Fuel cells take a blow
Via Engineer-Poet, the European Fuel Cell Forum — who you’d expect to be pro-fuel cell — has dealt a major blow to the idea of fuel cell cars powered by hydrogen. Noting that hydrogen will, under any reasonable assumption, continue to be less efficient and more costly than electricity, the EFCF has decided to abandon the most prominent form of automotive fuel cell, the proton exchange membrane. They have not, however, abandoned fuel cells altogether:
We need fuel cells for available fuels, not synthetic fuels for new fuel cells. Natural gas and oil-derived liquid hydrocarbons will be around for many years. However, their use will be restricted by costs, environmental concerns or even political reasons. Sustainable hydrocarbons like bio-methane, bio-ethanol and bio-methanol from organic waste, wood or farming are already replacing fuels of fossil origin. Hydrocarbon fuels will be important forever and so will fuel cells capable of directly converting these fuels into electricity.
The impressive performance of phosphoric acid, molten carbonate and solid oxide fuel cells clearly indicates that these fuel cell families can meet the challenges of a sustainable future. Some of these fuel cells have reached 65,000 hours of operation with the first stack and natural gas or bio-methane.
It is highly uncertain that synthetic hydrogen can ever be established as a universal energy carrier. Electricity from renewable sources will be the source energy in a sustainably organized future. The direct distribution of electricity to the consumer is three to four times more efficient than its conversion to hydrogen by electrolysis of water, packaging and transport of synthetic energy carrier to the consumer and its conversion back to electricity with efficient fuel cells. By laws of physics, hydrogen economy can never compete with an “electron economy”.
But the laws of physics cannot be changed with further research, investments or political decisions. A sustainable future energy harvested from renewable sources (nuclear energy is not sustainable!) must be distributed and used with the highest efficiency. A wasteful hydrogen economy does not meet the criteria of sustainability. As a result, a viable free-market hydrogen infrastructure will never be established and fuel cells for hydrogen may not be needed. For all applications electricity from hydrogen fuel cells has to compete with the source electricity used to make hydrogen.
Ulf Bossel has long been an advocate of the “electron economy”, an alternative to the Hydrogen Economy pushed by people like Jeremy Rifkin or Amory Lovins. You can find a good summary of his arguments here (PDF).
Bossel argues — and I strongly agree — that the losses inherent in any kind of “hydrogen economy” make it unworkable. It would entail the construction of a large new network that we don’t even know how to build yet. Electricity, on the other hand, is well-understood and efficiently transmitted and stored (though with real and not-insignificant losses). Most importantly, the infrastructure exists and is easily understood.