Even hydrogen cars have a carbon problem

May 19, 2009

While it might not seem immediately obvious for a quietly purring car that drips water out its tailpipe, even hydrogen-powered vehicles have a carbon problem.

Given all the electricity needed to get hydrogen compressed and ready for the tank, that juice will need to come from solar, wind or (whisper it) nuclear power to get the fuel cells under the hood nearer to zero carbon output over the fuel’s ”life-cycle.” According to a Volkswagen manager developing the technology, the current mix of power generated on the U.S. grid is still too dirty.

The efficiency of the fuel cell is what makes these prototypes greener than the average gas gazzler, but then there’s also the “chicken and egg” problem of fuel distribution to consider. John Tillman, VW’s program manager for U.S. advanced powertrain research, said hydrogen refueling stations can cost two to three times as much as a gasoline equivalent to build.

“Government’s going to have to get involved in some ways,” he said ahead of a test drive of a VW Passat Lingyu, which was showcased at last year’s Beijing Olympics. “There won’t be enough fuel (at first) to make it profitable.”

Speaking at the California Fuel Cell Partnership headquarters, just outside Sacramento, Tillman also showed reporters what he called the world’s busiest hydrogen pump — owing to the many car companies involved: Ford, Toyota, Hyundai and Nissan all display signage outside.

And while these erstwhile rivals are not working on specific fuel-cell technology together, the partnership does offer them a chance to ask — and try to answer — tough questions about poultry, and which comes first.

5 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

We should take a look at Iceland, they are successfully using green thermal energy to produce hydrogen and want to create an economy that is powered by hydrogen.

I know that energy is a complex issue, but coal is critical not only in securing affordable, reliable and domestic energy, but also in creating steady jobs across the country.

My team went to the Harriman Dispatching Center in Omaha, Neb., where 800 employees work around the clock to ensure the smooth operation of Union Pacific’s entire rail operation—which helps move coal to produce nearly half of the country’s electricity.

They went behind the scenes of this operation for the 2009 Factuality Tour—take a look to see photos, videos and interviews from our stop in Omaha.
Factuality Tour

[...] Even hydrogen cars have a carbon problem – “Given all the electricity needed to get hydrogen compressed and ready for the tank, that juice will need to come from solar, wind or (whisper it) nuclear power to get the fuel cells under the hood nearer to zero carbon output over the fuel’s ”life-cycle.” According to a Volkswagen manager developing the technology, the current mix of power generated on the U.S. grid is still too dirty…” [...]

The iceland example isn’t very helpful, because most of the US doesn’t have a convienient spot to get geothermal energy, and it’s much, much larger than Iceland.

Also, the idea behind going green isn’t to reduce CO2 emissions, it’s to reduce greenhouse gases. A hydrogen cell car won’t do that, because water vapor is a greenhouse gas too.

Posted by Drewbie | Report as abusive

If hydrogen is being extracted from a hydrocarbon such as natural gas then yes the system will produce carbon dioxide and probably carbon monoxide during the process. I wonder if it is worthwhile to use fuel cells in this case. Natural gas cars are fairly efficient.

I assume because the Volkswagon manager is concerned about carbon from a hydrogen fuel cell, his vehicles liberate the hydrogen from hydrocarbons. I am not aware of how reverse electrolysis from hydrogen and oxygen can produce carbon. Does commercial hydrogen from fuel pumps contain carbon dioxide or methane? I’m trying to understand the comment from the Volkswagon manager.

In terms of the previous poster, I don’t believe water vapour is a greenhouse gas since it will readily condense into water. Clouds do not represent plumes of greenhouse gases. Evaporation and transpiration do not factor into the calculation of greenhouse gas emissions. This thread is full of questionable facts.

Posted by Don | Report as abusive

Iceland has a nice system only due to geography. It does not produce enough energy to supply a significant population.

Water does not readily condense into droplets. Have you every spent the night under a cloudy sky? It is warmer with the clouds. They trap the heat.

I believe the carbon from hydrogen is a result of electrolysis. A considerable amount of electricity is needed to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. This most likely comes from a coal fired plant(s). Unless you go the nuclear route for electricity generation carbon will be in there somewhere.

Without coal and other fossil fuels we would get our energy from wood. Now do you want that? Additionally these fuels also have useful byproducts without which our live would really, really suck. Could we acknowledge that we should try to squeeze the most work out of every ounce of carbon based fuels we can while working on an alternative? If we were to severely cut CO2 emissions with no other options many people would die. Most environmental scientists state that if we do not do this people may die. Damned if you do damned if you don’t. I will go with the option of continued use of carbon fuels until a reliable alternative is truly ready. Possibly losing lives is much more appealing than definitely losing lives.

Posted by John | Report as abusive