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Hydrogen vehicles aren't too eco-friendly in terms of carbon emissions, according to an in-depth new study.  (Source: Web Wombat)
Study indicates plug-ins feature a lower emissions life than gas vehicles, but hydrogen vehicles feature greater emissions

The hydrogen vehicle movement appears stalled.  The push to use the diatomic gas as auto fuel never exactly made it off the ground due to a lack of infrastructure -- production, distribution, and storage facilities.  However, for a time automakers like Toyota and Honda were pushing ahead with testing of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. 

Even this year, news leaked that GM was considering launching a commercial fuel cell vehicle in 2015, despite lack of support for the hydrogen movement from U.S. President Barack Obama.  However, of late, the big automakers like Toyota and Honda have backed off the effort to push hydrogen vehicles onto the market.

A new study might put another road block in front of the prospect of a near term commercial hydrogen vehicle release, while giving the plug-in vehicle movement a nice boost.  The study was authored by Ryan McCarthy at the University of California, Davis and published in the Journal of Power Sources. The ground-breaking study, entitled "Determining marginal electricity for near-term plug-in and fuel cell vehicle demands in California: Impacts on vehicle greenhouse gas emissions", examines the emissions impact of hydrogen and plug-in vehicles versus their gas counterparts.

Lowering carbon emissions to fight warming, along with high fuel prices and global-political instability, has been a key driving factor for the adoption of hybrids and alternative fuels.  The new study, though, judged hydrogen vehicles to be an utter failure at that objective, in their current state.  The study concluded, "All of the pathways except for [fuel cell vehicles] using hydrogen from electrolysis reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions compared to ICEs and [hybrid electric vehicles]."

It doesn't dissuade further research into hydrogen vehicles; it simply indicates they are unlikely to be ready for showtime anytime soon.  It points out that steam methane reforming is a promising emerging method of hydrogen production that may one day allow hydrogen driven vehicles to actually live up to their emissions promises.

In the near term, the study finds that plug-in electric vehicles are the best option in terms of lowering carbon emissions.  Despite using electricity mostly generated by "relatively inefficient steam- and combustion-turbine plants" the well-to-wheel carbon impact of EVs is still significantly lower than hybrids.

While by no means the definitive study on the topic, the new work does much to fill in the gap in knowledge about what exactly the true impact of green vehicles are.  While the topic of on-the-road emissions has been well researched, there's been much less progress in examining the full lifetime impact of vehicles.  Now, that lifecycle has been examined in depth and EV advocates can put another feather in their caps, while hydrogen advocates are once again handed another setback.

The study may play a crucial role in forming the policy of California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard, an effort to reduce the carbon impact of transportation.  And given that President Barack Obama's Environmental Protection Agency has embraced California's emissions policy, the new study could have a profound impact on the course of regulations and the auto market nationally, as well.

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By TOAOCyrus on 12/31/2009 2:50:44 PM , Rating: 1
Shouldn't this also be true for electric vehicles? Electricity powers the car or makes the hydrogen that powers the car. Same thing in the end. All the more reason to go completely nuclear I guess.

RE: electrolysis...
By Motoman on 12/31/2009 2:51:23 PM , Rating: 1
Intuitively, I think EV cars probably have a worse carbon footprint than ICE cars...

...but I am pretty sure it's worse for H2, since I'm guessing it takes a lot more energy to pop H2 from H2O than it does to charge a battery.

RE: electrolysis...
By H24U on 1/30/2010 8:32:09 PM , Rating: 2
Not necessarily true. It takes hours to charge a battery, and minutes to fuel with hydrogen.

Yes the battery is marginally more efficient, about 5% more efficient. H2 generation and dispensing is about 85% efficient. Batteries are about 90% efficient. Not that much of a difference to be worth waiting hours to charge. Also the cost of retrofitting the residential electric infrastructure (which is designed for 2-3 kw/h peak/house, whereas recharging in less than 2 days will require as much as 10 kw/h/house. The residential infrastructure is not able to handle even a fraction of an increase in demand, much less a 300% - 400% increase.) is in the trillions of dollars, as opposed to about $12 billion to transition to renewable hydrogen dispensing nationwide.

Paul Staples

RE: electrolysis...
By UncleRufus on 12/31/2009 3:13:25 PM , Rating: 2
I'm not sure the ratio, but it apparently takes alot more energy to create hydrogen fuel than you get when you use it.

RE: electrolysis...
By AnnihilatorX on 12/31/2009 3:24:05 PM , Rating: 3
Genetically modified algae is the way to go I think

RE: electrolysis...
By Mitch101 on 1/1/2010 10:39:22 AM , Rating: 2
So agree its an obvious winner and so annoyed its not being pushed harder.

Its everywhere so it doesn't need to be transported far at all unlike Oil coming all the way from the middle east or elsewhere.

In some places its a menace and they cant get rid of it enough. Suddenly their waste has a purpose.

It doesn't take any food away from Humans and Livestock. Lets keep corn for food and the many other products its used in.

My former roomates bathroom seemed to be an unlimited supply of it. Black gold was everywhere. :)

RE: electrolysis...
By icrf on 12/31/2009 3:46:42 PM , Rating: 2
Yeah, electrolysis is highly inefficient.

RE: electrolysis...
By H24U on 1/30/2010 8:38:43 PM , Rating: 2
Welcome to the real world of thermodynamics. There is no free lunch. You never get more energy out of a system than you put into it. It is impossible. Newton said so, so does Einstein and every high school science class!

Electrolysis is 85% efficient. Batteries are 90% efficient. From there everything is pretty much the same except fueling time, 4-8 hours to recharge vs 5 minutes to refill w/hydrogen.

Paul Staples

RE: electrolysis...
By KCjoker on 12/31/2009 6:19:10 PM , Rating: 2
Yep, guess how that electricity is made...a lot of it is made with coal.

RE: electrolysis...
By RussianSensation on 12/31/2009 9:51:55 PM , Rating: 2
Maybe in your country. Some countries like Canada are shifting away from using coal to create electricity. For instance, Ontario is banning the use of coal by 2014 and the sale of Incandescent Bulbs by 2012.

RE: electrolysis...
By Alexvrb on 12/31/2009 10:15:48 PM , Rating: 2
Good. More coal for those of us that don't believe that the "science is settled".

RE: electrolysis...
By apcguru on 12/31/09, Rating: 0
RE: electrolysis...
By Hoser McMoose on 1/2/2010 10:55:18 AM , Rating: 2
Good. More coal for those of us that don't believe that the "science is settled".

The science that coal produces a crapload of air pollution is ABSOLUTELY settled!

I'm not too horribly worried about greenhouse gas emissions but I absolutely think we should phase out coal power plants due to the horrendous quantities of air pollution they produce. (Aside: as I mentioned in another post, us in Ontario will NOT really phase out coal by 2014, let alone by 2007 as was originally promised).

What's most distressing is the sorry state of North America's coal plants. MOST (60-75% of them) don't even have scrubbers! This is 1970's era technology that STILL hasn't been implemented to this day on most of our plants. There's absolutely no excuse for that and we collectively pay BILLIONS in health care costs (either via taxes or raised health insurance premiums) because of it.

Exactly how much is tough to say, but by many estimates we pay as much in health care costs to deal with the pollution from coal power as we do for the power itself. For example, check out the following link:

They estimate the total cost of coal pollution at $64B per year, or 3.2 cents/kWh. That has NOTHING to do with global warming, climate change, etc. etc. This is just straight-up pollution that kills an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people per year in the U.S.

RE: electrolysis...
By Hoser McMoose on 1/2/2010 10:42:34 AM , Rating: 2
For instance, Ontario is banning the use of coal by 2014 and the sale of Incandescent Bulbs by 2012.

Keep in mind that our government also promised to phase out coal power by 2007... and then 2009. Now that date has been pushed back to 2014 but they've still only closed one of the 5 coal power plants in this province.

Note that they aren't "banning" the use of coal, just a politicians promise to shut down coal power plants. And this particular politician doesn't have a very good record of keeping his promises even relative to other politicians!

I can guarantee you right now that Ontario will NOT shut down the remaining 4 coal plants by 2014. They *MIGHT* be able to shut down 3 of the 4, but nobody has a plan for how to replace Nanticoke (the largest coal plant in North America). It's not just the amount of power it produces, Nanticoke also plays a vital role in stabilizing generating capacity and our electrical transmission facilities in this province. Building new natural gas generating stations in Milton and Oakville won't fix this.

As for banning incandescent bulbs, this will go through even though it makes no sense. There are many situations where the environmental impact of an incandescent bulb is LOWER than a compact florescent bulb, even if in general the latter is better.

In any case in 2011 Ontario will, in all probability, have a new government.

RE: electrolysis...
By H24U on 1/30/2010 8:44:21 PM , Rating: 2
No one is advocating coal. Everyone is proposing solar, wind, wave, geothermal, etc.

Stop passing on lies and false propaganda from the battery industry.

And algae is a non starter. The contamination of our waterways and oceans are just too dangerous to chance.

Paul Staples

RE: electrolysis...
By Hoser McMoose on 1/2/2010 10:32:33 AM , Rating: 2
Shouldn't this also be true for electric vehicles? Electricity powers the car or makes the hydrogen that powers the car.

The difference is in the efficiency of things. A Li-Ion cell can manage better than 95% charge/discharge efficiency, so you're losing VERY little power from your wall socket to your wheels.

With hydrogen and electrolysis from water you're only about 60% efficient, so you're taking a big hit there. Then you put that hydrogen through a fuel cell that, optimistically, might be 70% efficient (current hydrogen fuel cells are at about 50%). So wall-socket to wheels you've lost more than half your energy.

RE: electrolysis...
By Solandri on 1/2/2010 2:58:17 PM , Rating: 4
Thing is, in the grand scheme of things, neither is a very efficient means of converting energy into transport. If that's what we were primarily worried about, we'd all be using trains and subways (rail is super-efficient for transportation, easily exceeding 10x what a car can manage in energy consumed per passenger-mile).

Hydrogen is competing as an energy storage medium. Even with all the problems of compression and lower efficiency, 400 lbs of hydrogen storage gets you a lot more energy (and thus range) than 400 lbs of Li-ion batteries. Measured by weight or volume, batteries absolutely suck as an energy storage medium. They Chevy Volt's 375 lb. battery gives it a whopping 40 mile range. You can go 40 miles on ~10 lbs of gasoline with a 25 mpg car. Current hydrogen storage systems would (after efficiency losses) yield the same range with about 25-50 lbs of fuel + storage equipment.

This is why I keep harping on the difference between energy for static applications vs. for transportation. For static applications, efficiency is usually your primary concern. For transportation, energy storage density becomes much more important since you have to carry your energy with you. The Volt's battery is basically a 375 lb. monstrosity designed to carry around less than $1 worth of electrical energy. Yeah gasoline is 3x more expensive per unit energy applied to the road, but it weighs nearly 40x less. Other technologies encounter similar problems, e.g. CNG, where a tank which stores enough methane to give your car a 150 mile range fills your entire trunk.

RE: electrolysis...
By Penti on 1/7/2010 11:47:46 PM , Rating: 2
Actually the acceptable figure is 25% grid-to-wheel efficiency. 70% for hydrolysis, 90% for compressing the hydrogen, 40% for the fuel cell. This is not something new, we already knew all this.

Adding in a fossil fuel powered power station for this makes it extremely bad, even from natural gas. Say you convert 1kW of natural gas to 0.5kW of electricity then uses that to produce 0.315kW of compressed hydrogen, that is then only used to an efficiency of 40-50% by the fuel cell giving 0.126kW to 0.1575kW to run the car on which is enough for half a kilometer. Running directly on natural gas would have been enough for a kilometer at least.
If that where an electric car you would have put around 0.45kW in the battery enough to drive 1.5 kilometer. So the electric vehicle here demands a bit more then half the fuel of CNG cars, Hydrogen powered fuel cell demands twice as much. It doesn't matter how many nuclear reactors you build if your gonna use hydrogen for transportation, it would be astronomical and as astronomically stupid. Even if you do it with thermochemical process built into high-temperature reactors (instead of just cooling of the heat). The world would need such a ridiculous amount of reactors that we can't possibly build them.

RE: electrolysis...
By H24U on 1/30/2010 8:59:01 PM , Rating: 2
Actually it is 85% ELECTROLYSIS NOT HYDROLYSIS. 2 different things, and that includes compression and 60% for the fuel cell vehicle. Get the facts straight.

With less than 20% of the southwest desert we could provide the whole nation (and more) with both solar electricity and hydrogen for transportation.

Paul Staples

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