Last week at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, Volkswagen CEO Thomas Schafer said the world’s second largest automaker would not develop hydrogen-powered cars, and would focus instead its efforts on electric vehicles.

Although Volkswagen now appears to have put hydrogen in the bin, other big automakers such Toyota, Hyundai, Honda and BMW continue to invest heavily into the technology.

Check the date. It’s February 2023. Hydrogen-powered cars are still being discussed and even “developed” by some of the world’s largest automakers in 2023, who couch their multi-billion dollar plans as “hedging their bets” or engaging a “multi-pronged strategy”.

They even get politicians, like former prime minister Scott Morrison, to drive and pose with hydrogen cars. He wouldn’t, and didn’t, do that with an electric car, which is why the continued push into what many insist is a fundamentally flawed technology should be properly investigated.

Before looking at why legacy automotive companies, resource tycoons and the politicians that represent them, have been such huge advocates for hydrogen-powered vehicles over the last 20 years, it’s important to firstly outline why hydrogen-powered cars are so fundamentally flawed and will never come close to competing with battery electric vehicles.

Currently, there are hardly any on the streets anywhere in the world, bar a handful driven by politicians for photo-ops and a few bought by technology optimists. And there are many reasons why we won’t see mass adoption of hydrogen-powered cars any time soon.

These include complexity of design, thermodynamic barriers, logistical inefficiencies, enormous costs and safety issues. Of all the things that are rated likely as a use for green hydrogen, passenger cars and small vehicles rate down the bottom. There might be used in big vehicles like haulage trucks, but even that remains to be seen.

Big Auto, and Big Oil and Gas, like hydrogen technology for cars it because it looks and feels a lot like their current business models – complex engines that require heavy maintenance, and a centralised distribution system.

Many proponents will mention hydrogen’s energy density to justify the technology. They generally fail to mention they’re talking about liquified hydrogen – and the process of liquifying hydrogen is complex and energy intensive.

Hydrogen-powered cars, the “Rube Goldberg machine” of transport

Founder and chief scientist at Rewiring America, and the brains behind the “electrify everything” campaign, Saul Griffith describes hydrogen-powered cars as Rube Goldberg machines.

Named after an American cartoonist, a Rube Goldberg machine is a contraption which is designed to perform a simple task using a series of absurd and unnecessary steps which comically over complicate achieving the desired goal.

The original comic is of a self-operating napkin which is triggered when the diner lifts his spoon.

Comparing a hydrogen fuel-cell car with an EV, we can see what Griffith is talking about. Not only does the hydrogen car need electric motors and a battery like an electric vehicle, it also needs hydrogen tanks to store the hydrogen and the fuel-cell to convert the hydrogen into electricity.

Hydrogen fuel cell vs battery electric car

Comparing the two car designs we can see the hydrogen-powered car is far more complicated.

However, it’s not until we zoom out and look at the entire energy supply chain, that we start to see how unlikely the hydrogen-powered car really is.

The hydrogen supply chain closely resembles that of our current fossil-fuel-powered system.

For the last 100 years the vast majority of the world’s transport system has run on petrol and diesel.

The fuel needed to power petrol and diesel cars and trucks begins a long and complex journey as extracted oil on huge and complex oil rigs costing hundreds of millions of dollars. The oil is then either piped through expensive pipelines or shipped using expensive oil tankers to complex and expensive oil refineries.

At the complex and expensive refineries, the oil is turned into petrol or diesel and is then stored in massive expensive tanks before being trucked to an expensive fuel station where it’s again stored before you go and pump it out of an underground tank into your car.

electric versus hydrogen powered car

In our fossil fuel dominated world this entire system is needed to get you from A to B. Hundreds of thousands of engineers, boilermakers, diesel mechanics, truck drivers and gas station attendants needed to deliver this energy into your vehicle.

The same holistic analysis must be applied to other transport technologies such as hydrogen and battery electric vehicles. The source of energy for both electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles is (must be) solar and wind powered electricity as the world transitions away from fossil fuels.

With battery electric vehicles, electricity can be generated from solar panels (rooftop or grid-scale) or wind power from wind turbines. This electricity is then stored in the vehicle’s on-board battery pack before its used to power electric motors to move the car.

With hydrogen-powered vehicles the system is far more complex and more closely resembles our current petrol and diesel “Rube Goldberg on steroids” system.

Curtin University’s Peter Newman and the University of Queensland’s Jake Whitehead make the same conclusions in their newly released research paper, published in Sustainable Earth Reviews.

“Energy is lost at every step of the energy chain, as dictated by the laws of thermodynamics, which in turn leads to higher energy input requirements, and ultimately higher energy costs,” they say.

And they illustrate this with the graph above comparing the energy chain required to power a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (HFCV) compared to a battery electric vehicle (BEV).

In his book “The Big Switch” Saul Griffith lists the stages needed to power a hydrogen-powered car. Note that even before the first step, electricity needs to be generated by renewables such as solar and wind, in order for the hydrogen to be classified as “green”.

  1. Seperate the hydrogen from water or some other molecule (using electricity from renewables).
  2. Compress the hydrogen or cryogenically cool it, to make transportation feasible.
  3. Store the hydrogen in some sage pressure vessel.
  4. Transport the hydrogen to where it’s needed.
  5. Decompress the hydrogen so that you can utilise it.
  6. Either burn the hydrogen by mixing it with oxygen like a traditional engine (and maybe use that to turn a generator to make electricity) or…
  7. Put the hydrogen through a “fuel cell” to turn it directly into electricity.

All of the things in this incredibly complex system require materials, machines and energy to make and run.

In comparison the battery electric system is extremely simple and therefore efficient.