October 30, 2007
Hydrogen Seen As Much Less Efficient Than Batteries For Cars

An article in BusinessWeek surveys the pros and cons of hydrogen and argues that batteries beat hydrogen when compared for energy efficiency.

Electrolysis of water is the easiest method for producing hydrogen -- but only about 70% of the electric power used in the process gets stored in the hydrogen it creates. Hydrogen then needs to be either compressed or cooled to a liquid in order to store large enough volumes to be useful in a car -- gas compression is the more efficient of the two processes, but still costs a further 10% of the stored energy. The efficiency of the fuel cell storage unit itself is realistically estimated at around 36% under normal driving load -- leading to a dismal overall power-grid-to-wheels efficiency of less than 25%. That is, less than a quarter of the power used to produce the hydrogen is ever actually used to propel the car.

Batteries are a clear winner in the grid-to-wheels efficiency battle. Conventional Lithium-ion batteries charge at about 93% efficiency and operate at about the same efficiency, leading to an overall efficiency of over 85%. For the same energy input, you'll get three times the power out of a battery than out of a fuel cell.

If someone can explain how hydrogen as an energy source makes sense I'd really like to hear it. So much effort is going into a hydrogen push that I figure I must be missing something.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 October 30 10:51 PM  Energy Electric Cars

Phanatic said at October 31, 2007 6:13 AM:

They count the energy cost of the production of the hydrogen, but they don't count the energy cost of the production of the lithium-ion batteries. What's the efficiency of the *full chain* for batteries?

Carl said at October 31, 2007 6:47 AM:

The difference lies in the specific energy of the system. Specific energy is the amount of energy stored per unit mass of the storage device, usually measured in the units Watt-hour/kilogram (W-hr/kg). Lithium-ion batteries can have specific energies as high as ~200 W-hr/kg. Hydrogen fuel cell systems, however, have the potential for greater than 800 W-hr/kg. This means that the battery will be about four times heavier than a fuel cell system if both contain the same amount of energy. The efficiency might be less for a hydrogen fuel cell, but the energy storage is much greater for a given weight. I'm not familiar enough with the automotive field to comment on the tradeoff between weight and efficiency, but for aerospace applications the reduction in weight is much more important than the loss in efficiency.

david osborn said at October 31, 2007 7:40 AM:

The first writer is a battery shill.

HYDROGEN POLITICS: Here is how it works:

Hydrogen can be made at home. Anybody who says it can’t is either a shill, an idiot or completely out of touch with reality and technology. You can make it for free, at home, all day long and all night long. Anybody who says it costs too much or that it has some evil chain reaction of “negative karma” or “sour grid source” or causes cancer because of something back in the energy chain is almost always a shill because the energy chain is constantly improving. Anybody who says the numbers say it is all wrong or bad or evil or inefficient are also usually a shill who are quoting numbers from six months or six years back (which is ancient history in hydrogen timeframes).

It is important to consider the following:

The oil and auto industry consider the battery industry to be a failed technology that can never be made or delivered in the form factor, price point, range or efficiency that they care about. (It doesn't matter, for this argument, what YOU think.) So they got together and used "layered anti-evangelism" to manipulate the battery industry.

"Layered anti-evangelism" is an intelligence agency third world manipulation device that works like this:

1. Select the target: In this case it is hydrogen fuel cells, which have been demonstrated to beat batteries on every business front.
2. Select your internal agents. In this case lobbyists and "writers" that are paid by the oil and auto industry.
3. Have the agents contact and talk to the "sheep". In this case the sheep are the writers for battery industry trades and heads of battery lobby or support organizations.
4. Have the agents convince the sheep via skewed data provision. In this case selected reports were written and then shown to the sheep to convince the sheep that hydrogen fuels cells would steal their funding, put them out of business and that the only source of hydrogen was from the "evil oil companies".

So you have battery evangelists who are anti-hydrogen sheep:
Ulf Bossel of the European Fuel Cell Forum Alec Brooks- EV World Sam Thurber

Yet for every manipulated argument they come up with, they are shot down by hundreds of sites with facts.

WHY? Because you can make hydrogen at home and the ability to do it fast, cheap and clean is coming 40 times faster than they thought.

This happened, using the same process, to:
1.) Electric light rail in America (US Vs. National City Lines, 334 US 573)
2.) The EV1 (Movie: Who killed the electric car) Etc.

The interventions of these 'doubters' fall into a number of clear categories which I'll summarise as:

1 "You can't succeed because no-one has ever succeeded at this (sports car making / battery-power / taking on the majors, etc etc) before". - May I commend to everyone Dava Sobel's wonderful (and short!) book, "Longitude", which offers a perfect map of the tendency of government and the scientific establishment collude to reject true innovation. This effect can only be overcome when a tipping-point of perceived popular utility is reached, at which point the establishment suddenly has a bout of collective amnesia about their earlier denials. (Same story many times over, historically, of course - from Gallileo onwards.)

2 "It's inefficient to carry around". Rather as it's inefficient to carry around a full tank of gas, perhaps? Or to carry around a SUV chassis which itself weighs a ton or more? (Come on, Detroit, you can find a better argument than that, surely?)

3 "This technology is not a solution and never will be." This very much reminds me of the IBM's famously short-sighted take on the prospect of home computing, back in the 70s. The language of these contributions, let alone their content, points to a thought-process rooted in volume-producers'
vested interests. Consider the successes of some other new-tech challengers of vested interests: Dyson taking on Hoover with a bagless vacuum-cleaner; Bayliss bringing clockwork (i.e. battery-less) radios and laptops to the third world; thin-film solar panels (sorry, can't remember who, but you know who I mean). On this point, it was deeply depressing, at a high-level environmental science conference of the UK Government last year, for me to witness a "leading and respected" Professor of Transport rejecting electric traction out-of-hand with the words "it will never be more than just power storage on a trolley". Given that this "expert" was advising ministers of state setting future national policy on alternative transport, my immediate thought was "Who pays this man's research grant?"

So let's be vigilant for any who claim, in a smooth way, that invention can't possibly have the answers. From a position of some expertise in this field, may I remind readers that the "you-don't-understand-how-our-industry-works" argument has been the policy instrument of choice for numerous corporate fraudsters and protectionists down the ages (Enron, anyone?). New York's energetic DA, Mr Spitzer, has made a fine career out of challenging such thinking in the finance sector (with the simple rejoinder: "WHY does your industry work like that? Against customer choice?"). And then of course there's the entire consumer movement (remember Flaming Fords? remember "Unsafe at Any Speed"?). We can and should ask the same questions of the conventional auto industry.

The good news is that genuine innovation will out - as long as ordinary consumers are able to find it and buy it. One of the early lessons of the twentyfirst century, thank goodness, is that the old-school, browbeating style of corporate communication - terrorising one's customers into rejecting alternatives - increasingly fails as people wise up to making decisions based on their own independently-gathered information about benefits and risks. (Interestingly, a popular reaction against "selling by fear" is also now happening in the political field. Now why might that be?) As a consumer, one doesn't have to agree with the in-ya-face techniques of anticorporate critics like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock to still subscribe to the view that we can buy what we want to buy. We no longer want to be told by old-tech that new-tech is inherently suspect. Isn't it old-tech that brought us dependency on oil, climate change, wars over energy sources?

So c'mon people, how about a reward system for "spot the spoiler"? I'm all for free debate on the issues, but some of these blogs smell rather like the work of paid old-tech corporatists trying to sabotage your success.
Challenge such interventions with the greatest possible vigour, and let consumers decide for themselves!

1.) Battery companies are spending millions of dollars to knock H2
because it works longer, better, faster and cheaper than batteries! Most of the people writing these screaming anti-H2 articles are battery company shills or have investments there. H2 does beat batteries on every front so the should be SCARED!

2.) The steel unions hate H2 because H2 cars don't use steel. Steel is
too hard to afford any more so nobody will use it in any case.

3.) Activists hate H2 because they think it can only be made by the oil
companies and they hate the oil companies. This is a falsehood created by the battery and steel guys.

4.) Oil companies hate H2 because it is so much better than oil but they
only get to hate it unto 2030 when the affordable oil runs out. Then they know they must love it because H2 energy will be all that is left. The Oil industry is dismayed that H2 is coming on so fast and they are trying to slow it down even more.

5.) Other alternative energy interests hate it because it is getting all
of the funding because the polita-nomics are better with H2 than ANYTHING ELSE ON EARTH.

We have made hydrogen at home with free energy. If the gasoline in your car blows up it will do a VAST AMOUNT more death and damage than H2 ever will.
You are driving a MOLOTOV COCKTAIL. In 2030 oil is GONE and there is NO OTHER OPTION that can be delivered world-wide in time but H2!

Brett Bellmore said at October 31, 2007 8:57 AM:

"You can make it for free, at home, all day long and all night long. "

Free? Oh, wait, you're being sarcastic. Never mind...

Fat Man said at October 31, 2007 9:23 AM:

Platinum hit $1500/oz.

Brian said at October 31, 2007 11:06 AM:

Please excuse my ignorance. how might I make hydrogen for free at home? just enough to understand the process. I know how to separate water with electricity, but there's a significant electrical cost involved with that method.

Dave Justus said at October 31, 2007 11:21 AM:

Hydrogen isn't an energy source, so obviously it doesn't make sense as one.

Does it make sense as an energy storage medium? Perhaps. Some of the factors (such as the weight of the storage device) are missing from the above analysis. More importantly though, energy efficiency isn't terribly important in this context. There is lots of energy availible, a huge amount of the difficulty is in getting the energy to a portable form that meets the needs of consumers. Either batteries or hydrogen storage need to get better for this to happen.

The most intesting technology to me in this area is some of the hydrogen-on-demand systems using magnesium that can be reconstituted. I am sure it is less 'efficient' then either of the other two options, but eliminates the storage problem for hydrogen and allows for quick refueling and acceptable (300 miles or so) 'gas tanks.'

K said at October 31, 2007 12:11 PM:

I believe Dave makes the mistake of believing that a desirable and superior technology must prevail. Not true and history shows it. Costs count and details count.

H2 may dominate someday but there is little reason to believe fuel cell vehicles will be common within ten years. Honda's CEO casually said they may be making a few production vehicles in 2014; yet six months ago their detailed report said 2017 and at $80K (2007 dollars) each.

The fuel cell, hydrogen extraction from water, varieties of batteries, and large solar arrays for homes have been around for decades and some for over a century. I saw a home with solar power in 1948, thermal capture to be sure.

Matthew said at October 31, 2007 12:54 PM:

from autoblog.xprize.org

F = mgCrr + ˝ρCDAv2 + ma + mgsin(θ)


F = force required at the wheels of the vehicle
m = mass of the vehicle
Crr = coefficient of rolling resistance between tires and road surface
ρ = density of the ambient air
CD = coefficient of drag of the vehicle in the direction of travel
A = cross-sectional area of the vehicle
v = speed in the direction of travel
a = acceleration of the vehicle
g = local acceleration of gravity
θ = angle (relative to horizontal) of the road surface

epobirs said at October 31, 2007 1:01 PM:

Mr. Osborn,

I can only suspect you are a shill for some shadowy figures in the hydrogen industry. Otherwise, after such a spirited and silly rant I'd have to just say you're nutter if you haven't some ulterior motive.

Referencing that silly EV1 movie does not help make you look sane. The EV1 was not a viable product. Simple as that. GM didn't want to sell the inventory because the last several decades have made car companies extremely cautious about any possible source of litigation.

What is this free energy you speak of? Everybody would like to know. Do you mean power derived from solar? If so, you should take note of the cost for the equipment, the low efficiency in relation to deriving hydrogen, and the amount of surface area needed compared to what the average person has available for such, leaving aside that person's other energy needs that would be competing for the output of that solar array.

Have you seriously looked into what is involved in handling large volumes of hydrogen? This task is extremely non-trivial, especially when you get into the gear for compressing it so you can get a decent amount of mileage from a tankfull. Again, something only a scant minority is going to want to have in their homes or deal with directly rather than at retail.

Further, why would steel workers regard hydrogen powered vehicles as a specific threat to their trade? Under the circumstances you claim it would be just the opposite. The amount of steel used in vehicle production is already dropping rapidly in the pursuit of better economy with existing fuels. Were hydrogen to become as cheap and easy as you suggest, the allure of the SUV that makes a serious collision highly survivable would be greater than ever. (Last year I had the experience of being at a complete stop in a 2002 Ford Explorer when we were rear ended by a Honda sedan going about 45 MPH. We were able to drive away with no injuries but the Honda was totaled.) If hydrogen reduce fuel costs back to the gasoline equivalent of $1 per gallon, who would want a Prius any longer? Not everyone would want a land yacht but they'd at least want some measure of comfort and safety greater than what the Prius can deliver.

The idea that the world's auto companies are in a conspiracy with the petroleum industry to deny us better stuff is silly. The car companies are only beholden to the oil companies tot he extent that they need to be sure the average consumer will be able to coveniently obtain fuel for his car. The oil companies will do whatever they have to do to get that job if it offers a viable business model. The oil companies tend to regard themselves primarily as energy companies with petroleum being the core business of the moment. All of these companies have big investments in making sure they're ready for what comes next. (Consider the origina of the name BP Solar, a major player in solar power.) As mentioned above, the average consumer will need a convenient retail solution to putting fuel in his car, whatever that fuel may be. The petroleum companies, through their gas stations and partner independent gas station operators, are in a better position to create that retail presence than any other entity in existence. So hydrogen is no threat to them. Rather, it's the next big business opportunity.

The trick is that it has to be viable. Currently, it isn't. There is some nifty stuff in the labs but none of it is ready for mass production of products you'd want to sell to the average consumer. A mass market product cannot place requirements on the consumer more typically associated with a product for hobbyists, as was the case in the beginning of the auto industry or the personal computer industry. That is why it's incredibly hard to put an entirely new OS on the market. Only a tiny group of hobbyists would be interested in a platform with no software of any value. You cannot today make a real business of selling a computer whose sole use is learning to program in BASIC, just as you cannot make a real dent in the car business with a vehicle that can only be sold to amateur mechanics.

Brett Bellmore said at October 31, 2007 2:04 PM:

Folks, after reading it several times, I'm pretty sure Dave was just providing a sarcastic simulation of an H2 power fanatic.

K said at October 31, 2007 3:21 PM:

Brett: I suspected that and finally concluded otherwise. If so Dave was too clever.

Ken said at October 31, 2007 3:26 PM:

Phanatic - Whichever technology, getting a clear idea of the costs and efficiency is complex at best, but I think H2 starts with the stated disadvantages re efficiency and I don't see how that's going to change. Very low cost energy to produce H2 (which is not an abundant compound and must be made) would help, but then that would change it for everything, including the production of batteries. But I think the advantages of developing better batteries would extend far beyond transport whereas developing a H2 transport infrastructure will be a dead end when batteries get cheaper.
Anyone saying, as some dimwit from Honda does that - "Hydrogen will fuel the next generation of global vehicles. It's a fact accepted by the entire industry. And given that it's the most commonly-occurring element in the universe, supply is not an issue." - must work in the fantasy world of marketing, not science or engineering.

Randall Parker said at October 31, 2007 4:31 PM:


They said they were calculating the generation of hydrogen using electrolysis powered by electricity. So they started with electricity in both cases. Therefore the downstream efficiency calculation really is an apples-to-apples comparison. Therefore the conclusion of unfavorable efficiency for hydrogen seems correct if electrolysis is really as inefficient as they claim.

In theory it is possible to design a special kind of nuclear reactor that would operate at much higher temperatures and the higher temperatures would break water molecules up into hydrogen and oxygen ions. Supposedly this approach would produce H2 gas more efficiently than electrolysis.

Also, some other methods of generating hydrogen more efficiently are under investigation. But will they bear fruit?


Hydrogen is light. But hydrogen storage systems are heavy and have serious drawbacks. Freezing under pressure results in slow boil-off. BMW's prototype uses hydrogen to power the cooler. But that hydrogen gradually all gets used up cooling itself. You can't park a BMW experimental 7 series hydrogen vehicle in an airport parking lot for a few weeks and come back and expect to find any fuel remaining.

The attempts to get hydrogen to adhere to special materials run up against an assortment of unsolved problems. It is not clear this approach will have any more energy/weight advantages over lithium batteries.

Randall Parker said at October 31, 2007 4:40 PM:

Fat Man,

We don't have enough rare metals for catalytic converters, let alone for fuel cells.

Randall Parker said at October 31, 2007 4:50 PM:


But hydrogen is not the desirable and superior technology.

K said at October 31, 2007 5:37 PM:

Randall: I disagree. Fuel cells using hydrogen would be very desirable and far superior to almost any other energy.

Just like the ham and eggs, if we just had some ham, and the eggs.

The problem is cost and I think it will remain cost. Most of the cost is for infrastructure - the cost of splitting water isn't too bad, the cost of fuel cells is very high but declining, H2 is very hard to contain and distribute. And without a huge new distribution network, far more expensive than that for delivery of carbon fuels, hydrogen must be obtained near the point of use.

The belief that millions of garages will be full of pipes, valves, tanks, gauges, and batteries charged from solar roofs is a fantasy. So is stripping the H2 from natural gas. Simpler and easier to use the NG.

I wish the H2 advocates well. But wanting Santa to arrive does not mean he will. Net power from fusion was achieved over fifty years ago. They are called Hydrogen Bombs. Fusion itself was achieved even earlier. Today, after decades and tens of billions of $ spent on research, fusion produces zero percent of our power. And that isn't expected to change for years.

IMO it looks like batteries and hybrids will be the big winners for at least a decade, probably two.* *Guarantee expires in 90 minutes, I will be at dinner for two hours.

Brett Bellmore said at October 31, 2007 6:59 PM:

"I wish the H2 advocates well. But wanting Santa to arrive does not mean he will. Net power from fusion was achieved over fifty years ago. They are called Hydrogen Bombs. Fusion itself was achieved even earlier. Today, after decades and tens of billions of $ spent on research, fusion produces zero percent of our power. And that isn't expected to change for years."

True. Essentially because the sheer need for fusion isn't there, yet. Even if fossil fuels run out, fission would suffice for quite some time, and we've already got that working. So there's no urgency on the part of the fusion research community.

If we really had to get fusion online, and in a hurry, or else, we could do it. As you say, net power from fusion was achieved over fifty years ago, and it was back in the 70's that I saw an engineering study of a power plant using nuclear bombs for "fuel pellets".

It was really, really big. But the numbers worked.

Randall Parker said at October 31, 2007 7:02 PM:


Hydrogen is hard to store. Storage is expensive, the hydrogen boils off, and it is nowhere near as energy dense as gasoline.

Hydrogen is hard to transport.

Hydrogen is energy inefficient to produce.

So, again, hydrogen is not a desirable and superior technology.

Wolf-Dog said at October 31, 2007 8:20 PM:

The oil companies (and hence Bush) favor Hydrogen and actively emphasize it precisely because it is an inefficient alternative to electric cars:
1) Building the Hydrogen infrastructure would be so slow that it is guaranteed not to get finished before the last drop or oil is extracted and consumed. Hydrogen would guarantee that the best is yet to come for oil companies: At least $250 per barrel for are least 25 more years. With the adoption of the hydrogen economy, the oil companies will thus keep their hands clean, but their pockets increasingly full.
2) If the Hydrogen economy is adopted, then the oil companies are guaranteed to get some of the contracts for building the infrastructure, and hence derive some profits as well, with the understanding that the point 1) above is also guaranteed.

For the oil companies, Hydrogen thus represents the best of the two worlds.

Paul Dietz said at November 1, 2007 6:16 AM:

They count the energy cost of the production of the hydrogen, but they don't count the energy cost of the production of the lithium-ion batteries.

The batteries are reused a thousand or more times. The hydrogen is used just once. I expect the energy cost per use of the batteries, amortized over their lifespan, will be small. Cost of lithium if demand becomes very high may become more of a factor. It may not be too late to buy stock in the company in Chile that owns the mining rights to that lithium-loaded salt lake.

Another thing to remember about hydrogen is the potential effect on the stratosphere. Unreacted hydrogen released into the atmosphere stays around for a couple of years, on average, before being oxidized. Some of it will be wafted up into the stratosphere, where it will be oxidized to water. Too much water in the stratosphere could have dire effects, like creating ice crystals to enhance chlorine-mediated ozone destruction, or even direct catalytic ozone destruction by the HOx cycle. This would require very large leakage, but if hydrogen is adopted as the primary chemical energy carrier on a global scale, it's not out of the question.

Carl said at November 1, 2007 6:39 AM:


When I was quoting the specific energy for a hydrogen fuel cell system it was calculated for the whole system, including the tanks. The specific energy of hydrogen by itself is about 33,000 W-hr/kg, so there is a massive decrease because we have to carry along the fuel cell and the tanks and other mass in order to extract that energy. Allow me to quote NASA/TM—1999-209429, "High Energy Density Regenerative Fuel
Cell Systems for Terrestrial Applications" (freely available from the NASA technical reports server):

"The results from this
study of a lightweight RFCS energy storage system for a
remotely piloted, solar-powered, high altitude aircraft indicate
an energy density up to 790 w-h/kg with electrical efficiency
of 53.4% is attainable. Such an energy storage system would
allow a solar-powered aircraft to carry hundreds of kilograms
of payload and remain in flight indefinitely for use in
atmospheric research, earth observation, resource mapping,
and telecommunications. Future developments in the areas of
hydrogen and oxygen storage, pressure vessel design, higher
temperature and higher-pressure fuel cell operation, unitized
regenerative fuel cells, and commercial development of fuel
cell technology will improve both the energy density and
electrical efficiency of the RFCS."

To summarize: Lithium-ion batteries capable of ~200 W-hr/kg energy densities with electrical efficiencies of >90%, while hydrogen fuel cell systems can achieve energy densities of ~800 W-hr/kg with electrical efficiencies of ~50%. There is a clear trade-off between the two in energy density and electrical efficiency.

Also note that the numbers above are for a rechargeable system that carries along solar cells and its own electrolyzer, increasing the weight and correspondingly decreasing the energy density. There is no mention of cost, which would naturally be paramount for a mass-market automobile, but the numbers certainly illustrate what is at least possible to achieve.

I'm not shilling for hydrogen here, I just wanted to answer the question of why hydrogen fuel cells have any potential. I personally believe that oil is the only realistic option for transportation for the short and medium-term. At some point we will run out, but not that soon; and in the meantime as supply contracts the price will increase and start to make other options financially viable.

Nissl said at November 1, 2007 12:52 PM:

In addition to the arguments that have already been made, one common pro-hydrogen rationale in industry discussions I've seen (including the recent scorning of PHEV technology by Toyota and Honda) is that plug-in hybrids/EV's represent a large consumer inconvenience because of the longer charging time and relatively low miles per charge requiring frequent if not daily charges. If we completely rebuilt our fuel delivery infrastructure (ha!), hydrogen would allow refuelling times similar to what we deal with now. Few people in the auto industry want to go out on a limb with a technology that reduces customer convenience when industry profits are currently fattest in gas-guzzling and luxury cars and industry logic has not digested peak oil. Indeed, the industry has barely begun to digest the idea that higher oil prices are here to stay. I am, however, modestly encouraged by a number of recent developments, such as the Chevy Volt.

Engineer-Poet said at November 1, 2007 9:15 PM:

Hey, Carl, does your 800 Wh/kg include the weight of affordable high-pressure tankage?  Have you included the energy cost of compression or liquefaction?  How about the expense of the fuel cells themselves, which were a half-million dollars per vehicle not long ago and still include large amounts of precious metals... which are degraded and dissolved by the operation of the cells?  And why is the difference between 200 and 800 Wh/kg so important when cars weigh on the order of 1500-2000 kg and don't need more than about 60 kWh for reasonable range?

David Osborn is a conspiracy theorist.

Analysts as obscure as myself and illustrious as Ulf Bossel have come to identical conclusions about hydrogen:  it is far less efficient at delivering energy as batteries.  If this is part of a propaganda campaign, I've got two complaints:

  1. As my figures show, the laws of physics are co-conspirators, and
  2. I not only didn't get paid for my part, I had no idea I was owed anything.
Sure, anybody can make hydrogen at home.  I've made it with a battery charger and a salt solution, and with sodium hydroxide, aluminum and water.  What you can't do is make hydrogen that will compete with electricity delivered via batteries, because making hydrogen and turning it back into work has such large inherent losses.  It's those damned laws of physics conspiring against hydrogen again!  Maybe Congress can be persuaded to repeal them?

Wolf-Dog has my position pegged exactly.  Hydrogen is one of several diversions from the things which will actually work (PHEVs being the most important).  It is financed and touted precisely because it represents no threat to the oil interests.

Randall Parker said at November 1, 2007 9:29 PM:


If bloggers are supposed to get paid to bash hydrogen then I'm getting gypped. Nobody pays me for my opinions, even when I agree with them.

I'm almost ready to believe the conspiracy theories about why hydrogen is promoted because technically it makes no sense. Whereas better batteries for electric vehicle are a technologically achievable goal and once we've got good batteries then electricity becomes a cheap way to power vehicles.

Engineer-Poet said at November 2, 2007 5:15 AM:

I do believe it, because the shameless propagandizing of the oil and coal industries against other things contrary to their interests (anthropogenic global warming) refutes any claim that morality would stop them.

Boonton said at November 2, 2007 9:19 AM:

It sounds like hydrogen is dubious in cars but not in houses. Have a system that sucks electric energy out of the grid at night time to make hydrogen and then it uses it to produce power during the day. In essence you're allowing the huge reactors that power the grid to operate at 100% throughout the day and night to achieve the best efficiency. The surplus power during the day will feed the spike in demand. If you want you can add solar panels to make a bit more during the day.

You've eliminated the need to transport the hydrogen anywhere and you're only storing it for maybe 12-hours.

Carl said at November 2, 2007 9:31 AM:

Gentlemen, please. Let's leave the conspiracy theories to the "Truthers". Hydrogen gets overhyped because the vast majority of people are completely clueless when it comes to anything technical. A few people with just enough knowledge to be dangerous can easily find an outlet for their views in the scientifically-challenged media and before long it becomes common knowledge that hydrogen is the way to go. See http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/10/10/schopenhauer-on-cascades/ for a longer discussion on this type of cascade.

Engineer-Poet -

I explicitly said that I don't know how much the fuel cell system costs and that I knew how important that would be for automotive applications. I'm just an aerospace engineer working on my PhD, I don't know enough about the design drivers for cars to say whether or not hydrogen fuel cells make sense there. I do know that because of the specific energy issue, it DOES make sense to use hydrogen fuel cells in aerospace applications.

Please also remember that efficiency is not the be-all end-all of every problem. If it was every car would be powered by a Stirling engine. For those unfamiliar, the Stirling cycle has the highest theoretical efficiency of any engine cycle, but they have a very low specific power, meaning that for a given power output they are very heavy. Life is full of trade-offs, and it's dangerous to try and optimize anything on a single dimension.

I haven't crunched the numbers, but I would expect that for a larger-scale application, like the whole automobile fleet, efficiency would be more important than for a smaller-scale application, like a few airplanes. So I would guess that hydrogen fuel cells do not make sense to use in cars, but that their higher specific energy would be useful in niche applications, like high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles.

Engineer-Poet said at November 2, 2007 3:20 PM:

That is exactly my appraisal.  Cars can be relatively heavy and still be quite usable, so durability and cheapness will be valued over lightness for automotive uses.  Aircraft have very different requirements.

Randall Parker said at November 2, 2007 6:21 PM:


The inefficiency of conversion of electricity to hydrogen is so high that even if we ignore storage apparatus costs the electricity used at night to store hydrogen will require 4 kwh at night for every 1 kwh used in the day as hydrogen is used the next day to produce electricity.

Suppose you start with 10 cents/kwh electricity to produce hydrogen at night. The next day you effectively get 40 cents/kwh electricity when you use the stored hydrogen to generate electricity.

Even if dynamic pricing cut the cost of electricity in half at night you'd still end up paying 20 cents/kwh the next day. Why do that?

There are industrial battery systems that can shift electricity between night and day for much less per kwh than using hydrogen would cost. But even those NaS batteries cost more than generating more electricity during the day using conventional generation plants in most cases.

Randall Parker said at November 2, 2007 6:51 PM:


Regards conspiracies: When big companies have billions of dollars at stake they will tell lies. They will hire other people to tell lies. I don't think of this behavior as conspiracy in the Illuminatus/Bilderbergers/Masons sense. But money sure does cause some big organizations to propagate a lot of falsehoods. When people see a particular interpretation of events as favorable to their livelihoods they will lie to themselves and then often feel quite sincere as they lie to everyone else.

Oh, and smaller companies will tell lies for relatively smaller sums of money.

Look at the Arab oil sheikdoms. Back in the 1980s they all suddenly boosted their stated reserves in order to justify higher shares of OPEC production quotas. They had a large self interest in lying. So they told big lies. They continue to lie about their oil reserves to this day. Others foolishly continue to take seriously their pronouncements about their reserves. Their lies work for them.

One can make the mistake of dismissing arguments that come across as based on assuming huge conspiracies. A lot of conspiracy theorizing is nutty. But we really do live in a world where a whole lot of deceit is going on due to self interest.

Wolf-Dog said at November 3, 2007 5:13 AM:

Randall Parker wrote :"Look at the Arab oil sheikdoms. Back in the 1980s they all suddenly boosted their stated reserves in order to justify higher shares of OPEC production quotas. They had a large self interest in lying. So they told big lies. They continue to lie about their oil reserves to this day. Others foolishly continue to take seriously their pronouncements about their reserves. Their lies work for them."

One reason the Middle Eastern aristocrats may have exaggerated their oil reserves is because they know that if the western countries truly realize that we are going to run out of oil within a couple of decades, then there will be a massive Bronx Project to switch to alternative energy, such as electric cars charged by nukes. And understandably, the Western oil companies probably also favored exaggerating the Middle Eastern oil reserves, precisely for the same reasons, and they concurred with the Middle Eastern aristocrats .

One great conspiracy movie about oil companies, was "The Formula" (1980). In this fiction movie, it is revealed that before the end of World War II, nazi scientists invented an improved formula to produce very cheap synthetic gasoline, but the oil companies are determined to suppress this knowledge at any price, by using bribery, extortion, and murder. But one great line in this movie, is when Marlon Brando (the CEO of the big American oil company) and his advisers are discussing the oil prices. The adviser tells Marlon Brando "Let's raise the price of oil, after all we can always blame it on the Arabs". Then Marlon Brando answers: "You are missing the point: WE are the Arabs."

Wolf-Dog said at November 3, 2007 5:18 AM:

Here is the movie "The Formula" (1980) about oil companies suppressing alternatives:


Randall Parker said at November 3, 2007 9:55 AM:


All the oil producers have an incentive for us to not know they aren't reliable long term suppliers. Investments in alternatives create competing sources of energy. Competition drives down prices and decreases profits.

By contrast, the conspiracy theorists are wrong when they think car companies oppose alternatives to the internal combustion engine. Yes, they have some capital for making engines. But that capital gradually wears out and they could migrate to other methods of propulsion. They are better off with cheaper alternatives because lower costs of energy for transportation would increase demand for cars. Increased demand means increased profits.

Paul Dietz said at November 3, 2007 10:26 AM:

And, electric cars would move the consumers' money flow from operating expenses (fuel, fluid changes) to capital expenses (initial cost, battery replacement). This transfer the spending from the oil companies to the car companies.

Wolf-Dog said at November 3, 2007 12:43 PM:

Initially electric cars will be expensive, but this is only because of batteries. In reality, once batteries become cheap and powerful in a few years (probably in less than 5 years), then, the price of electric cars will actually be LOWER than internal combustion engine based cars. The reason is because the electric cars have far fewer components and very few moving parts. There is no need for transmissions, complex gear boxes, lubrication, exhaust pipes, cooling mechanisms, etc. Each wheel gets its own independent electric motor, and that's it. The "capital investment" is for the invention of batteries, but later it will be very cheap. We still need to build 200 nuclear reactors, each with capacity 1000 Megawatts to charge 300 million cars in the US, but if we build only 20 reactors per year, this would cost $30 billion per year only, a fraction of what we are losing in Iraq every year.

Brett Bellmore said at November 3, 2007 3:30 PM:

"There is no need for transmissions, complex gear boxes, lubrication, exhaust pipes, cooling mechanisms, etc. Each wheel gets its own independent electric motor, and that's it."

Have you actually used electric motors much? Because my experience using them to drive wheeled robots doesn't support the idea that an electric vehicle meant to run efficiently at a wide range of speeds wouldn't need a transmission. Or, for that matter, cooling and lubrication. Simpler, yes, but you are still going to need some of those systems.

I'm not even sure you'd want to put the motors in the wheels, given the need to minimize unsprung weight to get good performance out of the suspension. Might be able to finesse that with an active suspension, though.

Engineer-Poet said at November 4, 2007 6:30 AM:

Venture Vehicles claims that the weight penalty is small, because an in-wheel motor eliminates the need for a brake disc (the VentureOne has disc brakes on the front wheel).  The claim for the in-wheel electric drive Mini Cooper is that there are no gears in the drivetrain.

Wolf-Dog said at November 4, 2007 9:33 AM:

Even if there are some gears, these will be much simpler and lighter than the internal combustion engine cars. If I understood what I read, even the ultra-fast Tesla car has only two gears, one for regular speed, and the other is for fast speed. But most importantly, there is no need for a complicated transmission if each gets a simple separate motor. Of course, there will be some kind of shock protection that will make the wheel somewhat more indirectly connected to the motor, but this will be much simpler. There will be no engine oil (which becomes incredibly toxic after a few months of use), no radiator, etc.

Nick said at November 5, 2007 10:10 AM:


"the conspiracy theorists are wrong when they think car companies oppose alternatives to the internal combustion engine. "

Car companies have an enlightened long-term self interest in alternatives. Individual car company employees, who fear for their careers after a lifetime of investment in knowledge of ICE's and related systems, will tend to sabotage them.

I believe that's a good part of what happened with the EV-1: some people in GM believed in them, and some, including sales people who steered customers away from them, didn't.

p.s., can you reduce the prominence of the "forget personal informatin" button? I keep hitting it accidentally....

Randall Parker said at November 5, 2007 5:28 PM:


I know why the EV-1 was killed by GM and it was for technical reasons relating to battery reliability. GM is now, btw, on their third attempt to build an electric car. I've talked to the guy who ran the first 2 attempts and he's more optimistic that the third try will work.

Engineer-Poet said at November 5, 2007 7:52 PM:

Battery reliability doesn't explain why GM refused to sell any of the existing vehicles, or even their parts.  The Toyota RAV-4 EV didn't have any better battery technology, but people snapped them up anyway.  GM's actions look more like an agenda than a rational appraisal of market conditions.

Wolf-Dog said at November 6, 2007 3:12 AM:

Old Detroit companies had every reason to discredit electric vehicles because:
1) Electric cars will ultimately become cheaper to build than gasoline based cars,
2) Electric cars are very low maintenance in comparison to gasoline cars,
3) Electric cars would last much longer than gasoline cars, at least 50 years (the battery will be changed every 10 years.)

Electric cars would ultimately become considerably simpler and cheaper to build than internal combustion engine based cars, because electric cars will have a lot less moving parts, no complicated transmissions, radiators, exhaust, complicated engine oils, etc. The maintenance of electric cars would be much less demanding than internal combustion engine cars, meaning that electric cars would almost never break down, and such cars would last 50 years or more (the battery would probably be changed every 10 years, and the electric motors may be serviced every few years, but overall probably only 10 % of the maintenance of gasoline cars.) Also although the initial price of electric cars is high, the price will drop dramatically in the future, well below gasoline cars.

But in this new environment where Europeans and Japanese are in favor of building electric cars, and since there is already some competition from Silicon Valley startup companies building electric cars, the Detroit companies are finally forced to join the race to build real electric cars.

Pete said at November 6, 2007 4:34 AM:

I can see there is some confusion as to why battery powered cars are so slowly catching on among US producers.
Remember the old marketing trick by Kodak? Give away the camera and make a fortune by selling film.
Same goes for petrol slurping automobiles.
Big boys in the US get megarich by the fact that most of the worlds oil is traded in US currency.
This works because big boys are in bed with the major oil fellas from the OPEC gang.

Try this with lithium rich countries and it won't work because they either don't want to know about the big boys shoddy practices, or they are under close supervision by mighty neighbour countries (Tibet/China i.e.)

So why should US car makers invest heavily in electric cars if no one can reap the real profit from global sales of the raw material for the batteries or the electricity to charge them?

Similar goes for zinc air battery technology. Although it has a higher energy storage density and zinc is more readily available than lithium (in its industrially usable form), it isn't gaining much attention by US based car/battery makers. This is because zinc is so wide spread and its trade can't be controlled for the sake of making big bucks.
The automobil is just the tool, the fuel is the real cash cow!

Wolf-Dog said at November 6, 2007 8:09 AM:

Here is a web site about a bus that is fueled by zinc-air batteries:

Although it had considerable success, for some reason this kind of battery was not very popular and did not find enough financing for production.

But I do not know if zinc-air is really more powerful than lithium batteries. Is there any documentation that this is the case?

Nick said at November 6, 2007 11:44 AM:

"the EV-1 was killed by GM and it was for technical reasons relating to battery reliability. GM is now, btw, on their third attempt to build an electric car. I've talked to the guy who ran the first 2 attempts and he's more optimistic that the third try will work."

Could you provide more info?? What do you mean by "battery reliability"?

cebess said at November 6, 2007 11:52 AM:

i really can't understand the statement:
Old Detroit companies had every reason to discredit electric vehicles because:
1) Electric cars will ultimately become cheaper to build than gasoline based cars,
2) Electric cars are very low maintenance in comparison to gasoline cars,
3) Electric cars would last much longer than gasoline cars, at least 50 years (the battery will be changed every 10 years.)

1) sounds like the reason they would want them, lower production costs should mean higher profit.
2) low maintenance may be a good thing for them as well. It's the dealerships that make a profit of maintenance not the large car companies. Large car companies have spun off their component organizations into separate companies. Lower maintenance sounds like less warranty claims.
3) Car lifetime has little to do with endurance and more to do with fashion. The car companies do focus on fashion -- although they seemed to miss the mark for the last few years.

Pete said at November 6, 2007 2:49 PM:

Wolf-Dog, when following your link, it says 200Wh/kg on the front page for zinc air.
Energy density ratings for LiIon are said to be between 150 and 200Wh/kg.
Over the last years, considerable amount of research has gone into Li based battery technology, a lot more than into Zn air. Due to this, I bet Zn air has more untapped potential.

Wolf-Dog said at November 7, 2007 2:38 AM:

One reason Zinc-Air batteries were not favored initially, was that a few years ago, ultracapaticors were not available. Due to the fact that Zinc-Air batteries do not give strong bursts of charge for acceleration (even though Zinc-Air batteries are strong, this slowness is probably due to the slow chemical reactions with oxygen if I understood what I have read. To compensate for the slowness of these strong Zinc-Air batteries, ultracapacitors are used as a buffer to hold a lot of charge for fast acceleration. But these days the ultracapacitors are not difficult to get.

But in any case, these electric battery companies have very little money for research, only tens of millions of dollars per company at most... Meanwhile so many hundreds of billions of dollars are wasted for so many incredibly useless things... An emergency Bronx Project for batteries would almost certainly reveal dramatic improvements within a couple of years, if the government provides the money...

Engineer-Poet said at November 8, 2007 7:52 AM:

More to the point, zinc-air cells are mostly primary cells and cannot be used for regenerative braking.

Post a comment
Name (not anon or anonymous):
Email Address:
Remember info?

Go Read More Posts On FuturePundit
Site Traffic Info
The contents of this site are copyright ©