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Are Fuel Cells Better Than Batteries?

Toyota and Honda just announced their new fuel cell cars. Although these cars won’t be on the road for another year, their mere existence raises questions about the long-term future of battery-powered cars. Are battery vehicles just a temporary detour on our road to the Hydrogen Highway, or are fuel cells a last ditch attempt by the fossil fuel industry to greenwash their “well to gas station” infrastructure?

A fuel cell car is pretty much just like a battery-powered EV…except the fact that fuel cells are neither clean, cheap nor efficient. All practical fuel cell cars run on hydrogen. When you combine hydrogen with oxygen you get energy (heat in an engine or electricity in a fuel cell) and water. Pretty clean and elegant, so far.

But we currently get 95% of our hydrogen by “reforming” natural gas. The natural gas is combined with steam (essentially H2O), with the end products being hydrogen gas and CO2. So “reforming” is kind of like a school for bad fossil fuels. Fuel cell cars using reformed natural gas are about 50% efficient, so they release even more CO2 that would be released if we burned natural gas directly. Moreover, fuel cell cars requires an entirely new hydrogen infrastructure of reforming plants, hydrogen pipelines, hydrogen filling stations and vehicles.

One good thing about fuel cell vehicles is that they can be “filled up” in a matter of minutes, not the several hours it takes for today’s generation of plug-in EVs. But at the current rate of improvement in cost and performance of batteries, I doubt that fuel cells will ever catch up. For more about the comparisons between fuel cell and battery EVs, please Listen Up to this week’s Energy Show on Renewable Energy World.

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