’s not a near-term solution.

Chevrolet Sequel fuel-cell car.
Chevrolet Sequel fuel-cell car.

Joseph Romm, in "The Hype about Hydrogen", notes five main problems with hydrogen cars as they currently stand:

  1. They are extremely expensive, currently costing around $1 million (for example, the GM Sequel and Honda’s FCX). Most of this cost is in the fuel cells. If history is any guide, it will take decades for the cost to come down sufficiently.
  1. On-board fuel storage is a huge problem – literally – since at room temperature and pressure, hydrogen takes up 3000 times more space than an energy-equivalent amount of gasoline. There are several ways to store hydrogen, but all known approaches are complex and costly.

Storing hydrogen as a liquid isn’t practical because it takes so much energy to liquefy and then convert back to gas. Storing it as compressed gas requires 300 to 600 times atmospheric pressure, and even then the tanks take up more than five times the space of a gasoline tank.

A National Academies study [PDF] noted, "In even the best case of improved compression efficiency and high pressure on-board tanks, the energy, space, cost, and weight penalties are formidable." It goes on to recommend that the U.S. "halt efforts on high-pressure tanks and cryogenic liquid storage" since "neither approach can reach DOE targets for energy density". A Department of Energy review reached a similar conclusion.

  1. There are serious safety issues with hydrogen fuel since it’s among the most flammable substances known. It is vastly easier to ignite than gasoline, and leaks are much harder to detect and control. A cell phone or flashlight could ignite it, as could static electricity or an electric storm a few miles away.

Russell Moy, former Project Manager for hydrogen storage at Ford Motor Company, wrote about this in an article for the Energy Law Journal [PDF]: "Industrial experience has shown that 22 percent of hydrogen accidents are caused by undetected leaks, despite the standard operating procedures… of specially trained hydrogen workers. With this track record, it is difficult to imagine how the general public can manage hydrogen risks acceptably." Chemical Engineer Reuel Sinnar put it even more strongly [PDF]: "A hydrogen car as presently envisioned is a potential suicide bomb that cannot be detected by any of the standard methods that detect explosives."

  1. Producing hydrogen is expensive and energy-intensive [PDF]. The same energy currently used to create electricity would be used to create hydrogen, and today this mostly involves the use of fossil fuels (see House testimony of Dr. John Heywood of MIT). Current methods using natural gas produce significant CO2 emissions, and there is a serious question of whether a renewable fuel used to create hydrogen wouldn’t be better used to replace electricity now generated from coal, since generating electricity is much more efficient than producing hydrogen power for vehicles.
  1. There’s no fueling station infrastructure for hydrogen.

Building a hydrogen fuel infrastructure will be very expensive. A National Renewable Energy Laboratory report estimates the cost at $837 million [PDF]. Others say it could be tens of billions of dollars.

Companies hesitate to build something so expensive when there are no cars to use it. Similarly, automakers are reluctant to manufacture hydrogen cars when there’s no infrastructure, because consumers won’t buy them if they can’t fuel them. This is generally referred to as the "chicken-and-egg" problem.

There’s another obstacle to infrastructure. Ideally, hydrogen would be produced in a central location so carbon emissions from its manufacture could be efficiently sequestered. But that isn’t set up yet, so initially the hydrogen would be created locally. No one wants to invest large amounts of money in an infrastructure that will be abandoned.

All these problems may be solvable, but it will take time. And you can’t necessarily trust the automakers’ predictions. In 2001, our automobile expert, John DeCicco, Ph.D., wrote an in-depth review of fuel cell vehicles [PDF] for the Society of Automotive Engineers. In it he noted that "Several automakers have pledged the introduction of fuel cell vehicles, including buses, by 2003-2005." It’s 2007, and beyond a few demos I don’t see them yet! Dr. DeCicco considers the hydrogen car an "utterly speculative proposition."

Maybe we’ll have hydrogen fuel cell vehicles by 2030, but in 20 years, who knows? Perhaps some new and better technology will come along, and research into hydrogen power will be abandoned. None of us can know which technology will be the future, but we do know this: the world can’t wait 20 years to reduce CO2 emissions from vehicles. So while the hydrogen car is worth researching for the long term, the heavy emphasis placed on it by the Bush Administration is ill-considered.

GM has said that the government shouldn’t require it to focus on near-term fuel economy improvement because it would detract from its fuel cell work. Given the urgency of the global warming problem, it would be a serious mistake not to explore the many more accessible ways to cut carbon emissions while waiting for a silver bullet.

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  1. jeng
    Posted August 14, 2007 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    There are so many fallacies in this article that I don’t even know where to begin. Fuel cell vehicles are expensive yes, but the $1 million pricetag is because they are handmade right now, one at a time (and they aren’t for sale). Once they are commercialized and manufacturing processes are streamlined like today’s automobiles, the price will come way, way down. Plus, fuel cells are used for numerous other applications – stationary power, backup/telecom, consumer electronics and other transportation applications such as buses and forklifts – they are commercialized for some of these markets and are more cost effective than today’s technologies. These installations/demonstrations/sales will also help bring down the cost of the vehicles.

    Hydrogen is lighter than air and dissipates quickly, so if there happens to be a leak, the flame would burn away from the car and die out fast. Gasoline is heavier than air and when there is a leak, it pools up underneath the car, which would in turn, blow up the entire car. Hydrogen is as safe, if not safer than other fuels –

    There is already an industrial hydrogen infrastructure in place today. There are more than 80 hydrogen fueling stations in the U.S. alone, a lot more worldwide. Companies are working on personal units that people could have at their homes. The gasoline future isn’t free – according to the IEA, it will cost around 3 billion dollars to keep our gasoline infrastructure able to meet new demand by 2030, why not invest in hydrogen?

    It does take energy to make hydrogen, but fuel cells are two-to-three times more efficient than today’s internal combustion engines, so overall, it is more efficient and provides more energy than gasoline.

    I could go on and on debunking this article, but my fingers are tired.

  2. Posted August 14, 2007 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Aw, go on debunking the article – your fingers can’t be that tired. Seriously – I’m interested in what you have to say. I did a lot of research for this article (as you can see from all the links), and this is the consensus I found. If you have new or different information that you can document, I’m very interested. Are you with

    I want to emphasize that this article is meant only to be a description of the technology, not a judgement of it. We aren’t “against” hydrogen fuel cell cars or any other specific technology. I think research should continue on all fronts, and I will be on the cheering squad if the necessary break-throughs are made.

  3. JBL1
    Posted August 14, 2007 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    You’ve pretty much stated all one side against hydrogen and I don’t think that’s the general consensus at all.

    First off, we’ve got to start doing something now and it has to be away from oil and gasoline. Batteries won’t do it because they won’t work for anything except small range city cars. A truck would have to carry more batteries than goods. And electric power plants mostly use coal which is bretty bad for the environment, too.

    Hydrogen gives us a start on a path today that has a chance ofr being really effective. It doesn’t have to only be for fuel cells. At about $3.50 a gallon for gasoline, today’s hydrogen can be used in a slightly modified ICE (that’s a regular auto engine) and be more cost effective and less polluting than oil/gasoline. Getting all the way to renewable energy and fuel cells really will make a significant difference but we don’t have to wait.

  4. Posted August 15, 2007 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    > You’ve pretty much stated all one side against hydrogen and I don’t think that’s the general consensus at all.

    Here’s the thing… It’s easy to say I’ve stated all one side, but it’s harder to actually show the other side – that is, refute the studies I cited with hard data. I’m very interested to hear any updates – that is, concrete data that answers the difficulties pointed to in the research I linked to.

    The sources I used were government-commissioned studies, studies from major universities like MIT, sworn House testimony, and the like. These are reliable sources. I could not find similarly reliable sources that refute these findings, though of course I looked. I have no axe to grind, no technology bias. I want to find an alternate to fossil fuels as much as the next person – maybe more!

    Most of the studies I found were done in 2003-2004, just after Bush made his State of the Union address committing to hydrogen power. Our in-house car expert, John DeCicco, said there hasn’t been any movement yet, and the most recent source I found confirms this (see this Popular Mechanics article from November 2006).

    > First off, we’ve got to start doing something now and it has to be away from oil and gasoline.

    I totally agree we have to start doing something now. I’d just say we shouldn’t limit ourselves to researching new technology. We must simultaneously seek to improve the fuel efficiency of current technology since the new technology is not a near-term solution – everyone agrees on that.

    As for whether the long-term solution will be plug-in cars, hydrogen cars, or something else… There’s no way to know, since in all cases major technological breakthroughs are needed. They surely will come, but we don’t know from which direction, so it’s best not to put all our eggs in one basket.

  5. ccr9405
    Posted August 15, 2007 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Hydogen cars are still cars, they generate tons of emissions during the manufacturing process as parts are shipped all over the world for assembly, and they do nothing to address the significant transportation problems faced particularly in the US where suburban developments continue to be designed with absoultely no mass transportation links in mind. If Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp took the train instead of tooling around in a car, it would be a lot more cool (not to mention leaving the Gulfstream at home)–and environmental activists should be taking on the issues of transportation as the key priority, not promoting hydrogen cars.

  6. PatrickS
    Posted August 15, 2007 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Hard data? Seriously? I’m sorry, but Joe Romm’s book is not hard data and this article does not represent consensus. There are a few valid points hidden in the article above, but the tragedy is that they’re trumped by one-sided blanket comments that are simply not true like the serious safety issues comment, to list one example.

    There are NOT serious safety concerns related to hydrogen as this article protrays. The products that are out there are safe to handle and use and the companies that have developed them would have it no other way. Sure, hydrogen is a flammable fuel, like gasoline or the natural gas we use inside our homes, so it must be handled properly, but it is no more dangerous than any of ther fuels we use. In fact there are many attributes that give hydrogen a safety advantage over other fuels. If the other half of these comments was better explained, we would all be in a better place. (see resources below)

    Alright, enough complaining. How about something useful:

    Want some hard data on near-term hydrogen applications including life cycle analyses and costs because there ARE near-term ways that hydrogen can make a positive impact:

    Hydrogen Safety:

    JenG’s comments above are right on. It makes no sense to reference the $1million/vehicle number because they are not being sold at that amount, nor will they ever be. The next generation Toyota Camry would cost $1million too if it were hand made and pre-production. For some real analyses on costs see:

    Hydrogen Infrastructure:
    There is already a hydrogen infrastructure. Yes, it will need to be expanded significantly for personal vehicle use, but we are not starting from scratch as everyone trying to be dramatic likes to say. One gas company makes OVER 12,000 deliveries each year. That’s more than 1,000 each month. 2 million standard cubic feet of hydrogen are delivered each day by tube trailer, another 10 million SCF by liquid truck every day and over 100 million SCF by pipeline. That’s just part of the hydrogen infrastructure that exists today. Want to know where the hydrogen fueling stations are today?

    This is not the worst article I’ve read; I can see that there was some effort put into identifying sources–not something most writers take the time to do on blogs (so you’re left to guess where the assumptions came from); and I can see from the other responses that the author has good intentions. However, the execution in this case is poor and the bolded statements that outline this article are simply biased and one-sided. Readers, please take the opportunity to look into the other elements of the hydrogen industry. There are challenges, but they are being overcome and there are a pile of benefits to take advantage of once more products enter the marketplace.

  7. Posted August 15, 2007 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    In case anyone’s interested, here’s a link to where GM says that government-mandated emission limits divert resources from the development of advanced technologies. This document is from June 2007, but apparently they’ve been saying this for a long time because John DeCicco’s 2001 report also quotes them as saying this.

    General Motors Report – June 2007 [PDF]

    See page 22, second paragraph under the “Mandates” subhead:

    “Government mandates… can… yield only incremental improvements in energy efficiency at high private and social costs while diverting limited resources from the development of advanced technologies.”

  8. Posted August 15, 2007 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    PatrickS – thanks for your comment. (It got waylayed in the moderation queue because of the many links – that’s why it didn’t appear immediately.)

  9. jmsthurber
    Posted August 16, 2007 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    The argument that “It does take energy to make hydrogen, but fuel cells are two-to-three times more efficient than today’s internal combustion engines, so overall, it is more efficient and provides more energy than gasoline.” is fallacious.

    While it is true that fuel cells are far more efficient in releasing energy through the combustion of fuel than an internal combustion engine, this comparison does not take into account the energy that is required to generate the fuel.

    Once this is considered, fuel cells are far less energy efficient than internal combustion engines. Internal combustion engines provide a portable means of releasing the energy that was originally generated by photosynthesis by ancient organisms, thus precluding the need to generate energy.

  10. jeng
    Posted August 16, 2007 at 2:25 pm | Permalink


    With fuel cells, there is no combustion – the electricity is produced electrochemically. You are also wrong with your conclusion that fuel cells are far less energy efficient than ICE’s.

    Well-to-Wheel analyses compare the entire pathway of producing, storing, distributing and utilizing fuel. They can compare efficiencies and energy needs for the many different hydrogen production methods as compared to different fuels and vehicle technologies. Well-to-Wheel studies have found that most, but not all, of the fuel cell vehicle/fuel combinations being considered achieve significant energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission benefits over existing and other advanced technologies. The best performing fuel cell vehicles and fuel combinations do far better than the alternatives. Fuel Choices for Fuel-Cell Vehicles: Well-to-Wheels Energy and Emission Impacts by Michael Wang combines and analyzes all of the Well-to-Wheels studies. is his abstract, – power point presentation.

  11. PatrickS
    Posted August 16, 2007 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Here are some conservative hard numbers that we use on how overall, hydrogen vehicles can still be more efficient than gasoline vehicles.

    Well to tank: 82%
    Tank to wheels: 18%
    Overall: 15%

    Well to tank: 64% (using natural gas)
    Tank to wheels: 53%
    Overall: 34%

    THAT’S why overall, it’s more efficient. Oh yeah, and that’s even using natural gas which also reduces emissions by at least 10-40% percent. The electrochemical conversion in fuel cells is so far superior than a gasoline internal combustion engine, overall the efficiency is greater with this combination of hydrogen technologies.

  12. johnshaw
    Posted August 18, 2007 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the article.


    Well to Wheels studies of different fuel technologies have shown hydrogen to be more efficient than the current gasoline internal combustion engines. However, both in terms of the amount of hydrocarbons that would be required and the production of greenhouse gases, H2 Fuel Cell cars are worse than many of the other alternative technologies, such as diesel hybrid.

    One such study was produced by the MIT Energy Laboratory:

    As others have correctly pointed out, hydrogen is not a serious safey problem (compared to gasoline) in a open area where it can quickly dissipate.

    The problem with hydrogen is in a closed area, such as a garage (home garage or parking garage) where it can accumulate and produce an explosion hazard.

    It is difficult to estimate the cost of adding the infrastructure to provide a large number of H2 stations. However, with other technologies that use currently available gasoline or diesel fuels, there will be no new infrastructure cost.

    Rather than making the investment in H2 fuel cell technology and H2 production and distribution technology, it would be better to encourage the use of such technologies as diesel or gasoline hybrid engines, particularly for large fleet vehicles such as garbage trucks, busses, and delivery trucks. Governments can mandate that government purchased vehicles use such technologies and encourage their use by consumers.

    In the future, perhaps technologies such as solar electricity production will allow non-hydocarbon technologies (perhaps battery operated electric or fuel cell hydrogen) to be used.

  13. jmsthurber
    Posted August 19, 2007 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    I would like to toss out a speculative (goofy?) idea concerning establishing a hydrogen grid for which I hope to hear for feedback.

    There has been some speculation about using wind power generated in the great plains to generate hydrogen which could be transported via a high pressure line to a large market, such as Chicago, to be used as a transportation fuel. (

    As I understand it the problem with this is that there is no market in place for the hydrogen, as the distribution system does not exist for using the hydrogen as a transportation fuel.

    I wonder if we shouldn’t be looking at the problem backwards. What if we were to transport the hydrogen to markets to generate electrical power, rather that to be used initially as a transportation fuel. This would reduce the use of fossil fuels for power generation as well as to underwrite the establishment of wind generation capacity and regional hydrogen trunk lines. The trunk lines could be extended later into a hydrogen grid as the transportation market is developed.

    Does this make any sense?

  14. johnshaw
    Posted August 20, 2007 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    The problem with a hydrogen grid (pipeline network) is cost. To build a pipeline network now would be extremely expensive due to the need to buy the land and lay pipe. Also, compressing and pumping H2 is very inefficient and expensive. This would be on top of the expense and inefficiency of converting electric power to H2 through electrolysis of water.

    It would be far cheaper to connect wind power or solar power to the existing electric grid to reduce the need to produce power by burning coal.

    The problem with hydrogen is that it is not a source of energy. The hydrogen that exist in nature is already in molecules of water or hydrocarbons (natural gas, oil, coal). The amount of energy that it takes to separate the hydrogen from the oxygen (water molecule) or carbon (hydrocarbon molecule) is the same at the amount of energy that would be produced by a fuel cell or hydrogen combustion, assuming perfect efficiency. Of course there is no such thing as perfect efficiency. The actual efficiencies would be far from perfect.

    Because, at normal temperatures and pressures, the amount of space that would be required for a given energy content of hydrogen is extremely large, it would be necessary to compress or liquefy the hydrogen. These process consume large amounts of energy.

    We must keep in mind that if the objective is to reduce consumption of oil or production of greenhouse gas, hydrogen is not an alternative energy source. It can function only as a means of storage or transportation of energy, but a very poor means at that.

  15. P_Top
    Posted September 12, 2007 at 1:43 am | Permalink

    To the poeple against this and the authur (using .gov info that is 6 years old) is this ?. Are you all making a living off of oil or a company that makes its money from the oil industry? Jeng and PatrickS said all i was thinking while reading your out of date and one sided info. If your going to care about these issues be part of embracing any way away from gasoline starting with ev’s that we watched gm and the gov kill then move to phev and watch it morph into the hydrogen vehicle, because the hydrogen vehicle is a phev using hydrogen as the range extender. the ev conversion market is very strong. picture a day when you can drive your first vehicle or a 57 chevy powered by a more clean way than anyone has ever dreamed use your power and energy to help not cut down some miner set backs and consevitive ways of thinking. the more of these vehicles on the road the more accustome people will become. Well if your rich because of oil then i understand the way you talk.

  16. rwjonessr
    Posted September 14, 2007 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Are Hydrogen cars the answer, not ENTIRELY but it’s a darn start, and we just absolutly MUST start somewhere. When the darn boat is leaking from mutiple places you attempt to patch them all. HSRT (High Speed Rail Transportation – reverse magnetic polarity monorail’s as in Japan and elsewhere, hydrogen cars, and everything else we can come up with is the solution. One thing that IS NOT the answer is the present status quo. Our nation must be made aware and made to believe that this is not only urgent but a doable task. There is a hidden plus to this – JOBS!. We simply must emplore tactic’s similar to the old WPA program Mr. Roosevelt used and turn our country around and off of the oil addiction we are on. Even third world country’s wont take our cars. You can’t market one in China even due to the fact that they do not meet the Chinese governments environmental standards. It’s a disgrace. God Bless all of you for taking an attack stance on this subject. This is the WAR we must win or our grandchildren will not have an Earth as we know it.

  17. Greg B.
    Posted September 30, 2007 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately, Sheryl has repeated arguments made by Romm that are myths.

    For those that want to see a breakdown of the myths, I have written the following detailed blog post titled “The Hype Against Hydrogen: Setting the Record Straight on Six Hydrogen Myths Perpetuated by Joseph Romm.”

    Here is a summary of the myths:

    Myth #1 – Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are decades away because fuel cells are 50 times as expensive as they need to be

    Reality – If they are mass produced, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will be competitive with gasoline-powered internal combustion engine vehicles beginning in three or four years

    Myth #2 – Hybrid vehicles are as efficient as fuel cell vehicles

    Reality – Fuel cells are twice as efficient as internal combustion engines

    Myth #3 – Plug-in hybrids are better than hydrogen fuel cell cars (for whatever reason)

    Reality – Plug-in hybrid technology can be used in hydrogen fuel cell cars, so any benefits of plug-in hybrids will also be realized by hydrogen cars

    Myth #4 – Hydrogen fuel is three times as expensive as it needs to be in order to be competitive

    Reality – The cost of hydrogen will be $4 to $6 per kilogram, which is equivalent to gasoline at $2 to $3 per gallon, due to the efficiency of fuel cells

    Myth #5 – Making hydrogen for use in cars is not a good use of renewable energy

    Reality – There is more than enough renewable energy to produce both electricity for homes and businesses and hydrogen for cars

    Myth #6 – The high cost of building a hydrogen infrastructure means hydrogen should not be pursued

    Reality – The cost of building a hydrogen infrastructure will be high, but far less expensive than the costs that will have to be paid if the current path is maintained

  18. used cars
    Posted November 14, 2007 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    I read a very interesting article on alternative fuel sources for Cars at

    Maybe Algae is the way to go. See page 6 of the article above

  19. Posted November 15, 2007 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    That does look interesting, but I’m no expert on algae. I’ll ask some of our car experts here what they think.

    I’m about to go on vacation for a week so you may not hear back from me right away.