TITOLO: Impossible dream: fuel cell fluke.

WRITTEN BY: Lorenzo Matteoli

DATE: July 1st 2008

It’s tough to give up an impossible dream
and it may cost you dearly, but it is necessary
and there is nothing else you can do:
the case of fuel cell H2 cars

Lorenzo Matteoli
Milan June 24th, 2008

clikka qui per il testo in italiano



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 1932 Francis T. Bacon improved the technical device using nickel as a catalyst and an alkaline solution as electrolyte, less corrosive than Grove’s sulphuric acid. His device was called The Bacon Cell. The Bacon cell was perfected in 1959 and in the same year Harry Karl Ihrig, an engineer working with Allis-Chalmers, built the first vehicle moved by a fuel cell: a 20 HP tractor.

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.
The full power of World Research resources challenged the problem for the following 40 years, rightly pursuing  a fantastic dream:  to drive cars without burning fossil fuels and without any environmental pollution.
After forty years and the expenditure of many billions of dollars, it is now abundantly evident that the dream was too good to be true:  Fuel cells fed with hydrogen is an impossible technology, at least as electricity generator in automobile powertrains:

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”.
Forty years of research activity and consistent spending shape up two generations of scientists and engineers, solidly connected within the discipline and the technical field of fuel cells. There are schools, laboratories, academic responsibilities, courses are organized, full tenures are issued. The operators identify themselves totally with the technical field. Experts on electrochemical processes (FC) and of electric powertrains understandably do not deal with what is upstream or downstream, how much hydrogen, how much electricity, how much power, weight, pressure, tanks, grid, network, storage, distribution, packaging, materials and technologies;  not to mention the wider macroeconomic or territorial implications. They deal with the specific technology: electrolytes, catalysts, injection, power trains. They are keen in their pursuit of unbelievable efficiencies and of stunning technical breakthroughs. Like addicted gamblers they cannot “pull the plug”. Even the slightest positive result to them is a sign of the “end of the tunnel”.    This is the equivalent of a huge ocean liner which takes a long stretch of sea to stop it, once it has reached cruising speed.  It takes a vast area of ocean to veer and change the set course, requiring  the captain to see far ahead, with excellent judgment to avoid the collision course.
We have today to re-address the problem and acknowledge some inescapable conditions. We need that long range vision;   we need that captain.

The available processes for the production of Hydrogen are the following:

a. processing coal with hot steam: efficiency 50%; huge amount of CO2
b. from biomass:  efficiency 50%; huge amount of CO2
c. reforming natural gas:  efficiency 70% huge amount of CO2
d. water electrolysis: efficiency 70% huge amount oif electricity needed

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.
Numbers leave no space for dreams:  fuel cell cars fed with hydrogen yield 20-23 units of energy to the wheels for every 100  units of input, whereas electric cars with batteries and braking energy recovery (state of the art and already commercial) yield 70 units to the wheels for every 100 units of primary energy input,  350% more.
With these facts in mind there is no hope of recovering such a huge gap through fuel cells optimization (two three percentage points top estimate), nor through the infrastructural system that is needed to support the hydrogen platform.
It is a dead technology.  Game over!

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.

Giving up a dream is tough, but when the dream is impossible it is the only wise choice: There may be more feasible dreams to cherish and even more feasible opportunities to foster for the money.
Fuel cell based cars have no future.  There will never be an economic viable infrastructure to serve them.  They will never be able to compete with commercial alternatives like the electric car with batteries:  There will never be a market willing to spend 350% more for the energy needed to run them or to spend 300% more for the initial investment needed to buy them.

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.

Ulf Bossel in his inspiring paper “Does a Hydrogen Economy make Sense?” reaches this conclusion, with an accompanying diagram showing that out of 100 units of primary electric energy (from renewable sources) the fuel cell car yields only 19 units (if liquid hydrogen sis used) or 23 units (if gaseous hydrogen is used) whereas an electric car with batteries and braking energy recovery yields 69 units: 3.5 times more.

“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.
The title question “Does a hydrogen economy make sense?” must be answered with a definite “Never.” However niche applications for the use of hydrogen energy are abundant and should be addressed.”

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.
It is clear, in this instance, as well as many others,  that the technical structure and the offices of the European Parliament do not enjoy the support of reliable and authoritative consultants capable of protecting them from the pressures of very powerful lobbies. A cause for concern! Accidents like this will happen repeatedly.

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.”
Absolutely true: the initial correct opening captures the favorable attention of the reader and prepares him for the following less palatable bit:

“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.”
This is the tricky part: the evaluation clearly has not been done. If it had, it should have indicated the enormous amount of primary energy needed to produce hydrogen, the minimal energy density of hydrogen, the proved inefficiency of the Fuel Cell based powertrain, the environmental danger of the hydrogen network and platform, the enormity of power generation structures to produce 3.5 times the electricity needed by a comparable electric car plus battery fleet, transportation, distribution storage and containment dangers of hydrogen hardware and networks, the economic impossibility of setting up a hydrogen infrastructure on the territory in a limited time span.   The economic gap: who wants to pay 350% more to run a F.C. hydrogen car?
If the evaluation has been made, as it certainly has, the results have been kept from the political administrative decision maker, who was no doubt drawn into the decision with the usual fairy tale of the abundance of hydrogen (oceans of it) and of the zero pollution of the F.C. power train.


Hydrogen in combination with fuel cell vehicles have excellent perspectives already in the medium term, but definitely in the long term.”
The eventual outright lie.  Since the year 2000 it was common knowledge that the perspective of F.C. hydrogen fed cars were nil for all the reasons explained above.

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.
Interested industries and the hydrogen lobby promote articles and wonder-stories in the press: about the abundance of hydrogen and about the miracle of zero pollution of fuel cell cars. The details on the real system efficiency of the F.C. car are diligently neglected and ignored. The public has neither the tools nor the time to check and verify these details.  After a while the lay public is convinced: the F.C hydrogen car is the future, there will not be any problem of fuel shortage and there will not be any pollution. A total free ride. ‘Don’t worry, be happy’. The manipulation scheme has also been assisted by the Nobel Prize Carlo Rubbia: while serving as a President of the ENEA (Ente Nazionale Energie Alternative former Ente Nazionale Energia Atomica) in 2006 he launched the powerful institution on a “total hydrogen project” and professed a staunch faith in the hydrogen economy. Rubbia an expert in the field of weak particles interactions, he knows everything about W and Z bosons and muons, is a super specialist who totally lacks the wider complex systemic understanding of energy. Regrettably his authority as a Nobel Prize winner in 1984, which actually brought him to chair the ENEA, intimidated his staff and shielded off any other potential cryticism. Particle physics does not entail the understanding of vast territorial energy systems nor of the energy macroeconomy. Not one of the energy experts in the Enea had any objection: they knew that a hydrogen project for transportation is a Trojan Horse for a nuclear project 3, 4 possibly 6 times the one cancelled in 1987 by the referendum.

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.


On June 23rd 2008 a seminar was held at the Milan FAST (Federation of Scientific and Technical Associations) in which Mr. Andre Martin, responsible for the FCH Project (Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Project) showed a set of power point slides with the scope, methods and stages for the implementation of the Project financed by the European Commission. The seminar was attended by representatives of member industries of the Industrial Grouping by research institutes and from three Italian Regions (Piedmont, Lombardy and Abruzzi) who, for some reason, are stakeholders in the project. After Mr Martin’s presentation there was a debate.
This is what I was able to understand, as an external observer of the interesting event.

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.”
This is a very courageous statement for a radical Copernican revolution. The representative of the Government in Italy  had a completely different platform compared to the Italian representative in Brussels. He was clearly and responsibly calling for a change of course. Maybe too late, after the approval by the Competitiveness Council of the May 30th Agenda. Maybe they belonged to two different Ministries.  Maybe the new Government had not yet issued consistent instructions. Indeed there is a clear policy discrepancy there.

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. 
Many in the audience took notes.  Nobody made any comment. 

The management of  huge research projects requires one basic skill:  To be able to continuously update them and critically redraft them. General and boundary conditions change;  the environment changes; the very first results have a feedback on the initial assumptions. The change must be perceived, interpreted and consistently brought into the contingent management. Courage and accountability are paramount.
Resistance of specific technical staff is dangerous, and it is also dangerous to keep the information off the sensitivity of political management for the sake of sectarian interests.

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.

Lorenzo Matteoli
June 24th 2008


You will find Ulf Bossel “Does a Hydrogen Economy make sense?” at

More information about EHA European Hydrogen Association, at:

Mr. Andre Martin’s dream book at:


More data on the impossible hydrogen dream at: