The Economist | Will hydrogen cars replace electric cars? Does anyone care?

A COUPLE of dozen electric cars with fuel cells under the bonnet (in place of the more usual flat-pack of batteries beneath the floor) have been zipping around your correspondent’s neighbourhood for the past few years. Most are FCX Clarity models from Honda, all in the same rich crimson colour. A couple of others are silver F-Cell station wagons made by Mercedes-Benz. These experimental vehicles are leased to selected users for trial periods while their manufacturers see how the hydrogen-fuelled cars survive the cut and thrust of Los Angeles’ traffic.

So far, most seem to have acquitted themselves rather well. Meanwhile, their drivers can feel rightly smug about the only emission from the exhaust pipes being water vapour. Another plus is that the fuel-cell vehicles are largely free of the “range anxiety” that plagues battery-powered electric cars, such as the Nissan Leaf. Both the Honda and the Mercedes have ranges not that far short of comparable petrol cars—ie, 190 to 240 miles (300 to 380km).

Sooner or later, though, they have to return to one of only five hydrogen-refuelling stations open to the public in the greater Los Angeles area. But once there, their tanks can be refilled in minutes, rather than the hours needed to recharge a battery car.

And there’s the rub. Given further refinement, plus economies of scale, fuel-cell vehicles ought to be an attractive alternative to present-day motoring, if only hydrogen-refuelling facilities were more common. As it is, outlets are fewer and farther between than charging stations for electric vehicles or even pumps for compressed natural gas.

Apart from the usual chicken-and-egg problem, the plant and equipment needed for producing, distributing and storing hydrogen is hugely expensive. Unlike the industrial hydrogen used to make ammonia fertiliser, or for converting heavy oil fractions into petrol, the hydrogen needed for fuel cells must be 99.999% pure. That rules out all the cheaper ways of making it, other than electrolysis of water.


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