Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association


Myths and Misconceptions

Myths and Misconceptions

Myth: Installing a hydrogen infrastructure will be prohibitively expensive

The hydrogen transition will not need enormous investments in addition to those that the energy industry is already making. Instead, it will displace many of those investments.

It is expected that the roll-out of a hydrogen infrastructure will occur regionally over time to coincide with vehicle deployment. Yet with the adoption of hydrogen fuel cell products in early markets such as forklifts, airport baggage tugs, back-up power for telecom sites; distributed power for remote communities; and in transit buses, we are seeing a near-term demand for hydrogen.

With automotive fuel cell electric vehicles in the near term horizon, we must begin to install a hydrogen infrastructure now.

Myth: Hydrogen and fuel cells are too expensive

What do computers, cell phones, televisions, wind turbines and solar panels all have in common? People initially thought that they were too expensive when they were first developed.

As with any new technology, cost can be an issue. But, as demand increases, scientists make new breakthroughs, and companies find ways to cut costs, the price will continue to go down. So, while cost remains an issue right now, hydrogen and fuel cells have the potential to be produced for even less than current technologies.

Hydrogen Costs

Many industries already use large quantities hydrogen as a raw material in the chemical synthesis of ammonia, methanol, hydrogen peroxide, polymers, and solvents. Even oil refineries use hydrogen to remove the sulphur from crude oil. But, because hydrogen products for consumers aren’t widely available, there is little economic incentive to make and sell hydrogen fuel.

When analysis’s evaluate hydrogen's cost to consumers, they often forget that hydrogen can be made nearly anywhere, from any power source, including renewable energy sources. This flexibility can eliminate most or even all transportation costs. Since a large portion of the price that consumers pay for fuel is for transportation, this is significant. For example, the present price of delivered liquid hydrogen is around four times the cost of producing hydrogen.

Finally, in any cost comparison of hydrogen to other fuels, we shouldn’t compare apples to oranges. It isn’t meaningful to compare the price of a gallon of hydrogen to a gallon of gasoline because both fuels produce a different amount of energy. What really counts is how many cents a kilometre your fuel costs. Even at the present price of delivered liquid hydrogen, if you used hydrogen to power a fuel cell vehicle, your cost per kilometre would be the same as getting gasoline for a dollar a gallon.

Fuel Cell Costs

The costs of fuel cells will inevitably decrease because the raw materials (such as graphite, commodity metals, plastics, and composite) are inexpensive. The only material that is expensive is current catalyst, typically platinum. To overcome this, scientists are researching alternative catalysts from base metals and reducing the amount of platinum needed. Furthermore, platinum may become less expensive due to new platinum recycling systems. Despite their higher setup and development cost, fuel cells have lower maintenance costs and longer operating life.

Myth: Hydrogen is dangerous

Most fuels have high energy content and must be handled properly to be safe. Hydrogen is no different. In general, hydrogen is neither more nor less inherently hazardous than gasoline, propane, or methane. As with any fuel, safe handling depends on knowledge of its particular physical, chemical, and thermal properties and consideration of safe ways to accommodate those properties. Hydrogen, handled with this knowledge, is a safe fuel. Hydrogen has been safely produced, stored, transported, and used in large amounts in industry by following standard practices that have been established in the past 50 years. These practices can also be emulated in non-industrial uses of hydrogen to attain the same level of routine safety.

Myth: Hydrogen caused the Hindenburg to blow up.

Actually, the cause of the fire that destroyed the German passenger airship Hindenburg in 1937 in New Jersey is still unknown. An investigation in 1990 by Addison Bain, a NASA engineer, showed that the paint coating used on the skin of the airship caused the fire. The coating contained reactive chemicals similar to solid rocket fuel. When the airship was docking in 1937, an electrical discharge ignited the skin, and the fire raced over the surface of the airship.

Myth: Commercial hydrogen can make a hydrogen bomb

It’s not possible to make a hydrogen bomb with commercially available hydrogen fuel for a couple of reasons. The thermonuclear explosion from a hydrogen bomb results from a nuclear fusion reaction. Two isotopes of hydrogen – deuterium and tritium – collide at very high energy to fuse into helium nuclei, releasing tremendous amounts of energy. However, to get these rare isotopes of hydrogen to fuse requires extraordinary temperatures (hundreds of millions of degrees) supplied by a thermonuclear weapon by an atomic bomb to trigger the fusion reaction. The sheer amount of energy makes this impossible for anyone but professionals in a lab. Furthermore, commercial hydrogen gas doesn’t even contain deuterium or tritium. Without these isotopes, it is impossible for ordinary hydrogen gas to produce a thermonuclear reaction under any circumstances.

Myth: Hydrogen isn’t a clean fuel

Hydrogen as a fuel doesn’t create any emissions when used in a fuel cell. However, it is only as clean as the energy source it’s derived from. Producing hydrogen from fossil fuels does create emissions, but it is less than gasoline or diesel. It is also easier to control this pollution because the pollution is limited to the fuel production process. Hydrogen is best when produced from non-polluting renewable energy sources. Different countries will make different choices, depending on their current energy availability and future priorities.

For vehicles, according to well-to-wheels studies, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are at least twice as efficient as gasoline vehicles, and 40% more efficient than a hybrid. Most hydrogen internal combustion engines are about 30% more efficient than their gasoline counterparts and fuel cells are 100-200% (2-3 times) more efficient.

If we continue to drive vehicles running on fossil fuels, we will continue emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at an ever-growing rate. But if we drive vehicles running on hydrogen, and burn fossil fuels to make that hydrogen, we can choose to sequester the carbon emitted during production or emit it into the atmosphere. If we choose to produce hydrogen from non-polluting sources of energy, we will decrease the amount of global air pollution that we will create.

Myth: There isn’t an abundant source of hydrogen fuel

Hydrogen can be made from almost any source of energy. Oil, coal, hydro power, solar power, nuclear power, geothermal power and other energy sources can all be transformed into electricity and then, by electrolysis, into hydrogen.

Contrast that with gasoline for cars. Even though people tend to talk about cars running on oil, they actually run on gasoline, which is manufactured, not found. Gasoline can only be made from oil, which we get out of the ground, as a feedstock. When we can no longer find oil at a reasonable cost, we can still make hydrogen.

Myth: In cars, hydrogen can’t compete with regular gas

In many ways, hydrogen vehicles are more viable than gasoline. Vehicles that use hydrogen in an internal combustion engine are about 30% more efficient than comparable gasoline vehicles. Best of all, they produce ultra-low emissions, with no CO2. Fuel cells are ideally suited for cars that use electrical systems instead of hydraulics for functions such as steering and braking. These cars are two to three times more energy efficient than gas cars. Also, in a fuel cell electric vehicle, automakers can put the power train anywhere, which gives them the ultimate in design freedom.

Myth: Using renewable power to produce hydrogen wastes energy

It would be ideal if you could just plug in to your solar panel or wind generator and use that power right away. However, it’s not always windy or sunny, so renewable energy projects need a storage system that provides energy whenever you we need it. Hydrogen can store energy that would otherwise go to waste.

Myth: Hydrogen and fuel cell products are still in development and we can’t buy them today

Hydrogen and fuel cell products are available today. Many hydrogen fuel cells are used today in forklifts in warehouses, buses in cities, and back-up power for communications companies. Companies and governments recognize the performance, financial, environmental and health benefits. These early uses are playing a pivotal role in refining the technology and establishing infrastructure.

Scientists and companies are currently testing micro fuel cells, often called portable power, to recharge and power cell phones and laptops. These should be available in the near future.

In the next couple of years, we’ll start to see new vehicles available for customers too. For example, Honda, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz currently have concept cars on the go and are all planning on releasing fuel cell cars for consumers in 2015.