Is Hydrogen the Fuel

of the Future?

It’s too early to tell, but a few big automakers and your tax dollars are making bets on the fuel.

Brian Douglas

I finished topping off the tank in my Toyota Mauri hydrogen fuel cell test vehicle and was faced with a $45.05 charge for 2.7kg of fuel. That’s a bit more than half the capacity of the sturdy vessel that, when filled with a gas pressure of 10,000 PSI that will set you back $90, will supply the Mauri’s fuel cells with enough hydrogen to travel 312-miles with clean electric power.

Fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) turn hydrogen into electricity with an exhaust byproduct of water vapor. Hydrogen can also be burned up in an internal combustion engine, but that’s even less efficient. And for a bit more perspective, our family sedan will cover the same 312-miles for about $30 in gasoline at today’s prices. So if that hydrogen fill-up is on my credit card, I’m apparently dedicated to saving the planet.

But if I had leased this smallish, mid-size sedan, the half-tank hydrogen fill-up would have been gratis, part of the $15,000 of fuel included in the three-year agreement. And when I left the Saratoga station, one of just four in our area (three are clustered in the South Bay, one in So. San Francisco), a gaggle of Mauri vehicles were waiting to take my place. It seems that free fuel and a $350 per-month lease for a well-equipped, $60-grand sedan does wonders for demand. 

Free Ride?

Joel Ewanick, founder and CEO of hydrogen fuel purveyor First Element Fuels has an impressive resume in automotive marketing. Ewanick’s successful career at Porsche and Hyundai propelled him to the Chief Marketing Officer at GM before a dustup over approval of a major marketing program led to his exit in 2012. Since then, Joel has been an evangelist for hydrogen powered vehicles, stressing that the little atom is “The most prevalent substance in the universe”.

Since we’re awash in hydrogen, literally- since water covers most of the planet, doesn’t it make sense to use it to power our transportation? And according to the California Air Resources Board, hydrogen fuel cell powered electric vehicles are more efficient than combustion engines and “…virtually pollution free”. But the last part of that statement is pure hogwash for 95% of today’s hydrogen production.

Wildcatters don’t drill for hydrogen since there are no known hydrogen deposits to be found, so nearly all commercial hydrogen is produced by steam reforming fossil fuels, mostly natural gas, but also oil and coal. The principal byproduct from this process is carbon dioxide, the same greenhouse gas that’s today’s favorite boogeyman.

Hydrogen (H2) can also be snatched from water (H2O) with electrolysis and the byproduct is oxygen. Now that’s a relatively “pollution free” process, but the current technology takes lots of electricity to separate hydrogen from oxygen and the result can be less electricity than you started with. Kind of like making a small fortune in the wine business- it often begins with a larger fortune.

If the technical hurdles of making hydrogen aren’t enough, it’s delivered to the new Bay Area fueling stations by truck, and using more energy, is highly compressed to fill the fuel cell vehicle’s 5 KG tanks at 10,000 PSI. And we California taxpayers are all-in on this remarkable endeavor. And since batteries are improving and becoming faster to recharge, the five-minute H2 fill-up could quickly loose its advantage.

Hydrogen Driving

Whether or not the oft-promoted hydrogen economy materializes as its advocates assert it will, a couple of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are available for customers with good credit who reside in designated zip codes. That criteria fits pretty much all GENTRY readers and I know more than a few of you have signed up for a FCV. So I spent time in Toyota’s Mirai as well as Honda’s Clarity to see how they behaved in the real world, and I would have added Hyundai’s Tucson FCV, but that model had paused production for a complete refresh.

Over the past couple of decades, I’ve driven quite a few fuel cell vehicles, ranging from science projects to well-finished limited production models. Our two test subjects, Mirai and Clarity, are fully developed sedans that are comfortable, nicely equipped and reasonably fun to drive. While few would call the power and handling sporty, there’s enough oomph to climb hills and merge with highway traffic. Passing on two-lane roads is best attempted with a generous sightline.

Although Toyota’s Mirai and Honda’s Clarity are different offerings that happened to be priced identically, they share a few H2 characteristics. My first refueling was a surprise. The True Zero (First Element Fuel’s brand) hydrogen station pump offered two different flavors of hydrogen, H35 and H70, each with its own hose. Who knew? A call to True Zero’s help line shed light on the issue.

 

The H35 offering is for commercial vehicles with larger storage tanks with hydrogen compressed at 5,000-PSI. Consumer FCVs, like our Mirai and Clarity, take the H70 hydrogen that’s delivered at 10,000-PSI. And if I’d looked closely, the delivery nozzles are different, so it’s impossible to really get it wrong, unlike mixing gasoline and diesel fuels. And the separate ground wires I’d experienced a decade ago refueling prototype FCVs are gone, replaced with a car-size ground isolation pad in front of the H2 pump.

Toyota Miari vs. Honda Clarity

These are both fully developed, nice cars, but they are different. Toyota’s Miari isn’t as space-efficient with its hydrogen component packaging as Honda’s Clarity, so it’s a four-passenger sedan vs. room for five. The Mairi isn’t as powerful and has a bit shorter range than the Clarity, so at the moment, Honda is the clear winner in this head-to-head matchup. Steven Center, Honda’s VP of Connected and Environmental Business Development, asserts that Clarity’s performance and packaging edge is because this is Honda’s fifth generation FCV, a generation ahead of rivals.

I could live with either one of these well-equipped, near luxury sedans as long as the very generous lease payments and free fuel were part of the deal. If, and when, that goes away, the numbers just wouldn’t compute and I’d look for a plug-in hybrid or EV to help save the planet. But for now, it’s one heck of a consumer deal.