Toyota is making a big bet on hydrogen fuel cars. Like Elon Musk with Tesla Toyota is opening up its patents to its competitors to encourage hydrogen fuel technology. So – it’s a showdown between hydrogen fuel and electric cars. Which one will win?

 

Hydrogen seems like a clean fuel. When you burn it you get water. So let’s compare hydrogen to electricity and see who has the advantage.

The Toyota hydrogen car has more range (300 miles) than the current Tesla cars (250 miles) but the range is similar. They definitely beat the little electric cars like the Nissan leaf. (80 miles). Toyota envisions hydrogen gas stations everywhere in the future but today you’re not going any distance from a hydrogen fueling station. Electricity is more common by not as common today as gasoline.

Electric cars have long charge times compared to gasoline. Even at a Tesla super charging station you’re looking at over an hour for a full charge. Like gasoline, hydrogen fills in minutes. Tesla however has demonstrated a swapable battery pack in an automated station that can slap in a fully charged battery pack in 90 seconds, half the time to fill the tank with gas or hydrogen. Right now however for refueling speed – hydrogen wins.

Tesla has made his charging stations free for the life of the car. so on the cost side you don’t get any cheaper than free. If you have solar panels at home you can fill the car for free at home too. But even if you pay for the power electricity offers refil at home option. Gas and hydrogen require you go to the fueling station to fill up.

The Toyota car is priced around $50,000. This is less than the current Tesla S ($80,000) but more than the planned Tesla 3  ($35,000). Since the Toyota isn’t on the market yet it compares more to the Tesla 3 that also isn’t on the market. The prices are therefore similar.

How do these cars work?

Let take a look at the way the cars work. We all know how a gasoline car works. We burn gas and that moves pistons that turn the wheels. Electric cars have batteries and an electric motor. Hydrogen is very similar to electric cars in that it uses a fuel cell to turn hydrogen into electricity and the electricity runs an electric motor. So the easy way to understand the hydrogen car is to think of it as an electric car with a hydrogen driven battery. But instead of recharging the battery, you refill it with hydrogen. Instead of a battery pack you have hydrogen tanks and a fuel cell.

I don’t know how the safety systems compare but if I were in a serious collision I would rather be in a car filled with batteries than an explosive gas.

But – the real issue – where does the fuel come from?

Let’s start with hydrogen. Hydrogen isn’t just there, you have to make it out of something. There are basically 2 sources of hydrogen – methane (natural gas) and electricity. Hydrogen is made from natural gas in a process known as reforming. So to get hydrogen you need to start with methane. The way I see it you are just as well off burning the methane because the carbon dioxide is still produced – it’s just not produced in the car. This is what the skeptics of both hydrogen and electricity call “the long tail pipe”.

The other source of hydrogen is using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. No carbon in this process unless you look at where the electricity comes from, which I will address later. But it raises the question. Why turn electricity into hydrogen and then back into electricity when you can just use electricity to begin with? When you turn electricity into hydrogen and then back into electricity – you lose a lot of electricity than if you just make the car electric in the first place.

So – regardless of where the electricity comes from – hydrogen uses around twice the electricity as electric cars – making them twice as dirty.

So lets talk about the electricity in both fuels. If you are burning coal, you might ask, aren’t both the hydrogen and electric cars just running on coal? The answer is – yes!

But – power plants that use both coal and natural gas are very efficient. When your energy plant isn’t on wheels you can build a plant that is extremely efficient. On the order of 3 to 4 time as efficient as a gasoline car. To give you an example – the Tesla model S which goes 250 miles on a charge has the same amount of energy as 2 gallons of gasoline. If you burned gasoline in a power plant it would be far more efficient than burning it in your car. So technically coal in an efficient power plant – making electricity to run a Tesla is cleaner than gasoline. If you add the two steps of turning it into hydrogen and back to electricity – maybe not.

And – of course – there are cleaner electricity sources than coal. Many coal plants are being scrapped for natural gas which is at least twice as clean. And then there hydroelectric, win, nuclear, and solar. Solar is getting cheaper every year and will likely replace most other forms of power. So if your electricity comes from solar, wind, or hydroelectric then both electric cars and hydrogen cars are totally clean. But the electric car requires half the solar panels as the hydrogen car.

Conclusion

So in my opinion – Tesla is going to beat Toyota in the who has the right technology category. Both are essentially electric cars, but hydrogen adds 2 unnecessary steps to the process. The hydrogen either has to be trucked in or made at the station from electricity or natural gas. Electricity is more efficient to move because you move it on wires rather that trucks. if you are getting your hydrogen from methane then you might as well run the car on methane. So the bottom line is that compared to electricity – hydrogen is fatally flawed.

The only real advantage hydrogen has over most electric cars is range and speed of refueling. Since the Toyota is a Tesla priced car its range is similar. And then you have to look at the future. Turning methane or electricity into hydrogen isn’t going to change much in the future. This is basic chemistry. However battery technology is getting better every year. the original Tesla Roadster only had a 200 mile range when it was originally made. The new batteries which are the same size gives the roadster a 400 mile range. We can expect the range of electric cars to increase over time as batteries store more energy. A hydrogen car will never have a range increase unless to have bigger tanks because you can only stuff so much hydrogen in a tank. And as battery technology evolves the charging rate will increase as well. And the swapable battery makes refueling faster than hydrogen or gas as you can see in this video.

My opinion – Tesla wins – Toyota loses.



  1. Ah_Yea says:

    “it’s a showdown between hydrogen fuel and electric cars. Which one will win?”

    Gasoline, until the pumps run dry.

  2. Marc Pugner says:

    You also left out the fact that a hydrogen car is basically a bomb in the event of a car accident. It doesn’t matter how well you protect the fuel cell in a collision with an 18-wheeler.

    • Marc Perkel says:

      Good point. I’ll add that.

    • JAK says:

      If your run over by a 18 wheeler,I don’t think you have to worry about a explosion.

      • Marc Pugner says:

        YOU may not have to worry about the explosion, but everyone and everything else within a couple hundred yards might have some thoughts on putting hundreds of steerable explosions-in-waiting on our roads.

    • The Monster's Lawyer says:

      At least you would be taking out the big rig too.

    • NewFormatSux says:

      Yea, I was thinking that when I read ‘burning hydrogen produces water.’

  3. Comman Sense says:

    The battery swap technology is cool, with a couple of cars… How is a station going to handle a couple hundred swaps per day? What is needed is to design a gas engine that is better than 23-24% efficient, as the engines of today . Cars in the 40’s were tanks compared to cars today and yet MPG was no worse than today…pound for pound. What have the car companies come up with…parking assist, yea that was a real problem.

    • Marc Perkel says:

      Cars used to be a lot less efficient than today. A VW Beatle olny got 20 MPG. A Honda CR-V with 4WD gets 34 today. An old Chevt wagon only got 15.

  4. WmDE says:

    I think a really good source of power would be carbon.

    Easy to store. Not generally explosive. Can be made in liquid or solid form. Easy to use, just add oxygen and heat. Produces non-toxic CO2 as a residue.

    Worried about global warming? Use “recent” carbon.

  5. LibertyLover says:

    Excellent article.

    The government has a vested interest in keeping mileage down on vehicles. They tax 50 cents per gallon sold. Do you really think they want cars with 100 mpg?

    Both of the mentioned technologies are going to be hard for the government to control.

    1) Electricity is going to be hard to tax. DIY windmills, solar panels, etc. will be nigh-impossible to regulate.

    2) Hydrogen is easy to tax now, but making it in your kitchen is easy. If there is a market for it, a Home Hydrogen Kit (H2K — you saw it first :-)) will show up on Wal-Mart’s shelves overnight, and everyone will be making their own Hydrogen from water carted in from the nearest lake. It’s going to be very hard to tax it eventually.

    I’m curious how long it will be before every road is a toll road because it will be the only way the government can replace the lost gasoline taxes. It’s one thing to pay the tax at the pump. It’s quite another to write a $40 check each month. That’s why payroll taxes are so efficient and why the government can get away with a 40% effective tax rate — it’s collected at the source. People won’t stand for having their miles tracked so they can be billed periodically.

    • Marc Perkel says:

      Some states are experimenting with taxing cars by the mile rather than by the gallon. Not an idea I like.

      • LibertyLover says:

        No one does, but that’s how it is done now, more or less. The government sets the mileage standards, and the bill is hidden at the pump.

        If we don’t fill up anymore, where does the government tax you at?

      • spsffan says:

        Well, I don’t like it much either, but it is a whole lot fairer.

        Better yet, since wear and tear on the roads is proportional to vehicle weight would be a tax by say pound-mile of vehicle travel.

        But what we have now…electric and hybrid vehicles, paying no or little tax, and they get to use the carpool lane (that I pay for) even with just the driver.

        Once the drones are out to watch your every move “just because they can” the tax by mile issues will be moot anyway. Give it five years.

  6. Buzz Kill says:

    Think about the fossil fuel industry for a minute. All those jobs and all that MONEY are NOT going to disappear any time soon. There are gas stations like EVERYWHERE as well as how that gas makes it to those places. There are refineries, trucks, trains, ships, planes, and pipelines that make quite a bit of money and employ people supporting our gas guzzlers (let alone the sub industries supporting THOSE infrastructures). Let’s also not forget the drilling, exploration and car parts stores too. So when you start talking about free energy from solar cells that go into a car, a lot of that old industry pretty much goes away. Even talking about electric cars that can be charged at home and all of a sudden Bevis and Butthead don’t have jobs at the Quickie Mart any more. (Sure, some of the Quickie Mart’s will still exist since we all will still need a place to get our Butterfinger candy bars. But eventually, even most of those places will go belly up since there’s really no reason to stop.)

    I like the idea of electric vehicles and I’m sure there will be a lot more innovation in that emerging industry resulting in more and more reasons to get one — despite the (current) outrageous price tags. But thinking about the infrastructure we already have in place for fossil fuel vehicles I don’t think electric anything has much of a chance.

    IOW, we’re all doomed!

  7. LuckyPierre says:

    Hydrogen car; Could be named the Hindenburg.

  8. ± says:

    “To give you an example – the Tesla model S which goes 250 miles on a charge [that?] has the same amount of energy as 2 gallons of gasoline. ”

    Where did the facts come from? It is not clear; did you write this article or is the excerpted from some specific link we can go to?

  9. NewFormatSux says:

    >Tesla however has demonstrated a swapable battery pack in an automated station that can slap in a fully charged battery pack in 90 seconds,

    And they collected a hundred million in credits from California for doing so. Now where are the stations, or is the whole demo a scam?

  10. Ah_Yea says:

    Looks like the first post is correct.

    Gasoline is the ultimate winner.

    Electric cars are a niche product and will never predominate because:

    A) Limited supply of minerals. (The more cars made the more expensive the remaining minerals, raising the price)
    B) Limited to non-existent infrastructure. (Very expensive to build charging stations and the power plants required to run them, and let’s not be ignorant and say solar or wind powered plants will suffice)
    C) Government subsidies required. (Yes, they will have to continue. Subsidies work for a few cars, not for a few million for obvious reasons)
    D) Additional taxes to be levied on electric car users to make up loss in gas tax revenue. (Please pull our collective heads out of our posteriors if we don’t acknowledge this is going to happen. Electric cars have a tax break only until they gain a firm foothold, and then watch the taxes creep ever so higher)

    Please don’t even bother answering this post until my above links have been read. It is better to have informed discourse.

    PS. I still want one.

  11. MattG says:

    Marc,

    Did you see any information during your research on the components and chemicals needed to produce the energy housing units? (either the cells or the batteries)

    I’ve seen information on batteries before, with the rare earth elements and the lithium etc.

    I’d be interested to see what materials would be needed to produce the fuel cells and whether they would be comparable in cost, rarity, environmental impact to batteries.

    I definitely agree with you that the battery swap option would radically change the maths for the decision as the recharge time was always a problem in my mind.

    Thanks for the article! I enjoyed it.

  12. bobbo, defending the honor of those who have it, this time, this forum and its non-censoring leadership who I compliment says:

    ……….just been busy.

    Mark—seems to me you are stuck in the either/or mode of analysis?

    when given such choices in life, always at least analyze: “both.”

    Why not both/all alternatives being developed for the niches that most benefit?

    In your offering, you characterize as making hydrogen as “dirty” but you don’t explain how that is true. If the solar is free and does not create co2, how is it dirty?

    The technology of hydrogen storage is understood. There are non-explosive storage system that are car sized. Bad form to scare the childrens.

    But, I agree..ultimately…..we will go all electric as its more efficient….and overall, that is better.

    Still……the science to save us is coming in a bit late to stop our civilization collapsing from AGW. Like alternative energy….its science. Read up on it.

  13. bobbo, defending the honor of those who have it, this time, this forum and its non-censoring leadership who I compliment says:

    ±==its a New Year. Try something new, see if it changes anything else?

    • Tim says:

      Happy new year, bobbo.

      • bobbo, defending the honor of those who have it, this time, this forum and its non-censoring leadership who I compliment says:

        Thanks Timmy….same to you and the rest of the world….except the terrorists of all stripes including the lying congress creeps who serve them!

        I only get depressed that years are like bosses: the new one being the same as the old one.

        Then I have a few beers, and my own world order is righted.

        Lots of blather……ha, ha….time for a beer!!!

  14. PeterR says:

    “So if your electricity comes from solar, wind, or hydroelectric then both electric cars and hydrogen cars are totally clean.”

    Not so. Solar panels, windmills and dams still require power to make or build as do the materials from which they are made/built.

    • NewFormatSux says:

      Defining totally clean as CO2 pollution is wrong as CO2 is not a pollutant.

  15. NewFormatSux says:

    John Dvorak in his latest column:

    But the only reason that Elon Musk and the others would see A.I. as a credible threat is because that’s what they themselves would do if given the chance. “Bow before me, slaves!”

  16. Peppeddu says:

    I’d go for solar, last thing we need is a “hydrogen cartel” controlling distribution and prices.

    Not to mention the safety issue, can you imagine the havoc if one of those hydrogen refueling trucks gets into an accident?

  17. Jeremiah's Johnson says:

    If you’re living some kind of diminished urban lifestyle I can see where electrics could work, but I have a hard time seeing it if you’re living a lifestyle worth of an American.

    What if you need to get 3 adults and a cubic yard of camping gear 600 miles in 11 hours? What if you want to rotate drivers so you can drive non-stop from Fargo to Miami?

    Say you’re 30 miles from the nearest paved road and out of fuel? With gas after you hitch a ride you can return with hand carried 2 gallon gas can and drive out. Maybe you could return with a charging truck of some sort but I bet it would cost.

    Don’t forget that the most important part of conservation is reduction of cost. (Money is the #1 resource to conserve.) Conservation that costs more or reduces standard of living is counter productive.

    Not to mention that I have yet to see an electric vehicle worthy of an American. They’re all tiny little cutie pies.

    • Marc Perkel says:

      At present only gasoline will do that.

      • Tim says:

        No so, Marc. Every 5000 miles, the Japanese chunk their used airfilters into a 5 gallon bucket and use the collected plutonium to generate steam.

      • Jeremiah's Johnson says:

        EXACTLY!!! At present only gasoline can properly power vehicles and a lifestyle that’s acceptable.

        Right now it should be gasoline vehicles and nuclear for baseline electric. Other technologies may have their niches, but they will come online naturally when they produce cost savings.

        Right now, Xcel Energy offers you the option to buy wind-only electricity but it will increase your bill! What sane person would do that?

        As a related side note, any person who says it’s OK to purposely drive the price of energy up to *encourage* people to cut back (*cough* Stephen Chu) should be institutionalized or maybe even executed for crimes against humanity.

  18. Tim says:

    A hydrogen car will never have a range increase unless to have bigger tanks because you can only stuff so much hydrogen in a tank.

    I’m not so sure about that — There are materials which absorb and concentrate hydrogen (like a ‘getter’ in a vacuum tube). Palladium is supposed to do this with its’ crystal lattice. A bit pricey, currently, but who knows? I’d suspect this effect will be mimicked with advances in materials science and nanotech manufacturing techniques; Maybe even printing out the structures with hi-res 3-d printers (star trek replicators).

    ^^Of course, if the lattice works super awesomely and drew in the H2 to high enough pressure then we’d all have the cold fusion of Fleischmann and Pons anyways.

    • soft&supple mental says:

      At room temperature and atmospheric pressure, palladium can absorb up to 900 times its own volume of hydrogen. “That means,” says Khalid Mansour, “that if you were to pump hydrogen into a bottle, it would take enormous pressure to store the same amount easily absorbed in a palladium bed of the same volume.”

      http://psc.edu/science/Wolf/Wolf.html

  19. renee says:

    testing

  20. dogphlap says:

    Toyota is opening up its patents in a limited way.
    Any fuel cell patents, in fact any patents related to the vehicle are only royalty free for 5 year i.e. until 2020. Production and distribution patents will be royalty free beyond that. Far from being a selfless act to benefit mankind it is both cynical and self serving.

  21. Glenn E. says:

    Electric cars are not a new idea. Philis Diller once stated her parents drove one. That was probably back in the 1920s. Those electric cars just didn’t go fast enough, to keep up with the improvements in gasoline engines. All that has changed. Speed is no longer the issue. Cost and Duration are. How long the battery cells last, cost, and how far can one drive per charge?

    Hydrogen is anything magical. It takes slightly more energy (electricity) to split water, into hydrogen and oxygen. As is derived from recombining it, or burning the hydrogen. The problems with using Hydrogen as a fuel are these.

    Storage, combustion, safety. How much Hydrogen can be safely stored in a car’s “tank”, to make the driving distance worth the price? In liquid or gas form? NASA has had years of experience with handling Hydrogen safely. But the average driver hasn’t. And it’s very dangerous, to handle, in any form. Far more than pumping gasoline.

    Then there is the efficiency of combustion. It works great in the laboratory. Where oxygen is supplied. But cars won’t be carrying both Hydrogen and Oxygen around. So a Hydrogen fueled engine will have to depend on whatever Oxygen it can find in the air we breathe. Ignoring all the other gases and water vapor, already mixed in. I doubt the combustion, in the real world, will be anywhere close to what laboratory conditions produce.

    And we’ve yet to know the results of millions of Hydrogen cars, pumping hot water vapor, into the air. It could turn out to be worse than the hydrocarbons of burning gasoline. Whereas an electric car spews out nothing. No vapors or gases.

    The main thing that Hydrogen fuel has, over electric charging. Is it keeps the fuel distribution industry, in business. Instead of delivering and pumping gasoline, it will be Hydrogen. And they can set the price per gallon. Whereas electricity’s price is state regulated. Not by Wall Street speculators and refinery owners. And you can count on “Big Oil” companies getting into the Hydrogen game. If they aren’t already in it now.

  22. FIFA15 says:

    What is with that guy?


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