The Hydrogen Economy Darryl McMahon

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The Hydrogen Economy

Darryl McMahon


  • History

  • Good News

  • Hyperbole

  • Bad News

  • Conclusion

 Darryl McMahon 2003

All rights reserved.


1500's -Paracelsus - discovery of the gas

1700's - Nicholas Lemery - gas is flammable

1800's - Henry Cavendish - main properties

1800's - Sir Humphry Davy - electrolysis


Gaseous, odorless, colourless, tasteless, flammable, explosive, bonds with many other elements, seldom found in pure form in nature

Liquid at -253 C (20 K)

Not an energy source, it is an energy store

Fuel Cells

1839 - first fuel cell developed by Sir William R. Grove (England)

1932 - Francis Bacon (U.S.) develops a multi-watt fuel cell, refined until 1952, serves as basis for NASA interest

Recent History


Allis-Chalmers - fuel cell tractor


Brookhaven National Laboratories

Metal hydrides

Dr. Roger E. Billings - hydrogen economy

Cars converted to run on hydrogen

Dr. David S. Scott

Hydrogen fuel-cell powered GO Trains

Ballard - Fuel cells (PEM)


U.S. Government

Hydricity and hydrogen fuel cell cars

Good News

  • Clean burning fuel - "the ash of hydrogen is water"

  • Internal combustion with air

  • Produces mechanical power, water, N2O and heat

Otto cycle, Diesel cycle, Wankel, etc.

  • External combustion with air

  • Produces mechanical power, water, N2O and heat

Rankin, Stirling, boilers, etc.

  • Subject to Carnot's rules, Laws of Thermodynamics

PEM, alkaline, molten carbonate, phosphoric acid, solid oxide, direct methanol

Canadian players

Federal Government

(NRC, NRCan, EnviroCan)

Provincial Governments


Azure Dynamics



Enbridge Gas Distribution

EVI Canada

General Hydrogen

Global Thermoelectric


Hydro Quebec


Mitsubishi (via Chysalix Energy)

Ontario Power Generation


Shell Canada (via HERA Hydrogen Storage)

Stuart Energy


President Bush State of the Union Address (2003.01.28)
"Tonight I'm proposing $1.2 billion in research funding so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles."
"A single chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen generates energy, which can be used to power a car -- producing only water, not exhaust fumes. With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom, so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free."

Herb Dhaliwal (federal minister)

"Hydrogen fuel cells mean clean energy, less air pollution and new jobs."
We're hy on Hydrogen Hype
2 Key Markets: distributed generation; and transportation fuel

Distributed Generation

  • Grid applications have claimed over 90% combined efficiency when both electricity and heat are taken as useful outputs

  • But most places it has been installed, the waste heat is not of value, so real efficiency is below 50% at the facility wall, excluding any energy costs associated with producing, storing or transporting the hydrogen

Transportation (Automakers)

  • Daimler Chrysler - NECars (almost 20 since 1970s)

(F-Cell - 180 miles between refuellings)

  • Toyota - 2 FCHV cars in California - December 2002 (vs. Prius)

  • Honda - 1 FXC car in California - December 2002

(up to 30 more worldwide in next 5 years vs. 50,000 hybrids)

  • Nissan - X-Trail FCV - less than 10 - all in Japan for testing

  • Renault - since 1992, most recent Laguna FEVER

  • GM - currently has 6 minivans

  • 1966 had the Electrovan

  • at Jan. 2003 Detroit Auto Show, backed away from fuel cells - going to hybrids

  • Peugeot - after 20 years studying fuel cells, announced new focus on hybrids as of February 13, 2003

  • From 1959 to 2003, about 150 hydrogen powered vehicles have been produced by automakers, governments and research organizations (starting with Allis-Chalmers fuel cell 20 hp tractor)

  • All mockups, prototypes, demonstrators or research vehicles

  • None have made it to even limited commercial production

  • After 40+ years of research and development, there are still no commercially produced hydrogen cars.


  • GM answered this question in 1966.


  • They had resolved the major technical issues by the mid-1960s.

  • So why are the automakers and fossil fuel industry investing in hydrogen hype?

  • Hubbert's Peak (hedging bets)

  • Protecting the current business model

  • Divert attention from more logical, but less profitable (for them), alternatives

Bad News

The devil is in the details:

the hydrogen energy cycle

  • Over 95% of hydrogen produced today comes from steam reforming of fossil fuels

  • So, while it burns clean, given its source, hydrogen is a dirty fuel today

  • Petro industry has lots of additional capacity to produce more


  • Cryogenic (*)

  • Pressurized

  • Hydrides

  • Carbon tubes

  • Liquid fuels (hydrogen carriers)


  • Pipelines

  • Embrittlement

  • Tanker cars

  • Trucks

  • Collisions


  • High Pressure

  • Cryogenic Temperatures

  • Leaky

  • Lighter than air

  • Reactive

  • Flammable / Explosive

Electricity Generation

  • 50% is a number typically used in the media for a hydrogen PEM fuel cell using pure oxygen, typically for single cells in labs. For real-world cell stacks, in transport applications, allowing for power used to remove waste heat, waste water and non-oxygen impurities, 30% net efficiency is closer to reality.

Public Perception - the "H" words

System Efficiency

  • Hydrogen does not occur naturally in significant quantities on Earth, so has to be produced


  • Steam reforming from natural gas

  • At best, 80% efficient (20% loss)

  • Not sustainable, and natural gas prices are rising

  • Electrolysis

  • 50 (current commercial) to 80% (Stuart, unspecified conditions) efficient


  • Liquefaction - current preferred commercial process for transport

  • 45 (current commercial - Linde) to 60% efficient


  • Depends on mode and distance traveled

  • For liquid fuels and natural gas (methane), industry prefers pipelines - minimum 5% loss

  • For hydrogen, tankers are more likely, 10% loss more realistic

Depot and On-board Storage

  • Minimum loss 1% per day to maintain cryogenic temperatures or evaporative losses

  • Assume average 3 days in depot storage and 3 days in vehicle - 6% loss

Fuel Cell Conversion

  • Actual numbers of research cells are closely held, and none with adequate life yet exist, but 35% conversion in lab seems likely today

  • Can't count heat production as part of efficiency for transport use

  • Assume 40% efficiency (60% loss)

Drive Train Losses

  • Capacitor / Battery buffer (98% efficient)

  • Motor controller, wiring & instrumentation (95% efficient)

  • Motor (95% efficient)

  • Drive train (gearbox, bearings, tires - 95% efficient)

  • Drive Train comprehensive efficiency - 84%

Optimistic cycle efficiency

  • Assumes AC (grid) electricity is free and surplus

  • Electrolysis (80%) * Liquefaction (60%) * Transport (95%) * Storage (94%) * Fuel Cell (40%) * Drive Train (84%)

14.4% hydrogen energy cycle efficiency

Realistic cycle efficiency

  • Electrical generation 50% (mix of hydro, nuclear, thermal)

  • Generation (50%) * Electrolysis (60%) * Liquefaction (60%) * Transport (90%) * Storage (94%) * Fuel Cell (35%) * Drive Train (84%)

4.4% hydrogen energy cycle efficiency

Compare to

  • biofuels in ICE (10-15%?)

  • hybrids using fossil fuels (15-20%?)

  • hybrids using biofuels (16-22%?)

  • battery electrics (25-75%)


Hydrogen is an energy store, not a source -

it has to be produced

Current hydrogen industry is not sustainable, and not clean
The current state of technology for production, storage, transport, handling and generation of power from hydrogen are not efficient enough to justify the investment in infrastructure to use it
More fundamental and applied research is required before investments are made in commercializing the hydrogen economy
There are better potential technologies to invest in for the short term (conservation, wind power, pumped storage, battery EVs, advanced batteries)



American Hydrogen Association Home Page

The International Association for Hydrogen Energy

The California Hydrogen Business Council

The National Hydrogen Association

The Hydrogen Community

U.S. DOE Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

U.S. DOE Hydrogen, Fuel Cells and Infrastructure Technologies

Energy Alternatives - the 1981 report by the Canadian Government Special Committee on Alternative Energy and Oil Substitution ISBN 0-660-10912-3
Fuel Cells

Fuel Cell Today
The Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Investor

Ballard Power Systems Inc.

Smithsonian Institution on Fuel Cells

The Hydrogen Fuel Cell Institute

Powering the Future (Tom Koppel) (1999)

ISBN 0-471-64421-8


HyWeb Listing of Hydrogen Vehicles (156)
December 2002 Toyota/Honda/California Announcement

The California Hydrogen Business Council

President Bush, January 28, 2003 State of the Union Address

1966 GM Electrovan web video

FCEV Reality Check - Darryl McMahon

EV Circuit - January/February 2003 or

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