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Motor Mouth answers all of your hydrogen questions

Oct 25, 2023

Readers had tons of questions about our most recent Driving into the Future panel—here we respond to the ones we couldn't fit into the program

Perhaps it's my propensity for rooting for the underdog. More likely it's adherence to the engineering principle that one solution seldom fits all circumstances. Really, though, I suspect that it is as simple as loathing sitting around at service stations, pulling my pud, waiting for a bloody battery to recharge.

Whatever the case, I have a soft spot for hydrogen as a fuel for planes, trains, and automobiles (not to mention motorcycles and the occasional forklift). Hence my excitement that hydrogen-as-transportation-fuel is undergoing a bit of a renaissance lately, with both production and use cases multiplying faster than any time in recent history.

In other words, what a perfect time for a Hydrogen Revival Driving into the Future panel discussing all the technologies that can produce hydrogen, as well as the different ways it can power those planes, trains and automobiles. With incredibly knowledgeable guests — Jessica Verhagen of Hydra Energy; Craig Scott of Toyota North America; Jeff Grant of HTEC; and Nasir Mahmood of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology — providing truly insightful explanations of the benefits and challenges facing the hydrogen economy's future, Driving's only regret is that we had but an hour to get to all of your questions.

To make up for that, we will answer as many of your queries regarding the use of hydrogen to fuel vehicles as the editors see fit to print. So, without further ado, here are the answers to the best of the questions you posted sent to our Hydrogen Revival panel.

Paul Starr asked:

Well, Chris, according to Jeff Grant, VP of HTEC and formerly principal of Zen Clean Energy Solutions, the water emitted through the vehicle's exhaust — the only "pollutant," by the way, produced by a fuel-cell vehicle — is in the form of water vapour. As such, the temperature of the water is quite high, and is unlikely to freeze in the vehicle's lines. As well, says Grant, when they are shut down, FCEVs have a mechanism to purge all of the remaining water in their lines to prevent freezing. Toyota, meanwhile, has done extensive testing in Canada and, at low temperatures, judged the water vapour effect similar to that in conventional vehicles. In fact, says Jackie Birdsall, Toyota Fuel Cell Senior Engineering Manager for Toyota Motor North America, "We judged ourselves better than the diesel we were stuck behind in line at the Tim Horton's drive-through." It's also worth noting that FCEVs are also better suited to Canada's cold winters than EVs, as their range and energy efficiency is not nearly as compromised at lower temperatures.

The same applies when hydrogen is used to fuel internal combustion. According to Jessica Verhagen, CEO of Hydra Energy — which converts diesel-powered big rigs to hydrogen — "our company has been on the road with hydrogen-converted trucks since 2016 in northeastern B.C., with temperatures down to -46 degrees Celsius, and it has had no impact on performance. Battery-powered vehicles, on the other hand, start losing range at -10 degrees C." Hydra says that's because hydrogen remains in a gaseous state until -252.9 degrees C, which means that, short of a real-life The Day After Tomorrow catastrophe, there is no risk of freezing. It also means that Hydra's trucks require no special heating equipment, while BEVs require battery-warmers to maintain optimum efficiency.

Paul, a font of queries, also asked:

According to Grant — who also used to work at Ballard, and so knows a thing or two about FCEVs — "a fuel cell is an energy-conversion device, while a battery is an energy-storage device, so the degradation is very different. Typically, end of life for a fuel-cell engine is determined by a change in the efficiency of the fuel-cell engine and subsequent fuel economy of the vehicle. In general, fuel-cell vehicles demonstrate similar, if not longer, life cycles compared with their internal-combustion-engined counterparts. This is due to the lack of moving parts in the engine, resulting in the engine not deteriorating as quickly. As well, compared to BEVs, the [FCEV's buffer] battery is smaller and any degradation will have less long-term impact, as it is continually being charged by the H2 fuel supply and fuel cell."

Of course, Motor Mouth then had a follow-up question of its own:

HTEC's VP of Transportation Solutions says that, for most passenger vehicles, the fuel-cell stack will last the life of the vehicle. For some heavy-duty applications — such as buses that are expected to have a 40,000-hour life expectancy — there can be a mid-life replacement of one of the fuel-cell components (the membrane electrode assembly). This, says, Grant, is akin to a mid-life engine overhaul on a regular diesel engine.

Tudor Davies asked:

Grant says that industry modelling shows that the manufacture of a fuel-cell engine and hydrogen storage is less energy-intensive than an equivalent battery module with a similar net power. According to Ballard's Fuel Cell Life Cycle Assessment report, for instance, "there are 75 per cent fewer emissions generated in the production of a fuel-cell power train with an 85-kilowatt fuel-cell system than a 350-kilowatt-hour battery-only system."

It's also worth noting, says Grant, that there are "much fewer" rare-earth metals in a proton-exchange-membrane fuel cell, though the catalyst does require some platinum. However, over the years, fuel-cell manufacturers have reduced the amount of platinum required, so that today a fuel cell uses approximately the same amount found in your conventional car's catalytic converter.

Guy Dubuc asked:

Guy, using hydrogen to fuel an ICE engine is indeed less efficient than pumping it through a fuel cell. And, while we are on the subject of energy efficiency, let's also note that an FCEV is itself, depending on who is doing the calculation, about three times less efficient in using the same amount of electricity as a battery-powered vehicle. Simply put, if energy efficiency were the sole criteria on which to judge zero-emissions vehicles, BEVs would win by a large margin, and hydrogen-powered ICEs would be at the bottom of the totem pole.

Except, of course, that energy efficiency is not the sole — or arguably, even the main — criteria for vehicle transportation. If it were, Nissan's Micra — now discontinued due to lack of sales — would be the most popular car in Canada, not Ford's F-150. For commercial fleets, such as those Hydra serves, the quick refueling of a hydrogen-fueled powertrain is more important than the energy efficiency a battery-powered semi — which will also take hours to recharge — might offer. And it will require something like a 10-fold increase in battery energy density before BEV 18-wheelers will be able to match the payload capacity of a diesel or hydrogen-fueled piston-powered commercial truck.

As Hydra's Verhagen sees it, other "efficiencies" are more appealing to its customers. For one, converting diesel engines to hydrogen allows fleet customers to use the assets they already have — versus buying significantly more costly replacements — while still reducing their carbon footprint. Additionally, being able to switch between hydrogen and diesel allows its heavy-duty trucks to operate while a hydrogen-refueling infrastructure is being built.

If energy efficiency were the sole criteria on which to judge zero-emissions vehicles, BEVs would win by a large margin—except, of course, energy efficiency is not the sole criteria

More important, then, is the question of how the efficiency of a hydrogen-fueled ICE compares with its diesel-powered equivalent. Well, according to Hydra's real-world experience, commercial diesel engines converted to run on 40 per cent hydrogen — soon to be increased to 50 per cent — enjoy a two- to five-per-cent increase in fuel efficiency compared to the same truck when it is powered by 100-per-cent diesel. This is confirmed by a German company, Keyou, which has found that engines running on hydrogen have similar thermal efficiencies to diesel.

It is also worth noting that the same attributes — fast refueling, higher energy density, and longer range during towing compared with battery-powered equivalents — apply to gasoline ICEs converted to hydrogen. A perfect application would be full-sized pickups which offer lots of room for hydrogen storage, and which also suffer dramatically in towing range when powered by lithium ion.

Neil Glazer wants to know:

Neil, the only by-product of a hydrogen fuel cell is water. FCEVs produce no nitrogen oxides. Burning hydrogen in an internal-combustion engine, however, does. In fact, since hydrogen combustion is hotter than conventional fuels, it was thought that hydrogen-ICEs would emit more NOx. According to an SAE paper recently filed by Hydra, however, its hydrogen-infused powerplants are actually emitting less NOx than the same trucks running on pure diesel. They produce fewer particulates as well, extending the life of their trucks’ filters and catalysts.

Lucas Tucciarone, obviously detail-oriented, asked:

Turning to Hydra's expertise again, Verhagen says that standards of purity depend on the application. Fuel cells require "99.999 per cent hydrogen at a pressure of 700 bar, versus Hydra's 99.9 per cent at a pressure of 350 bar." The reduced purity required by compression-ignition engines, by the way, is one of the reasons why Hydra's hydrogen can be priced on par with diesel.

While still on the subject of purity, it's also worth noting that fuel-cell vehicles also require additional filters for water, air, and hydrogen to prevent impurities reaching the membrane. Additionally, FCEVs require a humidifying section, as dry hydrogen cannot enter the fuel cell.

On a similar front, Raymond Leury wanted to know:

Verhagen responds that "at our facility in Prince George, we will be producing 3,250 kilograms per day via two five-megawatt electrolysers that are plugged into British Columbia's low-carbon hydro power grid." That means a Toyota Mirai refueling at a Hydra station will be just as green as a Tesla. It is also worth noting that 87 per cent of B.C.'s electric energy is hydroelectric, and the last 13 per cent is almost equally divided between biomass, natural gas, and wind. In other words, Raymond, Hydra's diesel-to-hydrogen conversions really are clean, green, carbon-reducing machines.

On a purely practical note, Jeff Friend asked:

Grant, whose company, HTEC, builds refueling stations, responds: "The footprint of the dispenser itself fits alongside existing gasoline and diesel dispensers at a gas station. The supporting infrastructure has a small footprint which can be tucked away, on-site, separated from the fueling dispenser. However, the size and location of the hydrogen storage and station equipment need to adhere to various regulations, which may make some locations more ideal than others."

Colin Barfoot asks:

Jessica says, "Hydra uses strong carbon-fibre-wrapped tanks to store hydrogen on the trucks, and multiple pressure sensors and release valves. We have not experienced boil-off or leakage issues." HTEC concurs that "there are no significant leaks from high-pressure gaseous hydrogen stored in the vehicle," but says that "during liquid transport there is some boil-off, but this is minimized through insulation and by improving the conditions and efficiency of the storage systems."

And that's it for answers to your submitted questions. Thanks to everyone for bothering to read this far. An even bigger thank you to those that watched The Hydrogen Revival panel. I hope in answering these questions, I have addressed some of your queries. For what it's worth, each and every question was read and pondered. Your desire for more information is humbling.

Canada's leading automotive journalists with over 20+ years of experience in covering the industry

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Paul Starr Paul Motor Mouth Tudor Davies Guy Dubuc Neil Glazer Lucas Tucciarone Raymond Leury Jeff Friend Colin Barfoot