“Is Hydrogen the Future?”
If you are familiar with any online transport discussion, you will have heard or read this statement: “Hydrogen Is The Future.”
In this latest Whitecar Opinion Blog, we compare hydrogen against fossil fuel and battery vehicles through the eyes of three electrons:
‘Zappy’, ‘Buzz’ and ‘Tingle’.
These electrons are all produced at the same time, at a wind farm off the coast of the UK. They share the same goal; to transfer their energy into as much movement as possible.
Travelling together through the electricity grid, they quickly realise they are destined for different career paths. Zappy shoots off to an oil refinery near Edinburgh. Buzz zooms to a hydrogen electrolyser in London. Tingle plots a course for an electric car charger in Manchester.
Zappy has an intense, bright career ahead of her. On arrival at the refinery she is consumed in a matter of moments, her energy passing into petrol. Producing petrol, using crude oil gathered from around the world, requires energy from billions of Zappy’s new colleagues and delivers a fuel that is burned in engines.
Once produced, the petrol is transported (using more petrol) to delivery stations. People then bring their vehicles from home or work (using more petrol) to pump the petrol into their cars and vans (in exchange for money).
The whole process, from getting the oil out of the ground to achieving movement at the wheels of the car, involves a lot of steps. Each step consumes and wastes energy.
And so despite her best intentions, Zappy does not do well in achieving her goal – most of her energy is wasted, and only about 13% of it ends up as movement. Most of the energy is lost as heat, and the process releases pollution at almost every stage.
Back to Buzz, who meets trillions of new electrons in London, as they stream in from all over the country. He jostles for space at the entrance to the electrolyser, and then the process begins. Along with billions of his new colleagues he is consumed with a pop, as his energy transfers into a bubble of hydrogen.
The assembled hydrogen is compressed, and compressed, using the energy from more electrons.
Then it is stored in tanks, ready for the next step.
Buzz is unable to see this far (on account of being consumed) but we know that the next step involves the hydrogen transferring into another tank, still at very high pressure, inside a car.
This car contains a hydrogen fuel cell, a battery, and an electric motor.
The hydrogen passes through the fuel cell where it is allowed to recombine with oxygen, releasing the energy that Buzz and his friends contributed back in the electrolyser. Of course not all of the energy made it this far. Plenty is lost in the electrolysis process and some more is lost in the fuel cell process, so only about 22% of his original energy makes it to movement.
So Buzz did OK. He didn’t contribute to pollution in the same way as Zappy, but he also didn’t make that much movement with his energy.
Let’s check in with Tingle as she makes her way to that electric car charger in Manchester, via the National Grid. She blasts through the countryside along high voltage wires, passing through transformers, stepping down in voltage each time. She surges past some circuit breakers and zooms into a car battery.
She looks around.
She is surrounded by billions of other electrons. They talk about where they started their journeys. Some came from solar panels on the nearby roof. Some came from gas power stations, and others, like Tingle came from wind farms. In the corner, standing alone, a group of electrons with a slightly green glow were huddled together like penguins, waiting.
“They’re from Nuclear, its best to avoid them”, Tingle overhears.
All the electrons suddenly feel some movement. They hear faint music. A clunk. A click. More movement! This is it!
Tingle notices that a few of the electrons have left. She feels drawn towards the batteries exit ever so slightly, along with her colleagues. The sensation of movement increases, and the draw towards the exit gets more intense.
But it isn’t a constant draw? Every so often, some electrons come back in through the exit.
“It’s regenerative braking” says the young electron next to her. “When the car slows down the electric motor runs in reverse, sending some of us back in here to be used again”
A couple of hours go by with fast and slow movement and electrons going and sometimes returning through the regen system. Tingle is close to the battery exit now and she can almost see the electric motor!
Soon she would become movement!
A pile of electrons rush back in through the exit as the car decelerates. “Snowdonia! We’re in Snowdonia” they shout. “And we’re in a Tesla! It’s beautiful out there, you guys are going to love it!”
And then it was Tingle’s turn. She surged out of the exit, zooming into the electric motor where her energy finally became movement.
In the end, 73% of her original energy becomes movement.
Waste Not – Want Not
Hydrogen presents a choice – faster refuelling, but a highly complex and wasteful process. Producing electricity to produce and use hydrogen is a luxury we cannot afford, especially if more than 75% of that energy is wasted. Hydrogen storage and production is complex.
Every hydrogen car still needs a lithium ion battery to boost the output from the fuel cell. Hydrogen pipelines and fuel stations would need to be built, which would be expensive. Primarily hydrogen is produced from natural gas, so there are still pollution issues and our reliance on fossil fuels would continue.
By contrast, the electricity grid is already installed, and ready to be used to charge battery electric cars. During the overnight period the grid has a lot of spare capacity, which is when most electric cars are charged. The National Grid are confident we have enough grid capacity to make a big switch to electric cars.
The grid is fed by a combination of power sources, and it is getting cleaner all the time. Even now, most of the time in the UK we use almost no coal. That is great news for electric cars, which are so efficient with energy that they would be better for the environment even if ALL of our electricity was to come from coal!
Battery cars are simple, low maintenance and incredibly cheap to run.
Simplicity is key. Plugging in your car at home or at work is as easy as plugging in your phone. No special journeys for expensive fuel either.
And at Whitecar simplicity is everything. Which is why hydrogen, in our opinion, is not the future. We invite you to hire one of our battery electric cars to experience the future of travel and also the future of car rental.
Additional blogs in the Whitecar Opinion Series
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