Not the most perceptive of analyses

But hold on. Renault, with some back-seat driving from President Macron, is making a big bet on an alternative technology. The company has just announced ambitious plans for a hydrogen powered vehicle, not long after France unveiled a massive programme of investment in the fuel. And yet, that is already looking like a terrible mistake.

Hydrogen is an unproven technology. The infrastructure for fuelling vehicles is woefully inadequate and unlikely to get any better. And unless hydrogen hits a critical mass there will be very little incentive for anyone else to come into the market. Renault was carving out a potentially successful niche in electric vehicles, especially with the big-selling and relatively cheap Zoe. It looks like blowing it on a high risk wager that is doomed to fail.

The same is true of all new technologies. And H2 with fuel cells looks like it will become the propulsion of choice for lorries. So much of that infrastructure will have to exist.

But then this is why we use markets anyway. Everyone gets to try and then we find out, right? Rather than planning by either government or newspaper columnists.

40 thoughts on “Not the most perceptive of analyses”

  1. The same arguments were made against battery electric, of course – an unproven technology, no infrastructure etc. You would have thought such a recent example would be remembered, especially when discussing the exact same industry.

  2. Daimler Benz canned their hydrogen research.
    Personally I think it a better idea than batteries, but as ever there is a long way to go and by the time it is viable all cars will be powered by fusion. Or we will have jet packs.

  3. The French actually do have some experience with hydrogen — various Ariane rockets are powered by liquid hydrogen, so there is expertise in handling, storing and using the stuff. Renault have realised that they don’t have any particular advantage in battery electric cars despite first-mover advantage (because they outsourced their battery production) so why not try something else?

    While the cost and mass of batteries scale pretty linearly with capacity, hydrogen tanks scale really quite well. H2 is implausible for a motorbike, and fantastic for an orbital-class rocket. Where is the tipping point where batteries or H2 are best? We don’t know. Renault make everything from heavy quads to 44-ton lorries, so they’re in as good a position as any to work out where that point is.

    Also worth noting that Renault owns Nissan and in turn Mitsubishi Motors. The Japanese government is pushing hydrogen pretty hard — probably because it doesn’t require as many materials where China has cornered the market — so there will likely be a market there that Renault can fill even if the rest of the world nopes out.

  4. H2 in cars…

    I’ll be awaiting the moaning and ash-and-sackcloth “innocence” when the first mini-nuke goes off after a car crash..
    Just a matter of time…

  5. Hydrogen for cars is not a good fit. Liquid hydrogen has only 25% of the energy density by volume as petrol so you need much bigger fuel tanks for the same volume. The tank needs to be pressured to about 500 bar, so it will be immensely strong hence heavy. Fitting this into a truck is a lot easier. You could potentially use cryogenic liquid hydrogen which is how the hydrogen is transported to and stored. This gets rid of the pressure problem but then you need to keep it at -253C otherwise it will boil away.

  6. @Matt
    Sure the French have experience in handling LH2 in a space context. They all the problems of cryogenic storeage & boil-offs. But LH2 rockets are yesterdays tech. NASA’s using it because the current project’s based on shuttle tech pork. The smart money’s on LCH4 or kerosene.
    LH2 just doesn’t make any sense when you can combine H2 with CO2 to CH4 or longer chain hydrocarbons. Which are easily handleable liquids can be used in current ICEs in a net zero carbon regime.

  7. It’s LH2 tech had NASA’s latest waste of money needing to be pumped dry & still sitting on a pad past it’s launch schedule. Meanwhile SpaceX is flying short turnaround re-usables.

  8. “And H2 with fuel cells looks like it will become the propulsion of choice for lorries.”

    No it doesn’t, it’s a scam.

    1kg of hydrogen is equivalent to half gallon of diesel.
    It needs a 100kg steel cyclinder to store.
    Your average HGV with 200 gallons of diesel therefore needs 400kg of hydrogen, or 40 TONNES of steel cyclinders. Leaving how much for cargo in the 38t limit?

    Or you could convert it to para-hydrogen, then liquify it, and have it boil off in the next 24 hours. Half a tonne of hydrogen per vehicle boiling of into the atmosphere/tunnel/ferry: what could go wrong?

    Inane, corrupt, evil – or all three.

  9. @Grikath hydrogen isn’t that likely to explode in a crash however more slowly leaking hydrogen will burn with a flame that is nearly invisible in daylight which is a big problem.

  10. 400kg of liquid H2 is 5633 litres, compared with 900 litres of diesel equivalent. That’s a big fuel tank! Plus all the infrastructure to liquefy the H2, fill the truck with it without killing the driver and then keep it cold enough on the truck to stop the leakage making a travelling fuel/air bomb. Pressurised gas H2 is going to be an even lower density so it’s an even bigger tank as high pressure cylinders.

    This is what 380kg of H2 looks like in a truck..

  11. “hydrogen isn’t that likely to explode in a crash”?

    Yes it is. If you have a mix with air where h2 is anywhere from 4% to 74% it is explosive; the invisible flame when it’s burning (presumably when the concentration is outside that range so you can actually see it) is just a bonus hazard.

    H2 is really nasty stuff. They used it for the shuttle to get the energy for orbital plane changes needed for military satellites, so they could get Air Force funding. A purely civilian shuttle would have used something safer (and also look different, but that’s another matter).

  12. Agree with multiple posters above. Hydrogen is a terrible fuel, whether for transport or for piped household or industrial supply. It’s not energy dense, especially when you have to include its pressure vessel. It finds its way through the tiniest gaps, and even through bulk material if it gets the chance. It embrittles otherwise strong metals. It’ll ignite over a huge mixture range in air. Its flame is invisible.

    If you had a source of cost-free hydrogen you’d best turn it into a fuel by converting it to methane if you want a gas, or kerosene if you want a liquid.

  13. Given that a few knowledgeable random blokes at Timmy’s place have just trashed the idea (and as they invariably do when this subject comes up) can anyone explain what Renault are up to? This isn’t some inept government or public sector environmentalist advocating for unicorn farts, this is a major car manufacturer “investing” (presumably) serious money? So what do they know? And Toyota are apparently doing the same?

  14. Well, I certainly agree with all the criticism of H2. Since three quarters of the atmosphere is N2, it’d probably be cheaper to turn H2 into ammonia instead of hydrocarbons. But I’d argue that hydrocarbons are better fuels and easier to store than NH3.

    Still PF, I did hear that some Aussie firm was going to produce ‘green’ hydrogen and turn it into ammonia. So perhaps Renault have a similar idea. Certainly ICE’s have been run on NH3 for donkey’s years.

  15. @PF
    “So what do they know? And Toyota are apparently doing the same?”

    It’s a scam.
    How much of the money is being siphoned from the taxpayer?

    I have a really great hydrogen storage power. All I need is £100m in seed corn funding.
    Big office, team building event in Vegas. 18 months of powerpoint and it’s time to vamoose with my pension fund. That’s all folks!

  16. …France unveiled a massive programme of investment in the fuel.
    Looks like bog standard troughing to me. Who needs market forces when there are those lovely subsidies to be had.

    NH3 as a fuel has a lot of the same issues as hydrogen. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near a crash with that fuel. Also you get a lot of NOx emissions that are the major component of smog. Easier to synthesize hydrocarbons.

  17. How do we get the hydrogen in such a way that does not more energy input than output, or produces CO2? I realise if it costs more this doesn’t matter.

    Hydrogen reacts with air to produce water vapour.

    Water vapour is the primary ‘greenhouse gas’ on Earth. Without the 2% to 4% (it varies) in the atmosphere, even if we increased CO2 to 90%+, as it is on Mars, the Earth would be too cold to sustain life.

    So to save the Planet from the ‘greenhouse effect’ driven global warming/climate change, we will reduce by a trifling amount, the trifling amount of atmospheric CO2 which causes a trifling (unmeasurable) amount of global warming, and increase the gas – water vapour – which produces 99% of global warming.

    Great idea.

    Next up… flattening viral epidemic curves using a piece of cloth or paper held across nose and mouth and standing at arm’s length from others, then eliminating a virus with an experimental gene therapy which does not work.

    For homework: stop tidal activity using only a big, ornatechair on the beach and a commanding voice.

  18. ‘… potentially successful niche in electric vehicles, especially with the big-selling and relatively cheap Zoe.‘

    Anything is successful when you give it away.

  19. All these battery/hydrogen fantasies make you realise just what a fantastic thing petrol/diesel actually is. Add a few hundred pounds of iron/aluminium and you have the drivetrain for vehicles of immense utility and convenience.

    Nothing, ABSOLUTELY nothing even comes remotely close ( and it’s been tried for more than a century)

    How wilfully obtuse do you have to be not to see what the intention is here. And it’s not just the great unwashed who are the target.

    Bought a milk float? (you poor misguided fool!) Ten years from now, do you think you will still be able to charge it at home? If you think a network of chargers that will actually be if any remote use will ever become reality. Well I’ve got a non fungible token to sell you!

  20. “But then this is why we use markets anyway. Everyone gets to try and then we find out, right? Rather than planning by either government or newspaper columnists.”

    And the planners and columnists will promptly respond that this why they hate markets – all that wasteful trial and error when you already had planners and columnists who know exactly what needs to be done.

  21. And of course everybody remembers how the government installed hundreds of thousands of petrol stations up and down the land in the 1920s so that people could use that new technology “the car”, and nobody carried a spare can of fuel, and nobody belonged to clubs that circulated newsletters telling them where they could fill up.

  22. @Tim the Coder

    1kg of hydrogen is equivalent to half gallon of diesel.
    In terms of raw energy content. A fuel-cell/electric drive train should get you up to around 70% efficiency from tank to wheel at pretty much any speed/output compared to a peak at ~45% for a diesel lorry, with 40% being a more realistic average if driven really carefully.

    It needs a 100kg steel cyclinder to store.
    Maybe, if you’re going to store it at 700+ bar in a pure steel cylinder. Try a COPV and reduce the weight by an order of magnitude.

    Your average HGV with 200 gallons of diesel therefore needs 400kg of hydrogen, or 40 TONNES of steel cyclinders.
    Because what we do in HGVs is have hundreds of motorcycle fuel tanks, not one or two big ones. This is the whole point that feasible for HGVs, maybe not for cars, definitely not for motorbikes — bigger tanks are a lot more mass efficient. Oh, and make that 250-300kg of hydrogen because of the improved efficiency of the drive train.

    If you don’t like liquid or compressed gas hydrogen, metal hydrides for storage are still very much in their infancy but some hold potential.

  23. @M
    There’s a DfT report on it somewhere. Basically because of buoyancy, hydrogen will tend to disappear upwards before it gets a chance to explode, especially if there are suitable emergency venting systems built into the tank. The problem, of course, is inside tunnels or anywhere else where “up” isn’t an option.

  24. The market chose at the turn of the nineteenth century into the 20th. Battery and Steam died, only petrol survived with a big niche for diesel. If anything better comes it will displace them. That’s all. Any change since has been achieved by fiddling the market, ie cheating.

  25. @Matt
    Well, my figures came from the BOC site, where one can buy hydrogen commercially.
    And given that compressed gas tanks are basically bombs, having several small ones sounds a lot better than having one block-buster.

    Incidentally, each gas cylinder needs a rigourous inspection before refilling, and they have short lifes, because of the fatigue inherent in being stressed repeatedly.
    At least metal tanks can be ultrasonically tested. Composite tanks, not so. Build, use once, and drop in the Atlantic.
    Neither the inspection nor the short life sound cheap or appropriate for a road vehicle, such as an HGV, emptying & refilling 3 times a day.

    Your efficiency calculations also neglect the rather large amount of energy used in compressing the hydrogen to fill the tank, all of which is lost upon extraction (and you cannot even use the cooling effect for Aircon ‘cos being hydrogen, there isn’t one: Joule-Tho,pson inversion temperature is 204K).

    Or, if you are storing liquid hydrogen, you’ve ignored the enormous energy required in the liquification, and in the conversion to para-hydrogen, since room-temperature hydrogen is a 50/50 mix of ortho & para.
    You cannot store liquid ortho-hydrogen.
    (Ortho-hydrogen? Para-hydrogen? Go look it up. I do know about this stuff.)

    All of that energy is lost, and you have to add even more losses in your end-2-end efficiency by using some of the stored hydrogen to generate heat and boil-off your required propellant flow.
    (Assuming your storage tank is sufficiently good that the inherent boil-off rate is less than your engine/cell needs, and that therefore it empties itself in a day or two instead of an hour or two). Don’t expect the tankful to last longer.

    The explosion risk of all this boiling-off hydrogen is huge. The Saturn launch pad used nearby lakes to act as flare-off pools, I guess the Shuttle re-used them. Difficult in an HGV, especially when in a ferry or chunnel.

    And your final comment about metal hydrides is eco-loonery epitomised. Yes it doesn’t exist and doesn’t work, we just need to find the right breed of magic unicorn to make it work and then it’s all sorted.

    Meanwhile, back on Planet Reality…
    Hydrogen as a fuel is a scam for farming tax subsidies from the peons.

  26. @matt
    “There’s a DfT report on it somewhere. “
    Was this report written before or after the Norwegian hydrogen filling station blew up?
    Pardon me: had a “rapid unscheduled disassembly with multiple kinetic distribution locally”.

  27. Hydrocarbons are such wonderful transport fuels that they are perhaps the second best argument for the existence of God.

  28. @dearieme
    OK, I’ll bite.
    What’s the first? The Babel fish? E to the iPi equals -1?

  29. e^iπ = -1 has nowt to do with god. It’s even independent of the magic numbers in fundamental constants of the universe that allow us to exist. Or else Euler is/was God.

  30. I had high hopes for hydrogen fuel cell technology, but as others correctly say, it’s the storage that’s the problem. Can’t exactly start building cars requiring huge over-wrapped pressure vessels that need replacing every x refills.

    What about methane then? Yes, I know as an atmospheric released gas it is worse for Warble Gloaming than CO2, but generated->stored->transported->used as fuel->burned in an ICE engine it doesn’t get released into the atmosphere, is easier to handle than hydrogen and yet is energy dense enough to get reasonable bang-for-your-buck.

    If petrol is a no-go (boiling flipper in the dregs of the last ice floe) then use of methane, which is widely available naturally and could be generated as biomethane quite easily might be a better stop-gap Mr. Fusion turns up. Albeit he is several decades late already.

  31. John Galt. A quick google says China has the most methane powered vehicles, with Iran in second place. So it’s been proven to work.

    Of course when I channel my inner reactionary – he looks just like the rest of me – I feel that I’d rather stick with my old petrol driven car.

  32. Indded. If you buy into the Warble Gloaming, or the Peak Oil stories, the best replacement for petrol is…..synthetic petrol. Likewise synthetic diesel.

    No need to change the vehicles, no need to change the distribution system. You just make the fuel from commonly available components. And energy.

    Nothing new in this, been dnne for 100 years. It just costs more than extracting from petroleum.

    Once you have the energy source – which is also needed for the hydrogen or battery pipedreams anyway – it’s old news.

    Of course, using synthetic fuels destroys the lever to remove mobility from the proles. How are you going to get them back in their serfdom then?

  33. I feel that I’d rather stick with my old petrol driven car.

    Quite understandable. Then again as an oil, gas and power consultant of long standing, maybe I’m just biased? While I accept that oil and gas are precious and non-renewable commodities that we should, perhaps, use less profligately than we do, I’ve never bought into the whole “Climate Hysteria” bollocks.

    So, methane would seem to be a reasonable substitute for oil based petroleum and diesel (not sure about aviation fuel, but that’s a separate issue).

    Plus, for those of us wedded to our old vehicles, you can buy a conversion kit for a couple of hundred quid. What the performance would be like afterwards though, I have no idea.

  34. I can say a little about methane powered vehicles, using the methane in an ICE that is. It is a lousy fuel generally, low energy density and hard to store large amounts. NZ had a scheme back in the late 70’s/80’s to promote CNG and quite a few took up the challenge. But basically you get a vehicle with maybe 60-70% of the output compared to petrol/LNG with half the range; plus all the hassles of refilling using a highly compressed gas (skilled operators only and special equipment was the general rule). Can work for such as taxi’s where the low emissions (of NOx etc) is good and the power is unimportant plus usually ready access to frequent refills, but for general usage it was considered a failure with limited take up and soon discarded despite a subsidised conversion and effectively subsidised fuel. Came about because NZ had (then) a largish mostly gas field with a “take or pay” contract on it, and that combined with the OPEC goings on around that time made it seem like something worth trying.

    Not sure what technological advances would do for it, would it for example be possible to convert direct injection engines (Eg everything made by VAG as an example) readily, might need injector swaps and a way to further pressurise the gas; and would turbocharging be useful enough to update power outage, not sure. Might be a little better now, but for my pick developing a reasonable method to convert CO2 plus H2O into a liquid hydrocarbon, either via methanol or otherwise, would be a worthwhile project. Might need a lot of relatively cheap energy to make it economical, but maybe mass solar or fusion could do the trick ?

  35. ‘Indeed. If you buy into the Warble Gloaming, or the Peak Oil stories, the best replacement for petrol is…..synthetic petrol. Likewise synthetic diesel.’

    Yes TtC. I like Heather Willauer’s approach (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heather_Willauer), since it seems simpler and cheaper, but LANL’s Green Freedom would also work.

    Willauer estimates a cost of US$3 to US$6 per gallon of jet fuel. The present price of jet fuel is US$2.46 per gallon. So no doubt the petrol price differential would be much the same.

    I imagine the Greens would love the more expensive fuel, while vigorously vilifying the evil capitalists who’d vilely raised the price. But they’d have hysterics about all the nukes we’d need to build to run the process.

  36. John Galt. A quick google says China has the most methane powered vehicles, with Iran in second place. So it’s been proven to work.

    When we were in Chongqing 35 years ago, they had methane (or was it coal gas?) powered buses. The UK did something similar with some buses during WW1 and 2. Diesel engines can be adapted to run on most fluids that are flammable.

  37. @bis, May 20, 2022 at 8:22 am
    +1

    @TtC
    +1

    Musk’s battery lorry unladen is almost as heavy – leaves about 4 tons for cargo

    @TG
    Great pic, final nail in coffin. thanks

    @M
    Invisible burn – same reason Indy Cars abandoned methanol

    @rhoda
    +1

    For years I’ve said Hydrogen as fuel is plain stupid: lacks enegy density, difficult to store, embrittles metals, leaks easily, expensive to produce, highly explosive…

    Excellent debunking of latest Gov’t scam using real scientific facts by all the sensible folk here as expected. Thanks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *