Is hydrogen a viable fuel alternative, despite recent criticism?

The car industry is confident that hydrogen could still be an eventual replacement for petrol and diesel, despite it being dismissed as “not the way to go” by an expert on alternative fuels (MW last week).

Experts have rallied around manufacturers, such as BMW and Honda, that are championing hydrogen-powered cars as the long-term solution to the emissions problem. Assistant director of the Institute of Automotive Industry Research Paul Nieuwenhuis calls hydrogen the “best long-term answer we’ve got at the moment”.

BMW has built 100 hydrogen-powered 7 Series cars to “kick start the process”, while Honda has unveiled a hydrogen-fuel, cell-powered concept car called the FCX Clarity. But James Woolsey, chairman of the US advisory board of the Clean Fuels Foundation, believes the cost of establishing an infrastructure of refuelling stations is too expensive to make hydrogen a viable option.

Hydrogen highway
He told the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders annual dinner recently that plans by the US Government and the State of California to build a string of hydrogen filling stations – dubbed “hydrogen highway” – was the “worst decision of the past few years”.

Woolsey, who is also a former director of the CIA, predicts it will cost $1 trillion to establish a hydrogen infrastructure in the US alone, but Nieuwenhuis believes the infrastructure issue has been “overblown”. He says: “You don’t have to transport hydrogen – you can make it on site at existing petrol stations, so you don’t need to replace the petrol and diesel infrastructure. The real issues are where to get the hydrogen from and where to store it.” Hydrogen is the flammable gas that was blamed for the Hindenburg airship disaster in 1937, but Nieuwenhuis also plays down fears over safety. “There are few fuels more dangerous than petrol, although the difference with hydrogen is that you can’t see it burning,” he adds. “But we can handle that.” The need to cut emissions is one of the most pressing issues facing the car industry today, after the European Commission set an average goal of 130g of CO2 per km for all new cars by 2012 – down from its current average level of 170g per km.

Many manufacturers think hybrid engines, which switch between petrol and electricity, are the answer in the short term, and Toyota has now sold more than 1 million of its Prius hybrids around the world. But experts say hybrids are only an “intermediate” solution.

BMW argues that critics of hydrogen have so far failed to come up with an alternative. Woolsey thinks the answer lies in opening up oil to competition: “The key is to do to oil what refrigeration did to salt at the end of the 19th century. Refrigeration, with the aid of electricity, did away with salt as a means of preserving food.” 

Overcoming obstacles
The Automotive Partnership founder Mike Moran admits that one of the main barriers to hydrogen becoming mainstream is that the vehicles are still “phenomenally expensive”. But he applauds BMW and Honda for making an effort.

“Any progress away from a reliance on fossil fuels is positive,” adds Moran. “This won’t be a problem in our lifetime, but it’s definitely going to be a problem for our children and a huge, huge problem for our grandchildren, so I think that anything that moves forward mankind’s understanding has got to be a good thing. All the nay-sayers should just shut up.” 

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