Myths and Misconceptions

A lot of overstatements and inaccuracies have been written both for and against hydrogen. Here are some of the more popular myths and misconceptions, along with some information that gives a better sense of the reality.

Misconception #1:
We’re still light years away from a commercially viable hydrogen-powered car.
The basic science of fuel cells is well understood and major companies around the world have already built many fuel cell cars. There is still a lot of engineering to be done to make these cars affordable and durable enough to be commercially viable. In fact, every major car company has detailed confidential estimates of how long it will take and how much it will cost to bring these cars to market.

Misconception #2:
Hydrogen is not an abundant fuel because there are no vast reservoirs of hydrogen under the ground, like there is oil.
Even though people tend to talk about cars running on oil, they actually run on gasoline which is manufactured, not found. To make gasoline we use oil as a feedstock, which we get out of the ground. Hydrogen is also a manufactured fuel. To make hydrogen – or at least 95% of the hydrogen we use today – we use natural gas as a feedstock, which we also get out of the ground. Not so different.

The difference, though, is that gasoline can only be made from oil, but hydrogen can be made from almost any source of energy. Oil, coal, hydro power, solar power, nuclear power, geothermal power and other energy sources can all be transformed into electricity and then, by electrolysis, into hydrogen. When we can no longer find oil at a reasonable cost, we can still make hydrogen.

Misconception #3:
It doesn’t make sense to use hydrogen because we won’t be able to get more energy out of it than what we put into it.
Hydrogen is a lot like electricity: we make it in one place, transmit to another, and then transform into something we need, like heat or light or mechanical power. It doesn’t matter that we never get more electricity out of the wire than we put in at the other end. What does matter is that we can do things that we couldn’t otherwise do.

Hydrogen allows us to eliminate automobile air pollution from the tail pipes of millions of individual vehicles where it can’t be scrubbed and in turn concentrate it at a small number of generating plants where emissions can be scrubbed. It also gives us the choice of making our fuel in ways that don’t pollute, in particular by using alternate energy sources such as sun and wind to produce hydrogen.

Misconception #4:
Hydrogen fuel cells will not end global warming because we will still have to burn fossil fuels to make the hydrogen.
If we continue to drive vehicles running on fossil fuels, we will have no choice but to continue spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at an ever growing rate. But if we drive vehicles running on hydrogen, and burn fossil fuels to make that hydrogen, we will have a choice about whether to scrub the emissions or spew them into the atmosphere.

Will we scrub? Scrubbing costs money, and producers of electricity will only spend this money if it is required by law. If we scrub, or if we choose to produce hydrogen from non-polluting sources of energy, we will decrease the amount of global air pollution we create.

Misconception #5:
Using nuclear energy to make hydrogen doesn’t make sense because nuclear power costs more than other sources of power.
When we start using electrical power to generate large amounts of hydrogen, the cost of electricity from every source of energy will change because the fundamental economics will change. Generating plants, particularly nuclear plants, will no longer follow moment-by-moment demand of producing a little power at night and a lot during the day. Instead they will be able to run at a constant daytime high and use their excess night-time capacity to generate hydrogen. This will allow them to spread their fixed costs over a much larger amount of power generated, lowering the cost of every unit of power.

Misconception #6:
Renewable sources can provide only a small fraction of the energy that will be required for a full-fledged hydrogen economy.
While it’s true that we only produce a small amount of energy from renewables, eventually non-renewable resources (oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear) will run out and we will need to replace them with renewable resources. .If we can’t make renewables work for us, there simply won’t be enough energy to run any kind of economy at the level of per capita energy consumption we enjoy today. On the positive side, the production of renewable power is growing much faster than other forms of power, and the forces driving this growth are increasingly economic ones. This suggests that renewable technologies are becoming more efficient and less expensive.

Misconception #7:
Hydrogen leaks could lead to more water in the atmosphere, which could accelerate global warming.
If we continue burning fossil fuels at a rapid rate, we will accelerate global warming and create more air pollution . If we move towards using hydrogen we have a choice about global warming. For example if we choose to use liquid hydrogen in our cars, we can expect to vent hydrogen into the atmosphere because we can’t fully insulate liquid hydrogen containers. But if we choose to use compressed hydrogen gas instead, we can expect only a miniscule amount of hydrogen to leak into the atmosphere because our compressed hydrogen storage technologies leak much less.

Misconception #8:
Fuel cell cars won’t be able to drive hundreds of miles on a single tank of hydrogen because the hydrogen tanks will be too large.
General Motors unveiled a new fuel cell vehicle prototype at the Detroit Auto Show in January 2005 with a stated range of 300 miles on a single tank – roughly the range required to meet consumer expectations. The storage system in the General Motors prototype is a version of the long-expected high-pressure hydrogen tank that almost every car company in the world has been working on. It’s bigger than an equivalent gas tank, but automakers expect it to be small enough to fit in a car.

Information provided by General Hydrogen.