Hydrogen Cars - Are they safe? How do they work?

Hydrogen Cars - Are they safe?  How do they work?

This topic has been a burning question for me lately.  About 12 months ago, I started looking into Hydrogen cars.  What I found was the typical issue of  Hydrogen cars?  Are they safe?  How do they work? “.  I started doing some research in preparation to write a blog.  As I read more about it, I slowly understood the complexity of the whole issue.  Like everything in this complex world of ours, its all about money and the protection of what makes money, even though it means we put the existence of the human species at risk.  Why let the progress of humanity get in the way of making a shit load of money. 🙂

Recently, I got inspired to write on the topic again when I started seeing all these news of people taking investments on this technology.  I began to think that maybe I am just too pessimistic about the investment world.. they do care… 🙂  I started thinking that my thinking is not silly but just a bit too early… 🙂

What is a Fuel Cell?

Source:  Smithsonian InstitutionFuel Cell Basics

A fuel cell is a device that generates electricity by a chemical reaction. Every fuel cell has two electrodes called, respectively, the anode and cathode. The reactions that produce electricity take place at the electrodes.

Every fuel cell also has an electrolyte, which carries electrically charged particles from one electrode to the other, and a catalyst, which speeds the reactions at the electrodes.

Hydrogen is the basic fuel, but fuel cells also require oxygen. One great appeal of fuel cells is that they generate electricity with very little pollution–much of the hydrogen and oxygen used in generating electricity ultimately combine to form a harmless byproduct, namely water.

One detail of terminology: a single fuel cell generates a tiny amount of direct current (DC) electricity. In practice, many fuel cells are usually assembled into a stack. Cell or stack, the principles are the same.

How do fuel cells work?

The notes from the  Smithsonian InstitutionFuel Cell Basics, has a lengthy explanation and you can read at your leisure.  In summary, the fuel cells are a combination of a combustion engine and that of battery power.  Fundamentally, fuel cells make the energy on the run. The engine uses the hydrogen and combines air to produce electricity which is then used to drive the motor.  This process creates water as a waste product, and it is so pure you can drink it.  So we are told.

The vehicle stores compressed hydrogen in a tank, and it is like your traditional fuel in a combustion engine car as opposed to a battery in an electric vehicle.

What is the positive news on Fuel Cell cars?

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will be the greenest form of energy, claiming the zero-emission title.  The hydrogen is produced from water, and the only waste product is water that is pure enough to drink.  The way you fill your car will take the same amount of time as putting in traditional fuel in your car that is running on the combustion engine.  Hydrogen cars will be able to drive much further than your Tesla (although some of the newer EV cars can do that now.)  Fuel cells work best in bigger vehicles and trucks, and this will help with the current environmental issues of pollution.  The clean environment has got to be positive in anyone’s books. Imagine all those soccer mums driving Landcruisers.

The other obvious positive is that you do not have to wait hours for your car to refuel.  You drive to a station and fuel up in minutes and not hours.  Your only problem now is that you don’t have a station to drive to fuel up.  But they will come soon.

Readers can view other positive effects of using hydrogen fuel cells at a site called Fuel Cell Today.

Why has fuel cells technology been slow for uptake?

They are expensive to produce (Platinum is a key component. This I did not know), as is hydrogen. The gas is flammable and difficult to store. And while hydrogen can be produced using renewable energy via electrolysis (using a current to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen), it’s more commonly produced from natural gas, releasing carbon dioxide in the process. For those who have read my earlier postings, I talked about the environmental negatives of renewable energy.  Have a read of the blog, Solar Energy – Could we alter the Climate?

Tesla’s Elon Musk has called the fuel cell technology “fool cells”. There’s an industry joke: hydrogen is the fuel of the future – and it always will be.

The process of making hydrogen from natural gas is called Natural Gas Reforming, and unfortunately, this is not very green.  In short, this is the process of exposing a methane source to high-temperature steam (700-1000 degree Celsius) and 3-25bar pressure in the presence of a catalyst.

Apart from all the technical issues that are apparent, the biggest stumbling block is the lack of refuelling stations.

Will Hydrogen cars blow up? – Hydrogen Fuel Tank Integrity.

The big issue with hydrogen cars was the previous belief that the vehicles would repeat the Hindenberg scenario.

I read an article about the Honda Clarity and came across their documentation regarding the integrity of the fuel tanks.

Hydrogen Cars
The new hydrogen cell hybrid car called the Honda Clarity.  It is a plug-in hybrid car.

I have quoted an article on Slash Gear March 19, 2017.

The 2017 Clarity Fuel Cell actually uses two of them, splitting its fuel between a larger tank behind the rear seats and a smaller one underneath them. Each is made of carbon fiber and, in a world’s first, lined with aluminum. They’re designed both to withstand huge pressure – the total 5.46 kg of hydrogen is stored at 10,000 PSI – but also to fail, should the worst happen, in a predictable and manageable way.

It’s tested to withstand extremes both of pressure and heat. Should the temperature rise to a point where an explosion could be a possibility, there’s a special valve that’s designed to safely vent the contents before that happens. Known as a thermally activated pressure relief device (TPRD), it’s a one-time-use outlet which can quickly release the hydrogen in a controlled manner.

As for the possible consequences of a crash, frankly the hydrogen tank is probably the safest part of the whole car when it comes to sustaining damage. Independent testing by Vancouver’s Powertech Labs of the sort of carbon-fiber tanks Honda – and other fuel-cell vehicles currently on the road, like Toyota’s Mirai – is relying on have found that nothing short of a .50-caliber bullet can make it through. Anything less just bounces off.

And if something does manage to pierce the carbon-fiber? The tanks themselves are designed to vent, but not rupture, just as the TPRD is: in effect, they release their pressure in a controlled way, rather than peeling open like a rotten cantaloupe. As the Honda engineers explained to me, it’ll be loud, and give you quite a shock, but it won’t actually explode.

Hydrogen sensors scattered near the fuel cell stack and near the tanks themselves keep their electronic noses primed for any escaping gases, shutting the system down if necessary. Vents on the front fenders and at the filler cap avoid any rogue hydrogen building-up. Since it’s lighter than air, it should quickly dissipate; nonetheless, a warning message is flagged up on the dashboard of the Clarity Fuel Cell, advising the driver to contact the dealership.

Recent News

Recently, in an article published by “The Australian – CSIRO on brink of a breakthrough in enabling hydrogen fuel cell supplies”, where they talked about a new technology that will make hydrogen fuel cell more viable in future vehicles.  According to the article, the technology from CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, an independent Australian federal government agency responsible for scientific research.) will solve the issue of transporting hydrogen to pumps that will refuel cars. The technology will also make it commercially viable to export hydrogen overseas as ammonia (NH3) for use in fuel cells.

Earlier this month, Andrew Forrest of Fortescue Mining announced that they would invest AUD$19M over a five-year period into research at the CSIRO’s Brisbane laboratories.  I am guessing that it is a pleasant diversion for Fortescue Mining to go into something new and different.  Low-grade iron ore industry is not looking great for them at the moment.

Who is investing in Hydrogen Fuel vehicles?

The main visible proponents of hydrogen fuel vehicles have been Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes.  The likes of BMW and Volkswagen/Audi are not far behind with prototypes.  In Germany, a program called H2 mobility is planning to build 100 hydrogen fueling stations across the country by 2019.

Mercedes has been in the news lately here in Australia with the detailing of its new hydrogen fuel-cell plug-in hybrid vehicle (www.news.com.au – 14th November 2018)

Hydrogen Cars
Mercedes-Benz GLC F-Cell

Mercedes plans to have up to 25% of their production in electric cars by 2025.  I am sure all the car makers will be doing that, and this is the reason why there are a lot of pf people shorting the profitability of Tesla.

For Hyundai, the car that has been making news is the Nexo SUV.  The price of the car would be a deterrent to your everyday folk, and the lack of refuelling station would make the lack of interest. However, like everything new, this will become more affordable with time. (www.news.com.au –  23rd February 2019)

Hydrogen Cars
The Nexo is a standout performer thanks to a range of firsts, from the 60 per cent efficiency of the fuel cell stack (a typical combustion engine is about half as efficient) to the use of three hydrogen tanks to ensure the Santa Fe-sized SUV has a Santa Fe-sized cargo area.
What do the financial markets think about all the fuss?

Honda like all its competitors are all into green technology. Electric cars are now the future, and everyone is into it. Tesla is no longer synonymous to the phrase electric vehicle.  Interestingly, there are a lot of Wall Street people who are shorting (selling, for those who are not familiar with the terminology) Tesla on the market.  Steve Eisman who is the real Steve Baum in the movie “The Big Short” is one of those guys that do not believe in the longevity of Tesla as the Michael Jordon of electric vehicles.

Interestingly I found a rebuttal to this thinking, and it is worth a read. Amusing, entertaining and relatively informative.  Its an article by Clean Technica – “Does Hedgefund Honcho Steve Eisman Not Have A Research Department To Give Him The Facts On Tesla?” by a Maarten Vinkhuyzen. I must say that the recent announcement by Tesla saying that they are back on track with production may be the downfall of Steve Eisman’s issue with their execution.  He was right that they had an execution issue as Elon Musk himself said that they nearly went broke because they could not meet production numbers.

Whats the Future?

In regards to the hydrogen cells, the fact that all the major car makers are going there even with the whole EV market, tells me that they are all hedging their bets.  I believe that the lottery is like this,  time to charge vs the number of fueling stations.  Whichever wins, will win the war.

The war is easier to win with building refuelling stations.  The recent media announcement by CSIRO will mean that the reality of hydrogen energy will be closer than say ten years ago. When you look at the EV market now, it’s not a done deal.  There are still so many factors to consider.  Hydrogen is easier to manufacture once the technology is understood, it will be a smooth ride.

A recent report by the Future Fuels Cooperative Research Centre (FFCRC) announced in April 2018, has secured more than $90 million in funding (including $26.5 million from the federal government and $8 million from gas network businesses) to undertake research and development to help transition Australia’s energy infrastructure to low-carbon fuels such as hydrogen and biogas. (Hydrogen for Australia’s Future)

I have not found any ASX companies that are in this industry so please let me know if anyone does find one.

In Conclusion, I must say that two years ago I was looking at a similar project and I will make sure that I contact those guys again.  They had an exciting technology, and after doing all this research, I am very bullish on the sector.  I will revisit those guys and get them to take the technology off the shelf.

 

 

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2 Comments
  1. Thanks for every other great post. Where else may anyone get that kind of information in such a perfect approach of writing? I’ve a presentation subsequent week, and I am at the search for such information.

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