Do Hydrogen Vehicles Have a Future?

Alternative-energy vehicles are have become an attractive growth market, now that Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA  ) has proven that people will buy them. But not everyone is sold on the electric car as the alternative power source of choice.

Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) , Honda (NYSE: HMC  ) , and Hyundai are all preparing to introduce hydrogen vehicles in the next few years, which appears to be setting the stage for an electric vs. hydrogen battle. Will hydrogen vehicles win, or are EVs the future? Let's explore the future of both.

Electric versus hydrogen
If hydrogen vehicles are ever going to catch on, they'll at least have to be better than more well-established electric vehicles. What may hold them back is that hydrogen vehicles essentially have all the same parts as an electric vehicle, plus an additional hydrogen storage tank and a fuel cell.  

But there are some advantages for hydrogen vehicles. It would be faster to fill your tank with hydrogen than charge a battery, and we could build the infrastructure to move hydrogen around the country, just like we do with oil. Below is a table I've made comparing hydrogen and electric vehicles.

Quality 

Electric Vehicles

Hydrogen Vehicles

Advantage

Vehicle Cost

Ford Focus Electric  - $35,200+

Tesla Model  S-$63,570+

$50k-$100k

Push

Performance

Electric drive train

Electric drive train

Push

Infrastructure Requirements

Electricity is readily available, needs more charging stations.

Hydrogen generators and fueling stations need to be built.

Electric

Refuel Time

30 min-12 hours

Minutes

Hydrogen

There's no great separation between hydrogen and electric vehicles right now. In fact, technology is the biggest obstacle for both right now. For hydrogen, making clean power readily available may be what tips the scale in its favor.

Hydrogen's killer app
Every method of transportation has a tipping point that drives adoption to the next level. For hydrogen, it's all about refueling time. If drivers can go to a hydrogen station to fuel up in a few minutes, rather than waiting hours for their cars to charge, it will be much easier to make the switch to hydrogen.

Hydrogen makes a particularly attractive fuel source because it can be created in the most efficient and economical locations possible, then moved to the demand source. When I think about hydrogen as a source of energy, I think of building massive solar fields in the deserts of the Southwestern U.S. and turning that power into hydrogen, which can be moved around the country. This would be extremely clean and cost-efficient in the long-term.

But we're not at the point where solar power can easily be turned into hydrogen, whether through electrolysis or another method. In fact, most ways of creating hydrogen start with natural gas, including Honda's home energy station. This kills the idea of hydrogen as a clean energy source.

Right now, the process of getting power to your wheels is both dirty and inefficient:  

Natural gas > Hydrogen > Electricity > Battery > Horsepower

In an electric vehicle, creating electricity from natural gas in a large power plant is much more efficient, and you could even substitute solar power for the grid if you choose. Plus, there's a full step taken out of the process, which makes energy that much more efficient.  

Natural gas/solar/coal/nuclear/hydro > Battery > Horsepower

For hydrogen to win, the convenience of filling up must take priority to the efficiency of turning energy from its original form to horsepower for your car. That's a big hurdle to overcome.

Will hydrogen win long-term?
Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai are certainly betting big on hydrogen, but when you consider the amount of overlap between hydrogen and electric vehicles, the only way I see hydrogen vehicles winning long-term is if battery technology doesn't improve significantly.

If EVs can't reduce charging times and extend their range to more than 500 miles, then hydrogen will win. But if you can go 500 miles on an electric charge, why go to the hassle of adding a hydrogen tank and fuel cell to the drive train? The hydrogen component makes the process less efficient and dirtier.

That's why Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently called hydrogen-powered cars ... well, he used a term that's a little more forceful than I can repeat here.

Foolish bottom line
As an investor, I'll almost always bet on technology advancing faster than we can imagine. In this case, I'd err on that side. I think it's far more likely that an electric vehicle will get a 1,000-mile range in the next 10 years than the likelihood that hydrogen infrastructure and technology will be improved to make the vehicles attractive to the masses.

I like hydrogen as a big energy storage medium, it just doesn't make a lot of sense for storing energy on a small scale -- like a car's fuel tank. I just don't see how hydrogen vehicles can win long-term with the hurdles they need to overcome. On that front, I have to agree with Elon Musk.

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  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 11:26 AM, JouniValkonen wrote:

    Actually, hydrogen is not good as storage, but it is better to convert hydrogen into methane. For natural gas there is already a distribution/storage network.

    Hydrogen could only make sense as storage, if fuel cells becomes so cheap that it is more affordable to generate grid level electricity in fuel cells rather than steam turbines. But this is very unlikely to happen in near term.

    Tesla's charging infrastructure is ready in United States and Western Europe by 2015. Charging infrastructure is very cheap and fast to deploy for long range Tesla's.

    Also Tesla's supercharging speed is fast enough: 300km more range in 30 minutes, is enough. And when the range improves, the charging speed can also be improved.

    Right now biggest problem with electric vehicles is that the range is too short in German autobahn speeds. Driving at 200 km/h does require EPA range more than 600 km and charging speed 200 kW. And these specs are maybe possible only in premium sedan category in 2020's.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 12:41 PM, Coprolito wrote:

    How about using hydrogen in jet planes?

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 12:52 PM, FMagyar wrote:

    When are people going to get it, that hydrogen is NOT an energy source and that it takes a huge amount of energy to produce it by splitting water molecules.

    Hydrogen might work for some niche applications but it will never power all our fleets of aircraft, cars, trucks, buses, trains or ships. Just ain't gonna happen!

    Even a cursory look at the thermodynamics of hydrogen production should make this painfully obvious to even the layman!

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 1:04 PM, JouniValkonen wrote:

    Coprolito, hydrogen is more expensive as jet fuel as methane and kerosene.

    Actually the storage is the biggest problem. If we assume, that we have abundant source of cheap hydrogen (e.g. electrolysis using cheap solar power or 4th gen HTR nukes) It is cheaper to synthesize hydrogen into methane and methane into kerosene than to use directly hydrogen or even methane as jet fuel.

    SpaceX is developing a Raptor rocket engine, that runs on methane. So hydrogen probably has no future even as a rocket fuel.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 1:07 PM, CrazyDocAl wrote:

    He's the biggest plus for hydrogen. A storage tank for hydrogen will not need to be replaced in 5 to 10 years. It'll need to be inspected but not replaced. The battery itself is nothing more than a storage tank for electricity. But it's life is finite and, in terms of a car's life, it's short.

    Anyone who has owned a battery operated device has faced the two biggest downfalls to batteries. They go to use it and the battery was uncharged and the second is the battery no longer holds enough of a charge. Musk can shout as loud as he wants but those biases are not going to disappear overnight.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 1:22 PM, Charos wrote:

    I still have that big solar to hydrogen idea on the back burner. Still waiting for Warren Buffet to get in touch with me.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 2:00 PM, Seer2012 wrote:

    It all boils down to this, which technology evolves first. Will there be major breakthroughs for hydrogen before there are major breakthroughs for electric (batteries)? The author seems to think batteries will evolve sooner than hydrogen and that the time line favors the evolution of the battery. I disagree with that assumption. Based on the breakthroughs in hydrogen technologies that I have seen over the past year alone, hydrogen is evolving much faster than anyone expected. That is why the auto makers, Honda, Toyota and Hyundai are betting on fuel cell cars. They have noticed these breakthroughs and expect more in the pipeline. If I were to invest my money, it would go to hydrogen not electric.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 2:10 PM, JouniValkonen wrote:

    Seer2012, even if hydrogen fuel cells were free (which is not going to happen during the next 20 years), hydrogen would not make any sense even then, because it costs at least 12 times more to fill tank with hydrogen than charge battery with electrons.

    Actually charging battery is so cheap, that Tesla offers supercharging for free.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 3:14 PM, PatrickR wrote:

    For all you global warming weenies do you know where the hydrogen comes from? It's not from water the crack it out of natural gas the leftover byproduct is five times worse for global warming then your preciuos carbon dioxide.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 3:29 PM, BUSHLLIT wrote:

    I think the millions of Americans in dozens of states who are facing the ugly prospect of "prolonged power outages" due to a Winter storm - on the same day this article came out - would disagree with the author's assessment of infrastructure requirements and the ready availability of electricity.

    Innovations in Hydrogen powered value chains are advancing much more rapidly than required improvements in grid reliability.

    Returns on H2/Fuel Cell powered investments will beat the ROI on grid-vulnerable investments by a mile.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 3:35 PM, thegreentreefrog wrote:

    CNG Compressed Natural Gas is the FUTURE!

    Cars,trucks,busses,trains are easely converted to CNG, Busses in inner cities and the big trains out west have already converted.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 5:06 PM, badkat7 wrote:

    Hydrogen stations do not need to built. Just as existing gas stations also supply CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) they can be adapted to support CHF (Compressed Hydrogen Fuel). Mostly likely the hydrogen fueling station will be delivered as a module to many existing stations and installed within a day or two.

    Electric also requires fueling stations which involves high current capacity cables to an available source. If electric became popular you would need to dig up roads and install new power cables, and transformers, to accommodate the extra capacity. The only reason this is not the case today is that so few cars are electric!

    Hydrogen fuel cell technology is very well proven (NASA have used fuel cells as their preferred choice of power source for decades). What was problematic was the cost of catalytic metals. However Toyota, Hondas and others have achieved major breakthroughs in reducing the amount needed to build a fuel cell. As for durability, fuel cells have a demonstrated life in the order of 20 to 25 years. At the end of life more than 90% of the expensive metals can be recycled. That puts electric batteries to shame.

    The article also conveniently overlooks the potential use of solar to manufacture hydrogen direct from water. Each and every part of this process is renewable and unlike wind power which slaughters millions of bird each year, it really has no down side! Much the opposite. Any use of solar is preferable to unlocking fossil fuel energy!

    CNG is nowhere near as efficient, pound for pound, as hydrogen. Nor is its supply unlimited. Nor does it have zero carbon emission.

    Hydrogen can be efficiently manufactured from steam using advanced electrolysis techniques. As an example, I could my 7.2kW solar panels to manufacture 2.5kg of hydrogen per day. That equates to completely refilling the average hydrogen tank EVERY DAY.

    Oil needs to be reserved for aircraft, plastics and items such as medicines.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 5:09 PM, badkat7 wrote:

    Of course you do know why the utilities and oil companies fear hydrogen don't you? Because hydrogen can be made from water + solar which means your HOME could be fitted with fuel cells! Good bye utility companies, oil companies and our insane dependance of irreplaceable fossil, carbon fuels! God forbid we should have individual energy independence!

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 5:23 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    ^ Hydrogen has a wide flammable and detonation range in air for those who wish to be safety and practical minded. It burns with a colorless flame in air that is very hard to detect. Most people who claim electrolysis is the benign road to Hydrogen supply have zero experience with it.

    While Hydrogen has the FORTUNATE characteristic of being lighter than air and therefore disperses rapidly when not being supplied to the area (say by a tank or a pipeline ; -)) This does not prevent all sorts of rapidly moving flame fronts, detonations and resultant injuries among those who work with it regularly.

    We currently have trouble with allowing sites for LNG, Natural Gas Pipelines, Oil terminals etc, all of which have significantly lower hazardous ranges and do not detonate in air (technical term). Even though we carelessly throw about the term "explosion". Granted that if you are caught in it, you may not appreciate the difference between a rapidly moving flame front and a detonation, I can assure you the potential damage and loss of life is much greater in the second.

    But none of that will be the real problem with Hydrogen..though it should give you all pause. Just imagine trying to site the storage and distribution tanks, fillers, pipelines and transports to fuel even 10% of autos. Think LNG is tough? Just wait till the Luddites get wind of a big Hydrogen site....

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 5:24 PM, Mentallect wrote:

    Hydrogen can be the future. It is preferable to oil.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 6:31 PM, StanO6 wrote:

    @TravisHoium: You don't get it.

    Your comparison model is a naïve oversimplification.

    For the majority case the electric car takes virtually zero time to charge.

    Drive home, plug in, in the morning off to work fully charged.

    The point is this, some people are going to have to be brought into the 21st century kicking and screaming because they have not opened their eyes.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 6:31 PM, JouniValkonen wrote:

    badkat, actually Oil Companies love hydrogen, because they can greenwash their imago when propagating "hydrogen economy" and simultaneously continue with hugely profitable fossil oil, because hydrogen cannot compete with oil until cheap oil supply ends.

    Therefore Hydrogen is the future and it always will be the future!

    Instead oil companies are afraid of batteries, because any disruptive battery innovation could put end to the oil dependency and the price of oil would plummet into $25 per barrel, what is an average production cost of oil. This would mean the end of huge profits for Oil companies.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 6:36 PM, mriewski wrote:

    If Hydrogen is manufactured today using Natural Gas. Natural gas > Hydrogen > Battery > Horsepower

    Why isn't anyone talking about just using Natural Gas in cars. Natural gas > Horsepower

    It seems that using Natural Gas directly in a car would be cleaner and more efficient than converting it to hydrogen.

    Can someone explain to me what the ecological and financial reason there is for converting Natural gas into hydrogen for fuel cells as opposed to just burning natural gas directly in a cars engine.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 7:00 PM, luckyagain wrote:

    15 years ago, Toyota was just starting to sell hybrid cars and they were considered to be too radical. Now hybrid cars are just entering mainstream. EV cars are in about the same category as hybrid were 15 years ago. In 15 years, EV will be considered to be mainstream technology. Hydrogen powered fuel cell cars have almost zero infrastructure to supply the fuel. So who is going to spend billions of dollars putting up hydrogen fueling station without millions of fuel cell cars? Simply money is the determining factor of any technology and hydrogen is not going to be a major fuel source for at least 15 years.

    By the way, most cars will be gasoline powered cars made and sold for the foreseeable future.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 7:26 PM, normgarry wrote:

    TESLA'S SUPERCHARGERS DO NOT GENERATE ENOUGH ELECTRICITY TO RECHARGE multiple MODEL S int he bays. The SUPERCHARGERS draw electricity from the local grid, especially at night, and they return some energy to the grid during times there are no cars charging. I'm surprised you don't realize that. The SUPERCHARGERS are IN NO WAY energy efficient. Without the local grid it would take over a day to recharge a Model S battery to 100%

    that said, Hydrogen production uses a large amount of fossil fuel energy. Hydrogen is difficult to separate from other elements it's bonded too and even more difficult to store. The immediate future is fossil fuels.

    The only way you'll move off fossil fuel is to have nuclear fission in more areas. Fusion isn't going to happen for a very, very, very long time.

  • Report this Comment On December 08, 2013, at 9:15 PM, NoiTall wrote:

    In my case, charging an electric vehicle would be MORE expensive than gasoline. I average 22c per kwh, about 4x the $1 equivalent cost widely quoted for 6.4c /kwh now, or over $4 per electric equivalent to gasoline. Gas is around $3.49 so this is MORE than gasoline.

    Seems like the article is wrong on one part.

    Natural gas > Hydrogen > Electricity > Battery > Horsepower

    seems to have an extra step.

    the fuel cells produce electricity directly, don't need to charge a battery pack, they power motors directly. . so skip the 'battery' step.

    They may need a small battery for car use for radios, lights, etc and for starting up the car.

    Like this 135hp fuel cell with no platinum use

    http://evworld.com/news.cfm?newsid=30661

    The article didn't mention on the grid the most pressing disadvantage of electric battery pack cars: the lack of range (which is mentioned in the article) due to their storing only 1/35th the energy density of chemical fuels.

    If you generate hydrogen on demand, you don't need to compress it (which takes energy) or store more than a small amount as a buffer.

    Mg or Al + H2O generate hydrogen on demand.

    Mg and Al are the 6th and 7th most abundant elements in the earth's crust. Mg microparticles will completely react with H2O to produce the metal oxide plus hydrogen. This produces hydrogen at the equivalent of $2 per gallon gas.

    1g Mg yields 3 Liters of H2 gas, which can be either fed directly to an internal combustion engine (here today, in mass production), or reacted in a fuel cell (2x as efficient).

    A company 'enginuity' has made a 220 lb module that feeds Mg wire into a small reaction vessel to evolve hydrogen. This weight includes the wire and for semi trucks is less than the equivalent weight of diesel. The metal used gets recycled from the oxide slurry back to metal at the fueling station or somewhere else after you replace it.

    http://www.emergingenergies.com/index.php?option=com_content...

    As for Musk, you're asking a direct competitor what he thinks of the competition. I'm sure he won't give a biased answer?

    You could use nat gas in cars today, ford is coming out with a model this year. costs quite a bit more tho. And you don't get the increased efficiency of fuel cells. What would be better is to feed the nat gas directly into fuel cells.

    Bloom's Solid oxide fuel cells currently power 25kw base stations from nat gas, feeding backup and regular electricity to quite a few customers including walmart.

    http://www.emergingenergies.com/index.php?option=com_content...

    Seems someone needs to make a mobile version of this.

  • Report this Comment On December 09, 2013, at 9:14 AM, Lugus wrote:

    1) "...we could build the infrastructure to move hydrogen around the country." Huh? Infrastructure to move electricity around the country already exists, it's called the National Power Grid.

    2) Completely overlooked the safety factor. Right or wrong, electric cars are generally viewed by the public as relatively safe (recent incidents with Teslas not withstanding). But hydrogen cars are viewed by many as rolling bombs. There's a reason why hydrogen is a primary component of rocket fuel, it's extremely volatile.

  • Report this Comment On December 09, 2013, at 9:22 AM, Yoshimaroko wrote:

    Of course there's a future for hydrogen cars. The operative term is "future". As in wayyy in the future. I'm still waiting for my promised flying car.

  • Report this Comment On December 09, 2013, at 10:13 AM, Chishiki wrote:

    Someone seriously needs to look at the possibility of making methane and other carbon-hydrogen fuels that can be burned and stored easily out of electricity, heat, air and water.

  • Report this Comment On December 10, 2013, at 6:59 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    ^ Presumably sarcasm... this was all the rage at the turn of the century...19th to 20th as in 1899. Some localities are still cleaning up the environmental damage from "Town Gas"

  • Report this Comment On December 11, 2013, at 11:56 AM, ChrisInRaleigh wrote:

    Not once have we ever had to wait for our EV to charge. It charges overnight and is always on Full in the morning. (12,500 miles in 9 months on my Nissan Leaf)

    We do use our gas minivan for a trip to grandma's house 4-5 times per year.

    Nearly every family with 2 cars, could easily substitute one car with an EV and drive it for ~1/6 the cost.

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