This week, some of the world’s richest and most powerful figureheads will be rubbing shoulders at a classy getaway high in the Swiss Alps for the annual World Economic Forum. The topic of discussion? Addressing the challenge of building a more inclusive and equal society. Presumably while snacking on caviar and washing it down with generous servings of champagne that is being served by a small army of employed underlings.
In other news, reality has effectively collapsed under the weight of its own irony.
In the midst of the serious discussion on how to make more business happen, and keep the gravy train rolling, thirteen leading energy, transport, and industry companies came together to form what is known as the “Hydrogen Council”.
Touted as a global initiative to foster the energy transition to hydrogen, the Council is comprised of Air Liquide, Alstom, Anglo American, BMW, Daimler, ENGIE, Honda, Hyundai, Kawasaki, Royal Dutch Shell, The Linde Group, Total, and Toyota. That is quite a council, especially considering that three of them are huge oil and gas companies. Their inclusion into the council looks more like wolves in sheep’s clothing. But they aren’t, not when you consider that 96 per cent of hydrogen supplies around the world are sourced from fossil fuels, the bulk of which is derived from natural gas - though much of which are used for making fertiliser and too impure that it corrodes fuel cells.
Nevertheless should hydrogen fuel cell powered cars take off, who better to supply that sweet miracle gas, with a worldwide network of fuelling stations, than the oil and gas companies themselves. That is, should hydrogen fuel cell cars take off in the first place.
Hydrogen fuel cell cars are one of those things smart people like Bill Nye have been promising the world for decades. It is the holy grail of automotive powertrains, bringing all the convenience of a fossil fuel powered car, with the silence and emission-free goodwill of an electric car. And likewise, car companies have been busily developing hydrogen fuel cells in the intervening years.
So far, of the many companies involved in the development of fuel cells, only Hyundai, Honda, and Toyota have managed to turn the billions of dollars and years of research and development into actual cars you can buy and drive on the road with no contractual obligations to speak of. It is a small step towards the future where we can all say goodbye to dirty and polluting fossil fuels, and zip around in quiet, guilt-free motoring.
Trouble is, that quiet, guilt-free revolution in motoring that we were talking about earlier is taking place right now. Only thing is that it isn’t hydrogen fuel cells, but battery-electric cars.
Last year the most talked about car company was Tesla, with their Model S going faster and smarter with every software update. Meanwhile, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and Jaguar announced serious plans to produce serious electric SUVs soon. And just this year we have already witnessed two Chinese-backed companies attempting to get in on the electric car market.
Despite our groans about their crap range, overnight recharging times, and weight, electric cars seem to be steadily gaining popularity. Maybe there are more early adopters wanting something that stands out when they hit on that attractive vegan with proof that they care about the environment way more than having a pair of fairtrade trousers made from hemp, than expected. Either way, electric cars has entered our mainstream collective conscience, rooted itself in, and that it is here to stay.
All indications point to a promising future for the electric car, rather than hydrogen fuel cells. Even Elon Musk, the technopreneur darling of Silicon Valley, had harsh criticisms to dispense on the topic of hydrogen cars, calling the whole concept “incredibly dumb”. Perhaps Musk might be a bit biased, but he does have a point.
Take one of the main counter-arguments to electric cars, “the source of electricity is unclean, so therefore the car is unclean”, or as I would like to call it Sinners by Association complex. If that is the case hydrogen might be a lot dirtier than expected. To acquire pure hydrogen you need a fair amount of energy to break the many molecular bonds where the gas is tied up in, be it water or in most cases, oil. This is why many scientists, even the Hydrogen Council, refer to hydrogen as an energy carrier rather than an energy source, as its pure form requires energy to produce rather than producing energy in itself.
That's not all. To make the gas usable for cars, you need to use more electricity to compress it, and God forbid should the compressed hydrogen gas needed to be transported to a fueling station. Because you might need a polluting tanker running on diesel if there isn’t enough hydrogen to go around.
As for electric cars, its energy it needs to run is drawn directly from the grid, electricity which is increasingly being generated from clean energy sources such as wind, solar, and maybe sometime in the distant future, fusion. So not only are electric cars getting cleaner, due in part to the rise of renewables, it is also a whole lot more efficient to get it moving on the road. There is no need to take the generated electricity to produce the fuel, and then use more electricity to turn it into a more useable form, which can only then be used to generate electricity from fuel cells.
Speaking of which, hydrogen proponents say that we are one the verge of bringing hydrogen fuel cell cars to the mass market. Once they fix the infrastructure. Figure out a more efficient way to produce the fuel. Design a better storage system. And not forgetting about making a functional fuel cell from anything other than one of the rarest metals around. These problems can be solved with enough heads put to task, though the brain bank working on these issues isn’t exactly all that big.
In the meantime, electric cars aren’t just benefitting from research and development carried out by car companies alone, but by a myriad of companies from different sectors that are actively pursuing the advancement of battery technology for their own purpose.
Battery suppliers, who also supply batteries to mobile device manufacturers, are coming up with more energy dense batteries that are more durable against repeated charge cycles. Tech companies are finding new ways to optimise the energy efficiency of their electronics. And even mathematicians are having a crack at devising algorithms to improve charging times and optimise energy management. Put simply, there are a lot more people sciencing their way through the shortcomings of batteries, than overcoming the limitations of producing an affordable hydrogen fuel cell.
Batteries that are able to deliver close to a 1,000km of range and can be recharged within minutes? Lofty goals that sound more plausible than all the costs involved in building a hydrogen infrastructure nowadays.
If you think about it, the urge to realise what many coined as the “Hydrogen Economy” isn’t as prevalent as it once was when it was first mooted in the 1970s. Improvements in fuel and energy efficiency have greatly reduced the demand for oil over the past few decades, whereas new methods of extracting oil and the diversification of our energy sources have left us with a surplus we won’t be exhausting any time soon. What's more, mass urbanisation has also comparatively shortened the distance most of us will cover daily.
In the end, Mercedes-Benz’s own vision of the role hydrogen fuel cells will play with its GLC F-Cell plug-in hybrid seems the most plausible. Rather than serving as the main drivetrain, fuel cells will be relegated to the role of a mere power generator for a giant bank of batteries that can be charged separately, like that of a plug-in hybrid. Effectively you don't have to worry about running out of hydrogen in a fuel-cell plug-in hybrid, as you can always plug it into a power socket to charge. Swap "hydrogen" with "electricity" and "plug it into a power socket" with "refuel it at the pumps" in the last sentence and let the irony of that statement sink in for a moment.
Like the superbly buoyant quality of hydrogen, the proliferation of fuel cell is turning out to be more of a pie-in-the-sky ambition that is floating ever so higher. Just like the heads at Davos this week, incidentally.