Every few years or so there seems to be a renewed excitement about the potential for using hydrogen as a non-fossil fuel. Usually, the conversation is about cars.

Once you get it into a car’s fuel tank, it can power the car without producing any greenhouse gases. Combustion in the engine results in only water coming out the tailpipe. Sounds pretty impressive. So, whatever happened to hydrogen?

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe but on this planet it only exists in combination with one or more other elements in the form of a molecule, like water (H2O) or methane (CH4). All by itself, it’s lighter than air so it rises in the atmosphere.

Bottom line, it can’t be mined like coal. It has to be separated from whatever molecule it’s attached to and that requires energy. Somewhere in the range of 95 percent of all hydrogen we use for cars or industrial purposes is currently produced by combining steam and methane (natural gas) at very high temperatures, about 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, with CO2 as a byproduct.

So, one big knock on hydrogen-fueled vehicles has always been that though they are zero-emission vehicles, a lot of CO2 is emitted to produce the fuel. Of course, this is also true of electric cars if their electricity comes from nonrenewable sources, like coal. So why is electric doing so well and hydrogen so poorly?

Way back in 2003, then-President George W. Bush talked about hydrogen at a time when there was a substantial push for renewable energy, electric cars and raising fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks.

There are some who said at the time and say even now in a Clean Technica article, “this may well have been one of the worst examples of greenwashing in our lifetime.” Rather than raising fuel efficiency standards now, Bush argued, we should instead invest in research and development of hydrogen as a fuel. The obstacles to this future were then, and largely still are, not at all trivial.

President Bush budgeted $1.2 billion for research and development to figure out how to produce hydrogen without also producing CO2 as a byproduct, how to safely transport and store it, how to make it fit into a car and how to keep it from exploding (think Hindenburg).

The Clean Technica article points out, for example, that transport of hydrogen requires that it be liquefied: refrigerated to a temperature of below minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and this also requires energy and CO2 emissions.

Moreover, although it has been proposed to use the existing network of natural gas pipelines as a distribution system, ”To this day, the issue of leakage through pipe seams due to the small size of the hydrogen molecule (H2) has never been resolved.”

It may be possible, though expensive, to recondition existing natural gas pipelines, assuming those who own the pipelines would agree in the first place. Building a whole new network of pipes that don’t leak would be even more expensive and involve potentially insurmountable costs for right-of-way and easements.

In short, switching to hydrogen as a fuel for passenger cars implies a whole lot of infrastructure, including a network of fueling stations. Which brings us to Gov. Schwarzenegger’s 2004 executive order promoting a Hydrogen Highway. This was followed by a series of legislative bills to appropriate funds, require that 33 percent of the hydrogen be produced by renewable-energy sources, and a 2013 law signed by Gov. Brown allocating $20 million a year to construct 100 hydrogen fueling stations around the state.

How’s that working out? According to an article in CalMatters, California “has spent more than $300 million in the past 10 years funding rebates for those who buy or lease hydrogen cars, construction of refueling stations, and the purchase of transit buses, as well as subsidizing development of hydrogen-driven freight trucks.”

Of the approximately 8,000 hydrogen fuel cell cars in the U.S., almost all of them are in California and we have a grand total of less than 50 fueling stations (UC Davis has one and there is also one in West Sacramento).

Still, efforts continue to figure out how to get hydrogen to work. Innovation sometimes takes time. There are still true believers who point out that cars are not the only possible vehicles able to run on hydrogen, and other commercial uses may be a bridge to the hydrogen future. For example, there are more than 26,000 forklifts whirring around warehouses and the U.S. space program has long used hydrogen as rocket fuel.

And, hydrogen is getting a big boost from Japan. In 2014, Japan officially announced it would be converting to a hydrogen economy. While Toyota and Honda have continued to push in this direction, the capstone of this Strategic Road Map for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells was the declaration that the 2020 Summer Olympics (oops) would be the First Hydrogen Olympics. This commitment included putting thousands of cars and a good number of buses on the road as examples, and, most dramatically, for the first time the Olympic Torch would be lit with a hydrogen flame.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to johnmottsmith@comcast.net.


Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise

Published online on September 02, 2020 | PRINTED in the September 02, 2020 edition on page A5