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Debating Hydrogen

The online site for PBS’s “NOVA scienceNOW” is hosting a mini-debate between Joseph Romm and Daniel Sperling on the merits or pitfalls of hydrogen as a future automobile fuel.

Romm (PhD, Physics, MIT) is the executive director and founder of the Center for Energy & Climate Solutions, author of The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate, and a former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy from 1995 through 1998.

Sperling (PhD, Transportation Engineering, UC Berkeley), recently trekked to Capitol Hill to speak to members of Congress and staffers about hydrogen as a transportation fuel, and is the founding Director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC-Davis, as well as Professor of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science and Policy.

The mini-debate allows each an opening statement. The two then respond serially to four challenges, and then offer a closing statement. Online comments are supported.



It’s unusual that we’re just starting to ask questions about weather hydrogen is the solution or not, since companies and governments are already beginning to invest large amounts of money into fuel cells and “hydrogen highways”. Personally, I think hydrogen is a bad choice. It requires us to waste energy by building all new “hydrogen stations”, and delivering hydrogen fuel to them every day. Electric vehicles can be refueled from the existing power grid, and don’t require a new infrastructure to be built. So why are we even considering hydrogen over electricity?

John McConnell

I total agree. I used to be all excited about hydrogen, but it's DECADES away. there are relatively simple things we could do right now to slow global warming -like plug-in hybrids. The thing about electric cars is that they are very close to making people self sufficient. A person can have some solar panels, an electric car, and they are set except for the batteries.

With hydrogen it's a much more complicated process. Hydrogen is a scam that won't do anything for us in the short term, and could very well be a BAD solution in the long term.


I am pretty sure that hydrogen was adopted in order to guarantee that the fossil-fuel companies would be positioned to best advantage for decades to come; it is energetically favorable to make hydrogen from fossil fuels vs. renewables, while making hydrogen from wind power imposes a 50% penalty vs. charging batteries.

My brief analytic essay on the subject is here.


I didn't find the debate very informative. Part of the problem is that hydrogen power cannot be considered in isolation. Instead we have to compare the various alternatives for powering vehicles in a future post-oil era. Dinging or praising hydrogen in itself is irrelevant; all that matters is how it compares with the other possibilities.

It started off promisingly enough: Sperling laid out the three main candidates: hydrogen; battery powered cars; or biofuels to maintain the current gas/diesel regime. But that was it! That was the last we heard of the alternatives. Everything else was just pros and cons of hydrogen.

Particularly useless were efforts to compare the impact of hydrogen to what we have today. Who cares if hydrogen has higher or lower emissions than one of today's hybrids? A 2004 Prius is not going to be practical if oil hits $1000/bbl. We'll need something else, whether biofuels or plug-in electrical vehicles (not plug in hybrids!) or hydrogen fuel cells. Those are the relevant alternatives to compare and contrast. That's what any such debate should be focused on.

I was disappointed that Romm, the anti-hydrogen, did not commit himself to one of the other alternatives. In some places he talked about the virtues of electricity and the waste of generating it and then trying to convert it to hydrogen, but it did not appear that he was advocating an all-electrical vehicle infrastructure. His job was to play critic, I guess, not to give his own views of the best approach.

A meaningful debate would bring together advocates for all three possibilites (and any other ones, if they exist) and let each one promote his favorite while bringing out the limitations of the other two. That would provide the most useful and relevant information to the public.


Is there enough lithium in the world for a billion electric cars?


Typical seawater contains between 140 and 250 ppb of lithium.  If an electric car requires 100 kg of lithium, a cubic kilometer of seawater has enough lithium for at least 1400 cars.

The oceans contain about 5.2 billion cubic kilometers of water.  Grab 10% of the lithium and you've got enough for about 730 billion cars.  I think that will do for a little while.


I was left disappointed with the debate. It seemed like it was far short of all the ways hydrogen is made stored and produced. It did not take on other ways hydrogen can be used to produce or store power. If a car can not be run from hydrogen (although I think it can) how about electric produced by hydrogen feeding cars that are electric. There is Algae that can produce hydrogen. Things we do now like creating chemicals creates hydrogen. Cow manure can create hydrogen. Whats even more intresting is hydrogen can be stored in a dry process. Only GM thinks liquid is a good idea. Solar and wind can also make electricity. How many billion would it take to fill North Dakota Texas and a few other places with Wind Mills. How about a coupld of billion $ worth of solar panels in the desert used to generate electricity? The only reason this problem is solved is because BIG energy doesnt want it to happen becuase if energy was free or very cheap to produce they go broke.



I agree with Bob, the means of energy production is in the hands of the few. Hydrogen energy production and storage promises a way to decentralize and democratize energy production. Sure there are technical hurdles to this vision, but also political ones as well. If there is a hydrogen future would energy companies want to give up the means of production and monopoly profits they currently enjoy?


pikman:  It's much more complicated, expensive and inefficient to make hydrogen yourself than to make electricity.  I suspect that the whole hydrogen-vehicle initiative is deliberately trying to promote fossil fuel interests over renewables.

Bob:  I also found the "debate" disappointing, but for different reasons.  The two parties made contradictory statements without any attempt to dig to the facts and thus actually settle the matter; you have Romm saying that batteries are far more efficient than hydrogen at getting electricity from a powerplant to a motor, and Sperling refusing to address this crucial point.

A "debate" like this really needs cites from the two sides, a moderator who is also a fact-finder, and rules which disallow unsupported assertions.  That will keep propaganda out and produce a far more reliable and informative result.


The more I learn about hydrogen technology the more I'm convinced that it is a dead end. There are simply too many non-trivial pitfalls regarding the thermodynamics, economics, and engineering to make this technology the winner in the race to become petroleum independent. I think we are more likely to see a steady (hopefully rapid!) evolution of the gas/electric hybrid into an electric/gas hybrid and finally into a "pure" electric vehicle as battery and motor technology improve.


Not realy thats why its s future tech and not a right this second tech.... It will just take time.


You'll feel differently when you get past high-school level work and start doing real analyses, wintermane.  Or should I say, if you get past it; you have not even read the analyses that are out there.


Ya right thats what people have said about a hell of alot of stuff that came to be.


When they were saying it after an analysis of the thermodynamics, they were usually right.


Your problem poet is your assuming hydrogen does what gasloine does or that it even needs to.

Hydrogen simply enables one to avoid having to recharge ones batteries as often because it will keep the battery in the good charge zone on those few trips that are a BIT to long and would have dropped the battery charge lower then your battery realy wants.

Hydrogen is simply a way to convert excess electric energy into a form that can be stored transported then converted back without worry about emissions controls on the destination end.

Hydrogen is simply the grout that fills in all the gaps in all the other fuel sources we will manage to find and that alolows certain energy sources such as wind and solar to be a MUCH greater impact then otherwise would be prudent.

Hydrogen is a tool. Getting it cheaper and more efficent is very important because we will be using it no matter if we want to or not.


Hydrogen is not simple, period.  Converting electricity to hydrogen and back imposes a further 50% in losses over batteries, and consequently doubles the required electric generation.  On top of that, the 100 kW PEM fuel cells used in typical FC cars run about $500,000 apiece, and the fuel is difficult to store and expensive to compress.

Hydrogen is the wrong tool for this job.


Let me give you a little hint. The demo cars they are making right now arnt to show us they are to show to people with laser cannons... Now ask yourself poet exactly how powerful does a fuel cell REALY need to be if that same car has super capcitors and say 100lb of batteries?

How cheap are THOSE size fuel cells? How much hydrogen would be needed for such a car?

Shirley E

Batteries are the enabling technology for everything, it seems. Think of all the devices you already use today that rely on batteries, then imagine how much better it would be if they'd last 4 times as long for the same cost, and how many more things they could be used for. Why don't we have an Apollo-sized battery R&D program?


Shirley, you ask that, I ask that now and then, Randall Parker muses about it from time to time.  I don't think it will happen in this administration, because Bush doesn't want it to; he'd rather have us buy more oil at the expense of our economic and even physical health.

Valence Technology has a lithium-ion battery based on lithium iron phosphate for the cathode (no thermal runaway problems like lithium cobalt oxide, and iron phosphate is cheap).  Li-ion batteries to run a car 300 miles are about 1/10 the cost of a 100 kW PEM fuel cell.  I'll bet that the only thing they really need to build huge volume and big economies of scale is a market big enough to absorb that production.  Let's hope that it comes about, soon.


The designs I have seen for a real production hydrogen car poet call for a smaller fuel cell and a larger battery pack and a supercapacitor bank.

The result is the thing realy is an electric car in every respect its just the battery pack is small.. prolly a bit bigger then current prius packs.

The hydrogen is only there to increase max range and keep that battery within its best charge zone to keep its lifespan up.

Why stuff 1000lb of costly batteries in a car if you can shove 150 lb and a 5 lb cell stack and a 50lb hydrogen tank and get the same range and better milage and lower costs.

The small cell stacks are alot cheaper and are even going into production products now.. still a bit spendy tho a hydrogen fuel cell bike is 6k...

Now you may wonder but then why do they keep touting 125 kw cell stacks.... becsause the military the ones who actauly PAID for all this in the first place want a 250 kw stack and a 1.5 mw stack. For humvees and tanks.


When the weight, bulk and cost of the fuel cell and hydrogen tank is greater than a battery bank of the same energy capacity, and the battery loses only 1% of its capacity over 1000 cycles (like the nanoparticle Li-ion cells from Toshiba and Altair), what's the point of having a fuel cell?

So you can fill from a hose instead of a wire?

I don't find that an especially attractive feature.  I can install wires at home, and make my own power too.


Dont get me wrong if they do manage to make a set of batteries that dont cost too much and do have a REAL range thats good enough without dipping into the damage zone then im sure everyone will be all over it in an instant. But just in case that doesnt actauly pan out full scale... im glad hydrogen work is still going on.

Besides dont forget a fuel cell car isnt just about the fuel cell. Thats just a small component AND as you keep missing there are military reasons they are working on the fuel cell so EVEN if it doesnt pan out for cars its still a money maker... and we still benifit from the motor and various other design works fuel cell cars entail.


So far as I know, Hydrogen doesn't store well. Since it is a small molecule it leaks at a rate of 1%+ daily. It also damages storage vessels and pipes. I'll take a biodiesel plug-in hybird any day.

BTW, Syntroleum Corp can convert 'stranded' Natural Gas into diesel, pricey now. But soon...


Actauly that leak rate has gone down alot since they started investing in the tech its right now down fairly low and going lower.

One storage method being looked at is in fact treated ice. It seems ice when treated in a certain way can store hydrogen inside it at quite a good level and at low pressure... then when you want the hydrogen just melt the ice and the trapped hydrogen comes out.


Producing electrify and making better batteries is all good for fuel cell cars of tomorrow but why not use what we know to make our cars we drive daily right now run on hydrogen as a stand alone fuel?? Or blend hydrogen with car gas to stop the rape of our bill folds every time we fill up. Each one of us could build this for the car we drive right now.

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