The Ford Nucleon: the atomic car of the 1950s. Another wonderful technology that never made it to reality

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Waiting for GODOT … or is it HYDROGEN?

This post was published by Jean Arnold in "Catalyst Magazine", October 2006, p. 22. It is, of course, a little dated, but its main points remain valid. And it shows that the problem that existed 15 years ago are still there. The title was especially prophetic: we are still waiting for Godot.... er.. hydrogen. (UB).


Loads of hype is circulating about our future hydrogen economy, yet its promoters are overlooking hydrogen’s limitations. First, hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source. Hydrogen does not exist in an uncombined state in nature; it must be made. It always takes more energy to make hydrogen than it can provide – whether made from fossil fuels, electricity, or biomass. Physics tell us that whenever you convert from one energy form to another, some energy is lost … no matter how much research money is thrown at the problem.

Second, hydrogen needs to be chilled and compressed – using even more energy – and must be stored in thick-walled, huge containers…highly inefficient to lug around in our cars. Third, hydrogen is the lightest and sneakiest element, so it readily escapes from even the best-sealed container, it makes metal brittle, and it is highly flammable. Being leaky and highly flammable is not a good combo. Fourth, it takes a lot of energy to move it through a pipeline. We’re talking about some overwhelming infrastructure challenges, even more than can be listed here.

In July 2006, at the Lucerne Fuel Cell Conference in Switzerland, conference organizer Ulf Bossel made a major announcement that the dreams for a hydrogen economy will never be realized,

”…We cannot solve the energy problem by wasting energy. The laws of physics speak against a hydrogen economy.” He said that direct use of electricity by the consumer is three to four times as efficient as hydrogen would be.

Supplying just half the U.S.’s car fuel in 2025 with electrically made hydrogen would require about as much electricity as is used in this country today. Hydrogen will not be a magic bullet for our transportation needs. However, it will have certain worthwhile uses, such as for storage of intermittent wind and solar power.

 Corn ethanol suffers from the same basic problem as hydrogen…it provides just a bit more energy than it takes to produce it – given all the fossil-fuel inputs to raise, fertilize, transport and distill the corn. Cellulosic ethanol and soy biodiesel show more promise. Ethanol and biodiesel from hemp might be the best option of all, were it legal to grow in the U.S. The net energy gains of various biofuels are being hotly debated. Concerns are also being raised about soil depletion, about the amount of water required for ethanol distillation, and most biofuels raise the question: do we use our farmland to grow food or fuel? Lester Brown, of the Earth

Policy Institute, says the grain needed to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank would feed one person for a whole year.

These “solutions” have much seductive appeal, as they feed the hope we can maintain our present consumer-based lifestyle and that we will not have to change a thing. Broad-based hydrogen solutions, if attainable, are decades away. We cannot afford to wait for hydrogen cars … if they ever arrive. We need to address peak oil and global warming issues now. Plug-in hybrids and improved efficiencies would be a good place to start. The CO2 emissions from the electricity to charge the plug-in cars is less than using gasoline in a traditional combustion engine – even from coal-fire plants.

Jean Arnold is the Development Director for the Association for the Tree of Life. Jean is also a professional artist, and a key exploration in her work is the relationship between humans and nature.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Colored Hydrogen and Hydrogen Valleys


A remarkable text that appeared on "Warrant Hub." They insist attributing colors to hydrogen as if it were a colored revolution like those that were fashionable some years ago. Surely, no one risks anything by promoting things that don't exist, not just colored hydrogen, but also "hydrogen valleys" supposed to exist already, and to be planned for the future. In any case, they are planning to pay for these non-existing things with the so far non-existing money that should come -- perhaps -- from the European Union. 

Full translation into English:

The parliament asks to give substance to the measures included in the Recovery Plan for hydrogen, still not very detailed and generic, and to provide resources not only for the development of green hydrogen, but also for the production and use of blue hydrogen . Hydrogen Valleys in Italy: where they are and where they will be born in the future

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Atomic Cars of the 1950s.


I just discovered that the "Ford Nucleon" was not the only atomic car of the 1950s. I found this "retro-future" image of a curious object that never ever made it to a full-size maquette, as the Nucleon did. This one, has a sort of Sputnik satellite at the back, supposed to contain uranium or plutonium as fuel. 

It is one more example of our fascination with impossible innovations coupled with our fascination with cars. The result is this kind of automotive monstrosities. Hydrogen cars are not very different, maybe a little less impossible, but still impractical.



Saturday, March 27, 2021

Painting Hydrogen in Bright Colors is not Enough to Turn it into a Workable Technology


 If you believe that there are good reasons to say that hydrogen produced with nuclear energy should be deemed to be "pink," then there must be something that doesn't click right inside your brain. The people who propose this rainbow of colors for a colorless gas don't seem to realize that when you arrive to this level of silliness, there has to be something deeply wrong at the very basis of the idea.


The recent return in fashion of the idea of the "Hydrogen Based Economy" is a classic illustration of what I call the "Seneca Effect." Expressed in words, it says "Increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid." Applied to the hydrogen economy or to hydrogen cars, it says that our attempt to keep the current standards and paradigms while just switching one fuel to another leads to sluggish growth and, eventually, to ruin. 

This article by Paul Martin (published with his kind permission) illustrates the concept, debunking the much touted idea of the hydrogen powered car. See also my article on the subject on "Cassandra's Legacy."


The Hydrogen Fuel cell Vehicle- A Great Idea- In Theory

I can’t help but take a serious poke at the hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle, which some seem to be absolutely in love with. And what’s not to love? You burn hydrogen, an absolutely clean fuel, to produce water vapour and nothing else (no NOx, no particulates…). You do it in a silent, compact machine which isn’t a heat engine and hence isn’t subject to Carnot’s punishing efficiency limitations. Refuelling is a snap- a little more complex than dumping gasoline into a tank, but it’s still very quick. And if you’re an oil company, if demand for gasoline and diesel starts to dry up, you’ve just found your next fuel to sell! Salvation is at hand! Or maybe the ambitious homeowner is thinking they can make it from water using the solar panels on their roof, thereby solving both their transport fuel bill AND the storage problem associated with solar generation, all with one magical technology. It just sounds fantastic!

Regrettably, this guy is hiding in the details, and he’s not all that disguised to anyone who cares to look:

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(and apparently he even has his own Twitter account, @devil which is where I got his picture!)

My last article dealt with the energy efficiency cycle chains for ICE and battery electric vehicles:

We’ll refer to the results of that article when making the comparisons for the fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV), and we’ll use similar assumptions and data sources, so reviewing the previous papers might make sense before reading this one.

Full disclosure here: I am mentioned on a couple Texaco patents which were picked up by Chevron when they acquired Texaco, related to making hydrogen from natural gas to feed proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuelcells. Hydrogen is an old friend from all the way back to my university days, and every second project or so during my decades at Zeton has involved either hydrogen or syngas. Let me make this as clear as hydrogen itself: hydrogen is a wonderful idea- in theory. The big problem with hydrogen is, well…the hydrogen molecule. And there’s no fixing that, irrespective of how clever you are or what you invent.

Let’s take the efficiency chain of a hydrogen fuelcell electric vehicle (FCEV) apart, piece by piece, just like we did with ICE and battery EV vehicles, and using the same assumptions. 

Hydrogen Production

Hydrogen production is itself roughly 70% efficient- regrettably, that’s at best.  A recent conversation I had with Hydrogenics, a major producer of both alkaline and PEM electrolyzers, puts the efficiency of their cheaper alkaline units at around 60%, and the efficiency of the PEM units at around 70%. From what I understand, that’s scraping pretty near the ~ 77% ultimate efficiency for electrolysis, in terms of LHV of H2 product out per unit electrical energy input.  As I mentioned, that in and of itself is a loss- it’s acknowledging that you’ve put energy into the production of hydrogen that you will not get back because you’re not recovering the heat of condensation of the product water. 

Note that most electrolysis vendors state their efficiencies in HHV terms, i.e. including the heat of condensation of the product water. On that basis. 70% LHV efficiency (the figure I'm using) is about 83% HHV efficiency. That's achievable in a PEM electrolyzer running at a low current density- you could likely produce significantly more hydrogen from that same unit by simply turning up the current and losing more energy due to reduced efficiency.

The trouble with electrolysis is that some of the energy obviously goes into making oxygen (though in Gibbs energy terms, you don't get any credit for that). That might be valuable itself and hence worth a credit if you’re doing it in large enough systems to make oxygen clean-up and compression for sale a reasonable thing to do, or if you’re using the H2 not as fuel but as a process feed and that process also needs oxygen. Regrettably, a vehicle refuelling station isn’t going to get any benefit from the product oxygen- it’s going to vent it.

So, let’s take 70% (of LHV) for the conversion of electricity, presumably renewable electricity, to energy in the form of the LHV of hydrogen. To be fair, we’ll have to throw in a 6% penalty for grid losses on the way from the power plant to the electrolyzer.

The figure of 70% of product LHV per unit feed LHV happens to match pretty closely to the best estimate for the best available technology for hydrogen production from natural gas, the large centralized steam methane reformer (SMR). An SMR takes advantage of huge scale to provide benefits from heat integration and thermal energy recovery, including burning the waste gases produced when purifying hydrogen to the extreme levels required for the long-term survival and efficiency of our “engine”, the PEM fuelcell. These devices are really sensitive to carbon monoxide (CO), which poisons the precious metal catalyst. Regrettably you get some CO any time you reform a hydrocarbon fuel to make hydrogen. Even worse, the catalyst itself can also make CO from CO2, so your hydrogen feed has to be purified to remove both CO and CO2 to ppm levels. In fact, even inerts like argon or nitrogen in the feed hydrogen have negative effects on the efficiency of the PEM fuelcell by requiring more anode tail gas venting, so in fact you need very pure hydrogen to feed a fuelcell- something you’ll rapidly find out if you get the purity spec requirements for a PEM fuelcell from someone like Ballard, Plug Power etc. 

Regrettably, the efficiency of SMR drops like a rock the smaller you make the unit. Heat losses become more profound, which matter a lot in a high temperature process like SMR. And as the scale drops, so does the opportunity for beneficial heat integration etc. Everything just gets worse at smaller scale for this process, as anyone rapidly discovers when they try to design such a unit for a small application like, say, a chemical pilot plant, or a vehicle refuelling station…

Distribution from a natural gas well through a gas plant and pipeline to the SMR, and then distribution of hydrogen from a centralized large SMR to fuelling stations, is likely going to cost us a great deal more than 6% of the energy in the product hydrogen, but let’s be generous and keep that loss at 6% total just so we have less math to do (spoiler alert- it won’t matter in the end!). So whether we start with electricity or methane, we’re down to 0.7*0.94 or about 66% of the feed energy by the time we’ve made hydrogen- at best, without much room for improvement because we’re up against the thermodynamic limits already.

Note also that it is possible to achieve very high apparent efficiencies (even, somewhat strangely, higher than 100%) if you electrolyze steam at high temperature rather than starting with water (for instance by running a solid oxide high temperature fuelcell in reverse). However, those efficiencies are artifacts of the calculation- the energy used to evaporate water to make steam and then superheat steam to high temperature are not included in the calculation. Nobody uses steam electrolysis to make hydrogen unless they have a use for either hot hydrogen or hot oxygen or preferably both.

Hydrogen Storage

Now we have to store the hydrogen, and the devil in that detail again arises from the molecule itself. Though its energy density per unit mass is quite impressive, hydrogen even as a cryogenic liquid (at 21 degrees above absolute zero...) is only 75 kg/m3…so the only currently practical means of storing hydrogen for small vehicle applications is as a high pressure gas. Any means used to increase the storage density or to reduce the storage pressure (things like metal hydrides, adsorbents, organic hydrogen carriers etc.) either significantly increases the mass of the tank, or increases the parasitic loss of hydrogen during storage, or requires energy to recover the hydrogen, or a combination of those things. So high pressure gaseous hydrogen it shall be, and I wouldn’t count on some magical breakthrough to change that- we’ve had plenty of time to consider the alternatives in the thirty years hydrogen has been a serious contender as a vehicle fuel.

While much ado is made about how dangerous hydrogen is, there will be no pictures of the Hindenburg in my paper! In fact we’ve been handling hydrogen quite safely in industrial settings for a long time- we know what it takes to keep it safe. The wide flammability range is offset by its low density and high diffusivity, making hydrogen explosions rather less likely in practice than in the imagination of people doing HAZOP reviews. With proper precautions during design and operation, high pressure hydrogen is quite safe- in industrial settings that is! I don’t want my neighbours to even think about making 6,000 or 9,000 psig hydrogen using their home solar panels…that gives me nightmares on many levels.

The trouble with high pressure hydrogen storage is that you have to compress the gas from a modest ~300 psig exiting an SMR, or perhaps from near atmospheric pressure exiting a PEM electrolyzer- a compression ratio ranging from ~20:1 to over 400:1. That takes thermodynamic work, which takes energy, typically electricity. And regrettably, the heat of compression, although available, needs to be rejected at a rather low temperature to protect the compressors’ components, and hence is rather difficult to use in any meaningful way. Even worse is the fact that you need a tank at, say, 6,000 psig pressure which can fall only to 5900 psig when filling the tank on the vehicle, so all the compression is done at the highest compression ratio- and the tanks themselves at the filling station need to be very large indeed.

When done on a massive scale with large compressor trains, high pressure hydrogen storage can be as good as 90% efficient in terms of LHV of H2 stored per unit electrical energy used to run the compressors, which is surprisingly good given all these considerations. (Note that the polytropic efficiency of the compressors themselves is a small fraction of that number- this is a very different measure of efficiency).  Regrettably though, when you reduce the size of the compressors, the efficiency plummets. A single-vehicle multistage diaphragm compressor may be as little as 50% efficient on that basis or even less - this is something which, along with the unit capital cost, gets much worse as the scale decreases. That’s a shame, because distributing hydrogen over long distances is infeasible for exactly the same reasons it’s hard to store- the properties of the molecule. All the dreams about a “hydrogen economy” are predicated on small, distributed hydrogen generation systems so the thing we need to move around from place to place isn’t hydrogen, which leaves us in my view with only one realistic option: electrolysis.

OK, so we’re at 70% (H2 production) x 94% (grid/distribution loss) x 90% (high pressure storage) = 59% from energy source to tank, compared with 80% for gasoline. Clearly we’re not going to be feeding that hydrogen into a lossy ICE as a replacement for gasoline, especially if the source of the H2 is fossil- we'd be far better off feeding the ICE directly with whatever fossil we started with. And if we care about GHG emissions, we certainly can’t make that H2 from fossil sources- we’d be better off with the Prius for sure. Electrolysis from renewable electricity is our only hope.  

The Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) Fuelcell

Sadly, we’re not done losing energy yet- next is the loss in the PEM fuelcell. Despite the fact that it is not a heat engine, it still has its own limiting thermodynamics. PEM fuelcells are achieving efficiencies of about 50-60%, and that is not far off the ultimate thermodynamic limit of about 83% for an ideal fuelcell.

So let’s be generous and take 60% as the fuelcell efficiency- that will get us from the well or power plant all the way to the output of the fuelcell. 

The FCEV From Energy Source to Wheels

Now we have the electric drivetrain (inverter and motor) and its 90% efficiency- so “well to wheels”, or “power plant to wheels”, we’re now at 94%x70%x90%x60%x90% = 32%. I’ll remind you that on a well to wheels basis, the Prius achieved about 30% on gasoline- so we’re doing better than the Prius, and with no tailpipe emissions! And rapid refuelling. Hurray! Right? Right?...

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I remind you that my home-made electric vehicle, the E-Fire, on the same basis, was achieving 76.5%...and it had no tailpipe emissions either. And despite having a very small pack by OEM EV standards- only 18.5 kWh- it has an adequate range for my commute. We’re just crossing 12,000 nearly fossil-free miles driven so far, and I’ve never waited around for it to charge- I just plug it in once at night, and once in the morning at work. It doesn’t replace everything a gasoline car can do, doesn’t try to, and doesn’t HAVE to in order to serve a very valuable purpose- getting me to work and back with acceleration that makes my neck sore. 

The FCEV Loses on Cycle Efficiency- But We're Not Done Losing Yet!

So when we talk about the FCEV, if we’re honest, we’re talking about a technology which has a best case energy source to wheels efficiency of roughly 2.4x inferior to that of an existing alternative technology (the battery EV). What do we get in return for that huge efficiency hit? Faster refuelling, and possibly modestly greater range between refuellings- that’s it.

Seems like too much of a price to pay? Wait- we’re not done yet! We haven’t even started talking about cost…

Hydrogen is a very expensive fuel, regardless how you slice it. 

The 2.4x inferior efficiency- again at best- means we’ll have to build out at least 2.4x as much renewable infrastructure as if we used it to recharge EVs. That alone should give hydrogen promoters significant food for thought.

Then there’s the hydrogen distribution infrastructure. You’re not going to be refuelling at home, folks, unless the local fire marshal falls asleep at the wheel of his diesel fire truck. So that means businesses are going to have to build out that infrastructure, and they’re going to want a return on that investment. They’re not going to MAKE that investment, because they know that a return is impossible.

And as if that weren’t enough, now let’s talk about what else is in a FCEV. There’s of course a hydrogen storage tank and a PEM fuelcell. Oh, and every other part of the battery EV, including the battery! The battery will be smaller- closer to that used in a Prius than to that used in a BEV, but it’s still needed to capture regenerative braking energy, to manage the power demand on the fuelcell stack to keep its costs down, and to manage the start-up and shutdown process of the fuelcell system. So the FCEV will be a hybrid.

Furthermore, we’ve had a long time to drive down the costs of the PEM fuelcell, and the costs are still very high. Though that would certainly drop further as a result of the “learning curve” with mass adoption and mass production, just as it continues to do for Li-ion batteries, there’s a nagging limiter to dropping that price too far: platinum group metals (PGMs) such as platinum and palladium that are used in the fuelcell as catalysts. Reduce the PGM content and the fuelcell becomes even more susceptible to hydrogen impurities, and the efficiency drops too I suspect. Replace the PGMs with cheaper metals like nickel and most of the benefits of the PGM fuelcell go away- you’ll need to operate it at higher temperature etc. 

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(picture of the Toyota Mirai FCEV, courtesy of

Does this mean that hydrogen is dead for personal transport applications? In a word, and in my opinion, YES. Elon Musk and I agree violently on that topic. Erm, I'd qualify that by saying except in a world where electricity somehow costs nothing, or even worse, its price goes negative, because renewable generation basically becomes so cheap that it costs basically no capital to install. But I’m betting that a) that will never happen, and b) even if we were to come close to that puzzling economic outcome, the capital cost and other practical problems with the electrolyzers, compressor trains, storage tanks and fuelcells would kill the idea deader than a doornail anyway.

A comparison of two real vehicles you can buy (in California at least) makes it clear that my estimates are optimistic in favour of hydrogen. For cars of similar features and the same EPA range, the hydrogen car uses 3.2x as much energy (i.e. much more than the 2.4x minimum I've calculated above) and costs 5.4x as much per mile driven:

Of course BOTH can improve from where they are now- but the calculations in my paper above set the limits. You can't overcome thermodynamics with invention or wishful thinking.

Does this mean there is no use for PEM fuelcells? Absolutely not! There ARE established markets where PEM fuelcells make good sense- but they’re all applications where energy efficiency matters a lot less than something else- rapid refuelling as an example. Hence, Plug Power is finding a niche market powering warehouse forklift trucks, particularly in refrigerated warehouses.

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(FC forklifts, from

The same goes for the so-called “power to gas” or P2G schemes that some are developing. These are an entirely different model: they use “excess” renewable electricity to make hydrogen which is then dumped at low pressure into the natural gas grid where it is ultimately used to make heat- often in devices which actually finally recover the heat of condensation of the water of combustion. As a means of storing electricity, P2G schemes are so ridiculously inefficient that they’re not even worth talking about, but they’re also very low in capital investment AND they reduce GHG emissions when the H2 displaces methane. That’s not all bad.

Other Transport Uses for Hydrogen

Batteries are either marginally feasible or infeasible for some forms of transport right now: aircraft, long-distance transport, trains and ships. The real question for these applications is simply this: how much do we care about toxic tailpipe pollution? If we care about this most of all, then hydrogen is the only game in town. But if our primary focus is fossil GHG emissions, we have the option of using biofuels for these applications as an alternative to hydrogen. For aircraft, biofuels are likely the only practical solution until something which is as much better than Li ion than Li ion was better than lead-acid batteries is invented- perhaps a rechargeable metal-air battery. And while the total replacement of diesel and gasoline with biofuels is infeasible even if economics are thrown aside completely (see for the figures on that), if we were to do 90% of the car miles with electricity, we should have enough biofuels production potential to handle the remaining 10% PLUS all these other applications for which batteries are currently infeasible. Toxic tailpipe emissions matter a lot less when they're emitted between cities.

The option of using hydrogen or electrochemical means to reduce CO2 to produce liquid hydrocarbons is, obviously, significantly less efficient than hydrogen. The same with ammonia, which is trotted out as a way to overcome some of hydrogen's deficiencies. Ammonia is a toxic gas- and making it is again less efficient than making hydrogen. The thought of using ammonia as a vehicle fuel absolutely terrifies me, given the scale of ammonia-related deaths from its existing uses as a refrigerant and agricultural chemical.

The Real Future of Renewable Hydrogen

Right now, over 96% of the hydrogen produced in the world is produced from fossil fuels either deliberately (coal gasification or natural gas in SMR or ATR units), or as a byproduct of petroleum manufacture. We're going to need to become very, very good at making hydrogen from renewable resources like PV solar and wind electricity, not to waste it as an inefficient vehicle fuel, but to use it to make things like ammonia and urea which are used in fertilizers. We'll need to replace this enormous fossil hydrogen generation infrastructure so that we can get the fossil monkey off our backs without starving.

More on the future of renewable hydrogen from renewable electricity: is it the future? Or a greenwash?

My next article will address the bogeyman of embodied energy, particularly in batteries.

Disclaimer: everything in this series of articles is my own opinion, for which I try to state sources and references whenever possible. It’s highly likely that something I’ve said is just plain wrong- for which I apologize in advance. Whenever you can show that I’m wrong with a good reference, I’ll go back and edit the text with the correct information. My employer, Zeton Inc., is in an entirely different business, and doesn’t endorse or even have an opinion on these issues. We design and build pilot plants- that’s it- and we love doing it!

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Confessions of a Former Hydrogenist


The "hydrogen economy" is like a zombie: no matter how many times it is slain, it keeps coming at you. Like a Hollywood zombie movie, hydrogen seems to exert a tremendous fascination because it is being sold to people as a way to keep doing everything we have been doing without any need for sacrifices or for changing our ways. Unfortunately, reality is not a movie, and the reverse is also true. Hydrogen is a pie in the sky that delays the real innovation that would make it possible to phase out fossil fuels from the world's energy mix.  (image source)

 This post was originally published on "Cassandra's Legacy" on Dec 21, 2020



This is a re-worked and updated version of a post that I published in 2007, in Italian, during one more of the periodic returns of the "hydrogen economy," a fashionable idea that leads nowhere. For more technical information on the hydrogen scam, see the exhaustive treatment by Antonio Turiel in three posts on his blog "Crash Oil", in Spanish, "The Hydrogen Fever" One, two, and Three, all written by "Beamspot."

Confessions of a Former Hydrogenist

I think it was in 2004 when an Italian company based in Tuscany developed a hydrogen car and organized a presentation for the president of the Tuscan regional government. I was invited to attend as the local fuel cell expert. 

So, I showed up in the courtyard of the Tuscan government building where a truck had unloaded the car. It turned out to be a modified Fiat Multipla that you may know as having been awarded the 2014 prize for the ugliest car ever made. Of course, that was not the problem. It was that it was not a fuel cell car. It was just an ordinary car fitted with two compressed hydrogen cylinders under the body. The hydrogen went directly into the internal combustion engine.   
Before the President appeared, I had a chance to drive that car. I managed to make a full tour of the courtyard of the building, but it was like riding an asthmatic horse. The technician of the company told me that, yes, the regulation of the carburetor was not so easy. I could only agree on that. 
When the President showed up, he clearly had no idea of what was going on and what he was supposed to do. He sat at the wheel, drove the car for a few meters in heavy bumps, then he gave up and just sat there in order to be photographed by the journalists. The day after, the local newspapers showed the photos of the president driving the "hydrogen car," a prodigy of the Tuscan inventive.  Then the car disappeared forever into the dustbin of history, together with the long list of hydrogen-powered prototypes that were made, shown, and scrapped over the years.
1980, when I arrived in Berkeley, in California, to do a post-doc stage at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. At that time, the worst of the first oil crisis was over but the shock was still felt, and everywhere in the US and in the world it was a flourishing of research projects dedicated to new forms of energy.

In Berkeley, I worked for two years on fuel cells; the technology that was to be used to transform hydrogen into electricity and that was - and still is - essential to the concept of "hydrogen-based economy" (The idea was already well known in the 1980s, Rifkin didn't invent anything with his 2002 book). It was an interesting field, even fascinating, but very difficult. We were studying the "core" of the device, the catalyst. How it worked and what could be done to improve its performance. I think we did some good research work, although we found nothing revolutionary.

With the end of my contract at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab approaching, I started looking for a job. I remember that I was told that there was someone in Canada who had set up a company dedicated to developing fuel cells. I vaguely thought about sending them a resume but, eventually, I didn't. For what I was told, that company was little more than a garage staffed with a few enthusiasts. Not the kind of thing that promised a bright future for a researcher. 

It was a mistake on my part. Later on, the company grew and its leader, Geoffrey Ballard, became famous. They improved a fuel cell design that had been developed earlier on by NASA and the result was a major advance. It made possible the first fuel-cell bus in the world (1993). That led to Ballard being nominated "hero of the planet" in 1999. 

In the 1990s it occurred to me several times that if in 1982 I had sent that resume to Ballard, maybe I could have been one of the developers of what seemed to be the revolution of the century. The polymer membrane fuel cell (PEMFC) was the device that would have made possible the hydrogen-based economy: clean prosperity for everyone. I would have made a lot of money, too!

But, as it has often happened to me in my life, I found myself in the wrong place and out of sync with the rest of the world. In 1982, when I was looking for a job, the oil crisis seemed to be over and oil prices had fallen sharply. The interest in alternative energies was waning and, with the foresight typical of human beings, research programs on energy were being abandoned. There was little room, as a result, for a fuel cell expert. The best I could find in the US was an offer to work in a research center in Montana. It did not attract me so much and, in the end, I decided to return to my university, in Italy. There, I tried to set up a research program on fuel cells, but nobody was interested (again, the typical foresight of human beings). So after a few years, I moved to different subjects.

In the meantime, the interest in new forms of energy waxed and waned with the vagaries of oil prices. In 1991, the first gulf war was already an alarm bell, but the 9/11 attacks of 2001 made it clear to everyone that the supply of crude oil to the West was not guaranteed. Perhaps as a consequence, in 2002 there came Jeremy Rifkin's book "The Hydrogen Based Economy." Promoted by a high-profile campaign, it was a huge success and the idea became rapidly popular. It was understood as the way to solve all energy problems in a single sweep: not only hydrogen was clean and renewable, but it required no changes in people's lifestyle or habits. It was just a question of filling up your car's tank with something that was not gasoline, all the rest would remain unchanged. It was in perfect agreement with what George W. Bush had said, "The American lifestyle is not up for negotiation."

Even though I had not been working on fuel cells in Italy, Rifkin's success caused me to be shining of reflected light. It turned out that I was one of the few researchers in Italy having some hands-on experience with fuel cells. I was invited to speak at conferences and public presentations and some people even started calling me "Professor Hydrogen."(!)

I must admit that, in the beginning, I spoke as if I believed in the idea of the hydrogen-based economy, and maybe I did. But, gradually, I started having serious doubts. I even had a chance to meet Rifkin in person in 2006 at a conference that I had organized in Tuscany. His talk was all hype and no substance. When he was asked technical questions, all he could answer was something like "have faith," and then he would change subject.

As I started being more and more bothered by the hype on hydrogen, soon I saw what the real problem was. Back in the 1980s, in Berkeley, we already knew that the critical feature of fuel cells of the kind that can work near room temperature (called PEM, polymer electrode membrane cells) is the need for a catalyst at the electrodes. Without a catalyst, the cell just doesn't work at room temperature and the only catalyst that can make the cell work is platinum. 

Of course, platinum is expensive, but that's not the main problem, as I discovered when I started getting involved in studies on mineral depletion. If you were to replace the current vehicles with fuel cells, there would be no way to produce enough platinum from mines (for details, you can see this 2014 article of mine). Indeed, the two years I had spent at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab were dedicated to finding ways to use less platinum, or something else in place of platinum. It wasn't just me working on it, it was a whole research group, one of the several engaged on the subject.

There are several tricks you can play to reduce the platinum loading in fuel cells. You can use small particles and exploit their large surface/volume ratio. But small particles are highly active, they move, react with each other to form larger particles, and, eventually, your electrode no longer works. Of course, there are tricks to stabilize small particles: one of the things I worked on was platinum alloys. At times, some of these alloys seemed to work little miracles. But the problem was that the miracle worked only for a while, then something happened, the alloy "de-alloyed" and the catalyst didn't work anymore. Not the right kind of behavior for something that you expect to work on a commercial vehicle for at least ten years. 

Today, the problem has not been solved. I looked at a recent review on this subject and I saw that people are still struggling with the same problems I had when I worked as a young postdoc in Berkeley: reducing the platinum loading on the electrode by using alloys. I am sure that good progress has been made in nearly 40 years, but technological progress is subjected to diminishing returns, just like many human activities. You can move forward, but the farther you go, the more expensive it becomes -- to say nothing of the reliability problems of highly sophisticated technologies that deal with dispersed nanoparticles. And no way has been found, so far, to replace platinum with some other metal in low temperature fuel cells. Without a substitute for platinum, the hydrogen-based economy remains a pie in the sky. 

Note also that the platinum supply is just one of the problems plaguing the idea of the "hydrogen economy." There are many others: storage, safety, durability, efficiency, energy return, and probably more. No surprise that I stopped believing in the idea. I became a "former hydrogenist," one of those people who had approached the hydrogen idea with plenty of hopes, but who soon became disillusioned.

That doesn't mean there don't exist niche markets for hydrogen as an energy storage technology, but fuel cells are still mainly used for prototypes or toys. There is one commercial hydrogen car, the Toyota Mirai, an expensive and exotic car in a world where lithium batteries provide the same performance at a much lower cost. Hydrogen powered planes are a possibility, but there are none flying today, likely because they are an engineering nightmare. Perhaps a good use for hydrogen could be powering marine vessels, although fuel cells may be too expensive for this purpose. As energy storage systems, coupling electrolysis and fuel cell systems may do the job, but they are more expensive than batteries and their efficiency is also much smaller.

So, what's left of the grand idea of a "Hydrogen Based Economy," the promise of a world both prosperous and clean? Very little, it seems to me. Nevertheless, nowadays, the idea seems to be enjoying a renaissance, at least in terms of the surrounding hype, this time with the label of "blue hydrogen."  This is hydrogen that should be created from fossil fuels, while the carbon generated in the process should be captured and stored underground. Clearly, it is just a trick to make it possible for the fossil fuel industry to keep going for a while longer. 

And why "blue" hydrogen? Ah.... well, that's the miracle of our times: propaganda. Just as we can have "colored revolutions" it seems that we can invent "colored technologies." We have also "green hydrogen" and "grey hydrogen" and the latest fad seems to be "green kerosene." Karl Rove had understood it so well when  he said that "nowadays we create our own reality." It is so powerful that it can turn hydrogen blue and you can read here how this miracle was performed. But it will be harder to create platinum that is just not there. In the meantime, the hydrogen zombie keeps marching on!