The Hydrogen Economy as an illusion

At the closing weekend of the Lucerne Fuel Cell Forum (6 July 2006), the organiser, Dr. Ulf Bossel made a speech that was both remarkable and rather startling. He proclaimed that it is very unlikely that the so-called Hydrogen Economy will ever be established, and that his organisation will consequently cease to discuss hydrogen fuel cells.

The law of physics as the final arbiter

By hydrogen economy, Ulf Bossel means the use of pure hydrogen to feed Polymer Electric Fuel Cells (PEFC) in transport vehicles. This pure hydrogen is produced by electrolysis — a conversion process that will always result in some energy losses. As a consequence, Ulf Bossel declared, hydrogen can, by the very laws of physics, never compete with the source electricity used to make it. In his words: ‘The energy problem cannot be solved by creating artificial fuels. The laws of physics speak against a hydrogen economy, and physics cannot be changed by wishful thinking, political initiatives, research programs, or venture capital.’

An alternative to battery technology

The speech was no doubt an historic event, but one that needs to be put into perspective however. Farsighted engineers and scientists have always seen the PEFC merely as an alternative to battery technology. It was not the PEFC itself that was wrong, but rather the hydrogen economy hype, deriving a complete picture for the future out of a mere storage technology. Are we living in a ‘fuel tank economy’ today? As an altertative to battery technology, the PEFC did certainly look promising at one time. It is only recently, with the development of lithium-ion batteries for cars, that its qualities have been clearly surpassed. So if you look at it this way, making an abstraction of all hype, what is happening today is just a shift in the optimal choice of energy storage for the car of the future.

Fuel cells have a future

The declaration of Ulf Bossel does not mean that the complete Fuel Cell Forum has come to an end. His organisation will continue to discuss phosphoric acid, molten carbonate, and solid oxide fuel cells. These fuel cell technologies can, according to Bossel, meet the challenges of the future, since they don’t rely on pure hydrogen but can also use bio-methane as a fuel. They are not suitable for driving a car, however, but can be used by stationary appliances for the production of electricity. They are mainly seen as an alternative for gas motors in Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plants or for diesel engines in an Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS).

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