With all due respect to John Dodge, my boss, hydrogen is not a realistic solution to America’s energy problems.
That message is coming through loud and clear at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ congress in Boston this week. John devoted a big chunk of Design News print and electronic resources in his excitement to promote hydrogen as a fuel for cars. It’s hard to find experts in the field who share his enthusiasm.
These comments come from a track called “Fuel Cells: The Future of Sustainable Automotive Transportation—Fact and Fiction”
Steven Beale, a researcher at the National Research Council of Canada: “I started in solar power research and saw it implode in the 1980s, and now I’m concerned about all of the enthusiasm for fuel cells.” There are huge technical and economic problems with hydrogen as a fuel source, starting with the fact that one of the most often referenced sources for hydrogen is methane, which represents no improvement from a carbon perspective. “It’s not enough to say: Trust us, we’ll fix it.” Beale also comments: The government is putting billions of dollars into the hydrogen economy because of intense lobbying by several companies.” The current cost to produce a hydrogen car (one hydrogen-fueled car) is $1 million.
Anthony Mascarin, a managing partner at IBIS Associates, said the best-case economic scenario for hydrogen is that it may be economically viable as a fuel for cars by the year 2030. In response to a question, he conceded that even that projection does not include the cost of the hydrogen. He also remarked that it’s not realistic for any corporate player to remain in the field that long without extensive subsidies. The enormous cost of the platinum catalysts is a major problem. Hydrogen storage and delivery are also big problems.
Satish Kandlikar, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, has been working on fuel cell development for eight years with General Motors, with a particular focus on water management issues in cars. Given his association with GM, it isn’t surprising that Kandlikar starts: “Hydrogen as a fuel is attractive.” He quickly adds though that given the technical issues, “Translating all of this into the auto sector will take time.” Water accumulation on the anode side of the cell remains a “major problem”, says Kandliker.
Jeffrey Allen, an assistant professor at Michigan Tech, commented on the water management issues and added that “durability (of the cells) is a significant issue. You see a lot of degradation problems.” As a result, proton exchange membrane cells are falling way short of the Department of Energy target of 5,000 hours of useful life. “In reality, we’re only getting 1,500 hours” due to the presence of liquid water on terminals.
I think we may be trying too hard to find quick fixes for our energy problems. Yes we have to find solutions, but there also needs to be some hard technical thinking in the arguments.