NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Hydrogen Fuel Cells are a Long Way Off

November 12, 2003

Widespread hydrogen use has been embraced by major corporations and environmentalists alike as a panacea for global warming and the depletion of fossil fuels. But skeptics, and even some hydrogen advocates, say that use of hydrogen could instead make the air dirtier and the globe warmer.

Intense research is now going on at major companies and universities in North America on the development of a practical fuel cell, a batterylike device that turns hydrogen into electricity while emitting only heat and water vapor.

  • For now, fuel cells are about 100 times as expensive, per unit of power, as internal combustion engines.
  • A likely source of hydrogen is from a machine called an electrolyzer, which is like a fuel cell in reverse; the problem is that if the electricity came off the power grid to run an electrolyzer for the production of hydrogen, about half of it, on average, would be generated by burning coal.
  • According to the Energy Department, an ordinary gasoline-powered car emits 374 grams of carbon dioxide per mile it is driven, counting the energy used to make the gasoline and deliver it to the service station, and the emissions of the vehicle itself.
  • The same car powered by a fuel cell would emit nothing -- but if the energy required to make the hydrogen came from the electric grid the emissions would be 436 grams per mile, 17 percent worse than the figure for gasoline.

Reuel Shinnar, a professor of chemical engineering at City College of New York, reviewing the options for power production and fuel production, concluded in a recent paper, "A hydrogen economy is at least twice as expensive as any other solution."

Source: Matthew L. Wald, "Will Hydrogen Clear the Air? Maybe Not, Say Some," New York Times, November 12, 2003.


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