It’s tough to give up an impossible dream
Post scriptum September 30th 2012
Mr Sergio Marchionne FIAT CEO answering to critics who told him that FIAT after taking the money to research and develop the fuel cell car completely abandoned the project, told them that fuel cell cars do not make any sense and for this reason the project has been dumped. It is not clear if the money of the European Commission has been spent in order to reach this obvious conclusion, widely anticipated in the technical literature and in my article dated June 2008.
Hundreds of Euro millions to reach an obvious conclusion which had been known for decades.
One hundred and seventy years ago a gentleman, in an accidental set of circumstances, invented an electrochemical device that, fed with hydrogen, produced water and electric energy. The year was 1839 and the gentleman was Sir William Grove, a Welsh Judge and inventor. He noticed that if you mixed oxygen and hydrogen in an electrolytic solution, water and electric energy were produced. The invention was later called “fuel cell”, the electric energy yield was too low to be useful – a peculiar trait that was not going to change in time.
The term “fuel cell” was issued fifty years later, in 1889, by Ludwig Mond and Charles Langer.
In 1960 General Electric designed the fuel cell that was adopted by NASA to power satellites, space stations and shuttles. The fuel cells produce water for the astronauts and electricity for the systems on board - clearly a specific niche application.
It is easy to understand how the dream was born to power cars with “fuel cells” and to have millions of them running on the Planet, practically on “water” and with zero environmental pollution: Hydrogen is there for the taking in “ocean loads”, requiring only separation from H2O, and fuel cells emissions were just water and possible drinkable water. The technological hope, appropriate at the time, was to be able to produce hydrogen in reasonable quantities and at a competitive cost and acceptable environmental load. The scientific certainty, so typical of that era, assumed that all the other problems of the “hydrogen economy” could be easily solved: distribution networks, infrastructure, tanks, safety, storage ... The scientific field was virgin and such a hope could be fostered with justified optimism.
A. Hydrogen must be produced, investing a far greater amount of energy than the energy recoverable through the fuel cells.
B. The hydrogen cycle efficiency (fuel cells) from primary electricity to wheels is 19-23% (see Ulf Bossel)
C. The infrastructure needed to support the hydrogen economy requires huge investments and considerable implementation time.
D. The quantity of hydrogen needed would require a huge nuclear investment (30-40 2000GW plants at least in Italy) and Giga sizes of photovoltaic, wind or hydroelectric.
E. There is no viable solution for the tanks on the cars: either too large for gaseous H2 or too heavy for liquid H2.
F. The risk of explosions will be very high on a vast hydrogen network.
G. Competition with electric cars equipped with batteries and with second generation hybrids is impossible, given the high cost of fuel cells (1000 Euros for each KW).
I will now address some aspects which I would qualify as “cultural”.
The available processes for the production of Hydrogen are the following:
a. processing coal with hot steam: efficiency 50%; huge amount of CO2
The first three methods are not acceptable within an environmentally decent strategy. If they have to be associated with CO2 capture and safe storage processes, they are excessively expensive. On top of that irect conversion of the primary fuel (coal, bio, natural gas) would be much more efficient.
The only environmentally acceptable process is water electrolysis, if the primary electricity is produced via photovoltaic solar energy, wind generators, hydroelectric power generation or nuclear power generation - disregarding pollution due to the power generation technologies as unavoidable and neglecting any objection to nuclear power.
Now the lethal comparison: between fuel cell based powertrains and electric cars with second or third generation batteries.
Here is a breakdown of other problems, each one eventually “terminal”:
- Hydrogen tanks on the car: huge and at high pressure if decent mileage is to be attained, (the pressure is extraordinary, 10,152.642 pounds per square inch or 690.84 atmospheres, 6900.84 meters of water column), or a full cryogenic device capable of handling 20 °K (which is minus 253 °C or minus 423.67 °F). This on a family car!
- The supply network is extremely delicate and dangerous (see temperature and pressures above) also due to the possible explosive mixtures related to possible leakages.
- Storage and transportation to places not reached by the hydrogen-duct.
- Leakages from the fuel cell and possibility of explosions.
- Industrial cost of F.C. which is estimated in 1000 € for KW of power compared to the 30 € per KW of internal combustion engines.
For most of these problems and for the many others that the “hydrogen economy” entails, there are no solutions that can be provided by research. Tank pressures of 690 atmospheres and cryogenic tanks capable of handling minus 253 °C, are pretty much technological dead enders. They will always be huge, heavy, complex and expensive tanks. Billions of Euros invested in research can not change basic phisics.
Hydrogen at ambient temperature, for the same amount of energy, has three times the volume needed by natural gas; H2 accelerates the setting-in of micro cracks in steel containers and pipes (hydrogen imbibitions), which implies sophisticated monitoring of the hardware and high danger of explosions due to the formation of self detonating oxygen/hydrogen mixtures.
The power generating structure capable of producing the amount of Hydrogen needed for transportation (30% of the national conversion) is mind boggling: 50, 60 and possibly more 2000MW nuclear power plants, hundreds of square miles of photovoltaic surfaces, hundreds of thousands of windmills, to generate 3.5 times the electric energy needed for a comparable fleet of electric cars with batteries. A simple folly.
Within a time span of than twenty year one will not have tanks of acceptable cost, size and weight to contain the amount of hydrogen needed for an acceptable mileage of an average family car.
“The discussion about hydrogen economy is adding irritation to the energy debate. We need to focus our attention on sustainable energy solutions. It seems that the establishment of an efficient electron economy should become the common goal. There are many topics to be addressed, like electricity storage and automatic electricity transfer to vehicles, yet electric cars equipped with Li-Ion batteries already have a driving range of 250 km. In 2010, Mitsubishi will commercialize an electric car with 260 hp on four wheels and driving range of 500 km. It seems that by focusing attention on hydrogen we are missing the chance to meet the challenges of a sustainable energy future.
Bearing these facts in mind, one logically wonders why the European Parliament, on May 20th 2008, approved an investment proposal for 470 million Euros to finance research on Fuel Cell cars. The vote was a solid 591 in favor, 13 against, 15 abstentions. After that vote the Competitiveness Council unanimously approved the project and the expenditure on May 30th 2008, with no debate.
The decision-making processes of huge political/beaurocracy machines are an interesting jungle to explore. In the specific instance the vote is the final result of a continuous systematic relentless action by a powerful lobby organized by more than one hundred European industrial concerns, members of the EHA (European Hydrogen Association). They have a very contingent specific goal and are not interested in wider strategic issues.
Between the lines of various documents it is possible to find information that allows us to understand how the conditions for this kind of decision are shaped, so that projects for millions of Euros are funded for the sole benefit of specific limited industrial sectors, disregarding facts and data, with consequent damage to a wiser and more rewarding course of action.
Sifting through the abundant promotional literature of the Fuel Cell lobby I found this paragraph which seems to me a good example of the general style:
“There is a broad consensus that the future power-train is electric. Battery vehicles would be the most energy efficient solution. However, by evaluating different secondary energies (e.g. electricity, hydrogen) with respect to energy density, efficiency, environmental aspects and subject to customer performance expectations and infrastructure development (both electricity grid and hydrogen infrastructure), hydrogen in combination with fuel cell vehicles have excellent perspectives already in the medium term, but definitely in the long term.”
This is the critical analysis of the paragraph:
“There is a broad consensus that the future power-train is electric.”
“However, by evaluating different secondary energies (e.g. electricity, hydrogen) with respect to energy density, efficiency, environmental aspects and subject to customer performance expectations and infrastructure development (both electricity grid and hydrogen infrastructure.”
“Hydrogen in combination with fuel cell vehicles have excellent perspectives already in the medium term, but definitely in the long term.”
Nevertheless, the dream of billions of cars running all over the Planet on “water” with zero pollution has an overwhelming appeal, which has nothing to do with its practical feasibility. Many industries had already spent huge sums in research and that money had to be recovered at the expense of some public institution, given the fact that an abundant and lucrative market was not, and never will be available.
So on May 20th, 2008 the European Parliament, comfortable under the soft duvet of false information, without the assistance of reliable and authoritative technical experts, sets out the investment of four hundred and seventy million Euros that will not yield any result except the shower of money on the industries of the EHA lobby and members of the technology industrial grouping “fuel cells”. One way to invest in research. Regrettably the wrong one.
1. Mr. Martin’s made a clear and elegant power-point presentation, with block diagrams, methods and sequences, coordination goals and deadlines. There was no reference to energy, transportation or mobility conditions, demand or markets, nor quantitative data. Hydrogen availability is not a problem, it’s a given. The main purpose of the presentation was to invite member industries to submit research projects. Four hundred million Euros make seductive bait.
2. Mr. Martin’s answer to my question: Whether any attention had ever been paid to the practical meaning of a hydrogen economy on the territory and in terms of infrastructure, is vague, (i.e. number of nuclear power plants, square miles of photovoltaic, thousands of wind generators, dams for hydroelectric power etc.). He states that the solution to the problem cannot be just electric cars. There must also be a “fluid” fuel solution, (although he does not elaborate on the motivation of this assumption). Mr. Martin also states that projected “renewable” energy potentials of Europe (solar, wind, hydro, nuclear) are enough to cover the needs of mobility and transportation. Mr. Martin also asked me, with a patronizing smile, if I think that a hundred EHA member industries and institutions can be wrong. His smile is more meaningful than his words. I do not challenge him but I think that all the EHA member industries are the ones that seek the European Commission’s money. Other authoritative institutions and industries may have very different ideas (i.e. industries related to battery equipped electric cars). That would be an interesting debate.
3. The representatives of the Regions make their own very strong stand. They want to manage the allocation of funds. They want to control the taps because, they say, they know the territory. It’s a mere political issue. None of them is interested in the real problem - the fact that the basic idea of the project is obsolete. The only interesting facts are the four hundred and seventy millions. Some authority in the distribution of the funds is, understandably, the clear and present interest of the beaurocrats.
4. Dr. Garibaldi, the representative of the Government (Ministry of the Environment) hit the mark. He said, in a very outspoken way, (rare in Italian public affairs), “we have been wasting hundreds of millions in petty research projects dealing with scarcely relevant details without addressing the basic questions: how much hydrogen do we need, how can we produce it, with what kind of energy and with how much energy? We are not interested in processes that yield energy vectors associated with huge volumes of CO2, neither do we care about one or two percentage points more of fuel cell efficiency, when this does not bring any significant weight to the overall system efficiency of the whole set of processes. There will always be waste if industries keep their proposals within such limited technical scope. We must overhaul the whole concept, redefine scopes, thoroughly change the paradigm.”
5. A representative of industry, Mr. Bassi (Fiat), informed the audience that industries were not that hot any more on the fuel cell issue for automobiles. The technical problems of replacing a hydrogen tank on family cars do not seem to be solved and there does not seem to be a viable solution, (for the size, weight, or technology of the tanks). Most of the same problems (high pressure, huge volume or low temperature) affect the hydrogen infrastructural territorial network.
To be able to read the reality, to perceive the signs of change, anticipate them and incorporate them into the contingent operation - This is the winning paradigm.
My advice to the members of the industrial group of the FC&H Project and to the responsible officers of the European Commission: reset you basic assumptions and reassess the whole paradigm. You may have better chances of success than by keeping a dead duck on an expensive life-support line.
More information about EHA European Hydrogen Association, at:
Mr. Andre Martin’s dream book at:
More data on the impossible hydrogen dream at: