Simanaitis Says

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“NO LONGER ’20 YEARS IN THE FUTURE,’ ” writes Lindsay Brooke, Editor-in-Chief, in SAE International Automotive Engineering, February 2023. “Hydrogen and fuel cells are a vital, high-growth solution for carbon reduction across the transportation and other industry sectors.” 

Energy and Replenishment. Brooke writes, “For vehicle engineers and customers, hydrogen fuel cells—with an energy-to-weight ratio 10X greater than lithium batteries—offers some key practical advantages over battery-electric propulsion.”

Also, he notes, “Time required to fill a 350- or 700-bar (5000 or 10,000 psi) high-pressure storage tank is as quick as topping up with gasoline or diesel. And compared with the ponderous mass of large-EV battery packs—3000 lb. in GM’s Hummer EV and an estimated 10,000 lb. in Tesla’s Class-8 Semi—a fuel-cell propulsion system with similar performance is a veritable lightweight.” 

A Logical Fit for Commercial Vehicles. Brooke observes, “Daimler, Hyundai, Kenworth (using a Toyota fuel-cell stack), Nikola and Volvo have pilot fleets of hydrogen fuel-cell Class-8 semitractors in haulage operations. Fuel-cell power is beginning to appear in medium-duty trucks chassis, buses (where China leads) and up the GVW scale to huge mining machines, railway locomotives and ships.” 

“In the light-duty pickup segment,” Brooke notes, “battery-electric has thus far been the clean-propulsion choice.” In emphasizing “thus far,” Brooke cites Ford CEO Jim Farley: “If you’re pulling 10,000-plus pounds, an electric truck is not the right solution. And 95 percent of our [Super Duty] customers tow more than 10,000 pounds. This is a really important segment for our country, and it will probably go hydrogen fuel cell before it goes pure electric.”

Image from Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Mobility for the 21st Century, by William J. Mitchell, Chris E. Borroni-Bird, and Lawrence D. Burns, MIT Press, 2015.

Cars As Well. Though often envisioned as a Battery Electric Vehicle niche, even cars are seen as fuel-cell candidates. Brooke recounts, “Honda, for example, is collaborating with GM (which has built prodigious intellectual property in the field over 50 years) on fuel-cell development. Honda will launch U.S. production of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles in 2024; the first model is a plug-in hybrid based on the new CR-V. BMW, which like Honda is following a multi-modal propulsion strategy, is building a pilot fleet of 100 iX5 Hydrogen SUVs.”

This fully-dressed BMW iX5 unit is as package-efficient as an IC engine (and more than twice as efficient in operation). This and the following images from SAE International Automotive Engineering, February 2023.

H2 in IC? The mid-’70s Billings Cadillac Seville was an early internal-combustion application of hydrogen fuel. From time to time the idea of H2 IC resurfaces, though efficiency is a shortcoming: Fuel-cell pioneer Bryan McCormick said, “One reason fuel cells match so well with H2 is that they’re at least 2X more efficient than combustion engines. So they make up in efficiency what they lose in more-challenging [fuel] storage.” 

Fuel-cell Cost Reductions. Brooke notes that engineers “believe most of the technological hurdles of the stack and its chemistries and ancillaries have been overcome.” Yet, cost of platinum has been considered a 40 percent hit on large-volume production, and Brooke says, “innovators are looking to reduce the platinum loading per fuel cell. One of them is Pajarito Powder, a manufacturer of fuel cell catalysts and electrolyzers.” A catalyst powder co-developed with Los Alamos National Laboratory and the University of New Mexico may reduce fuel cell catalyst costs by half. Brooke notes that “Hyundai is helping to fund a catalyst manufacturing facility that will use the company’s Varipore process.”

Inside a typical PEM fuel cell, the most common type used in vehicles. 

Whence the Hydrogen?  Brooke writes, “Hydrogen is primarily produced by the reforming of conventional hydrocarbons, typically natural gas (the so-called ‘grey’ hydrogen in the accompanying graphic). 

Electrolysis (the classic science experiment of splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen), Brooke notes, “is gaining share in the hydrogen-production market due to its ability to generate the gas carbon-free if renewably-sourced electricity is employed.”

Green hydrogen is the goal; blue hydrogen’s carbon capture and storage is an intermediate.

Timing. Charlie Freese is executive director of GM’s Global Fuel Cell organization. He told Brooke, “We always worried about whether hydrogen could be coming down to where it’s actually competitive with offsetting the petroleum-based fuels. There are pathways to do that now.” ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023     


    February 25, 2023

    Good story! Sounds like BEV growth will dominate 2025-2030 and maybe, by the late 2020’s, HEV (Hydrogen Electric Vehicles) will take over the #1 growth spot…but the longer-out the forecast, the more risky it is to bet your own money…


  2. Bob Storck
    February 25, 2023

    I hope you’re sending this to Biden, Buttigieg and the CARB. They seem fixated on the “two sizes fits all” wind and solar solution.
    Note that Japan is making great gains on tidal and ocean current generation systems, while those on the ‘Ring of Fire’ are benefiting from geothermal.

  3. sabresoftware
    February 25, 2023

    My brother used to work for Ballard Power in Vancouver, albeit on their industrial safety team, but I managed to get a tour of their facilities through him. It was always a “real soon now” scenario, consuming copious amounts of cash in research, and at one point he was laid off as his department was downsized to his boss only, as they tried to rein in costs.

    I see that they divested their automotive fuel cell activities to partners Ford and Daimler-Benz in 2008, concentrating on larger vehicle systems and fixed power generation systems. I see that Audi is a current partner though.

    One thing I wonder about is that while H2O as the sole exhaust product and primary feedstock for electrolysis are relatively benign compared to fossil fuel feedstock and CO2 exhaust, I suspect that it too could pose challenges. In a world substantially challenged with water supplies in many locations, the demand for hydrogen production at a global energy level could have serious implications. Also, water vapor from exhaust at high levels of output could have significant implications on climate too as atmospheric humidity levels would probably be impacted. Both aspects should be studied sooner rather than later.

    I also believe that while we may well reduce demand for fossil fuels, we will probably still need to extract and refine petroleum feedstock to support many other products that we get from this source, many with little or no substitutes, or that have substitutes that are no friendlier than petroleum products. For example cement production for concrete is probably no better than petroleum refining for asphalt production from a greenhouse gas perspective. We’ll still need to pave our roads. lists 144 products made from petroleum. Removing fuel supply from petroleum production will significantly reduce demand levels, but the process of refining a barrel of crude can’t completely eliminate production of fuel type products from chemical feedstocks, so we may well have to use these to produce hydrogen fuels along with CCS.

  4. Bill U
    February 27, 2023

    I guess I’m the only one a little nervous about “a 350- or 700-bar (5000 or 10,000 psi) high-pressure storage tank.”
    Perhaps someone could help me get comfortable with that.

    • simanaitissays
      February 27, 2023

      Typical hydraulic system pressures are 10,000 psi. And, if it’s a comfort, oil leaking at that pressure makes a helluva lot more mess than does instantaneously dissipating H2.

  5. Mike Scott
    February 27, 2023

    Wonderful inclusion, long overdue. Mercedes has had hydrogen buses running since the late ’70. Naysayers, equivocators clearly doing so from the hindsight of their oil-heavy mutual funds. How else could anyone feel threatened by this hopeful technology?
    Thank you.

    • simanaitissays
      February 28, 2023

      Thank you, Mike. It’s a thesis to which I regularly return. Maybe this time….

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