LOS ALAMOS, New Mexico — Hailed as a “magical” solution. Derided as a perennial fantasy. Embraced as an “earthshot.”
Many have eyed hydrogen’s tantalizing potential as an abundant and pollution-free energy source for transportation and beyond. Jules Verne described a method in which “water will one day be employed as fuel,” and wrote hydrogen and oxygen will “furnish an exhaustible source of heat and light” in his 1874 novel The Mysterious Island.
Nearly 150 years later, hydrogen’s applications are no longer confined to science fiction. But despite the straightforward chemistry involved in its production, the ascendance of hydrogen to the realm of a society-altering energy source remains elusive.
Now, after decades of pilot projects and sporadic deployments, hydrogen appears on the cusp of economic viability and widespread use. Spurred by the simultaneous global challenges of climate change and increased desires for energy independence, governments and multinational companies are spending billions to usher in a hydrogen era.
“It’s finally happening,” said Matt Thorington, engineering manager of fuel cells for global supplier Bosch, which said this year it will invest as much as $591 million in hydrogen production technology by the end of the decade.
Transportation accounts for 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., more than any other sector, according to the EPA. The main U.S. efforts to fight carbon emissions in transportation focus on battery electric vehicles and government-backed efforts to support that ecosystem.
But that may not be enough.
“There are things that don’t work well with batteries,” said Kristin Ringland, a global mobility analyst at Ernst & Young.
Although there’s no consensus, there is an increasing number of industry analysts and scientists who believe transportation will require both battery electric vehicles and hydrogen-powered ones to reach net-zero carbon emission goals by 2050.
“We don’t see this as ‘either-or,’ ” said Rod Borup, program manager of the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Lab within the Los Alamos National Laboratory. “We see it as ‘and.’ ”
Many modern-day efforts to develop and deploy hydrogen and fuel cells for cars and trucks started at Los Alamos, which gained prominence for its development of the hydrogen bomb and where Borup now oversees the laboratory’s longest-running non-weapons program.
Those efforts began in the aftermath of the economic shock and long gasoline lines that beset America in 1973 and 1974 when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries banned petroleum exports to select nations and cut oil production.
Federal law created the U.S. Energy Department in 1977 in part as a response to that energy crisis. That brought disparate research projects into the purview of national laboratories, including Los Alamos, where Byron McCormick, a young scientist three years removed from the University of Arizona, established the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Lab.
It was fortuitous timing. The Energy Department seeded research into solar, wind, advanced batteries and fuel cells. Although it took decades, those technologies matured.
“All that stuff has been building since the ’70s,” said McCormick, now 76. “It might not have started if not for the oil embargo.”
McCormick would later become a General Motors executive, where he built the automaker’s Global Alternative Propulsion Center, which focused on hydrogen and fuel cell technology, before retiring in 2009. His work took root.
In June 2021, GM launched a $35 billion investment that reflects a dual carbon emission reduction strategy. It is rolling out a complete line of battery electric passenger and commercial vehicles. The funds also support development of GM Hydrotec fuel cells for trucks, trains and aircraft.
Rail and shipping are natural fits for hydrogen fuel cells, experts say. Where hydrogen fits in ground transportation is less certain.
Long-haul trucking holds potential. Medium- and heavy-duty trucks consume 26 percent of U.S. transportation fuel, according to the EPA. Fuel cells prove advantageous in the energy density hydrogen provides. They have quick refueling times and a smaller weight penalty than battery electric vehicles.
Sucking up payload capacity with heavy batteries presents a problem for long-haul trucking because it reduces profits. Because of weight differences, a fuel-cell truck on a 350-mile run can carry about 38,000 pounds of cargo compared with 33,000 pounds for a battery electric truck, according to Michael Roeth, executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency. Although it’s heavier than a conventional internal combustion tractor, a 2,000-pound federal payload allowance for zero-emission trucks puts a fuel-cell truck’s cargo capacity at par with its diesel counterpart, he said.
In terms of total cost of ownership, fuel cell provider Ballard estimates battery electric trucks would cost $434,381 in regional-haul scenarios; a comparable fuel cell truck would cost $414,367, a price that’s on a par with diesel, the company said.
A September 2021 analysis from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory presents more mixed results, which support the idea there’s room for both technologies. It suggests each powertrain may hold cost-of-ownership advantages in specific business scenarios and route distances. Fuel prices are a substantial variable. Overall, the lab’s researchers say electric powertrains may be best in short-range applications or when dwell time is not a concern. The report said both technologies could be cost competitive with diesel trucks as early as 2025.
“A good rule of thumb is that you’ll see hydrogen fuel cells where you see diesel today and battery electric where you see gasoline,” said Tom Stephenson, co-founder of Pajarito Powder, a New Mexico hydrogen components startup backed by Hyundai Motor Group.
Not everyone is convinced. When John Henry Harris co-founded medium-duty truck startup Harbinger in July 2021, he opted to start from scratch with a purpose-built vehicle. He quickly soured on hydrogen as a potential option.
“When we actually look at the maturity of the two solutions, we see an order of magnitude separation,” he said. “We reached the point in the past two years that we can build an electric platform without compromise. If we want to do that with a hydrogen vehicle, we are not even close yet.”
In the passenger-car market, there are only two fuel cell models, and both have suffered minimal sales.
In Japan, where Toyota launched the Mirai in 2014, the cumulative volume of fuel cell passenger cars was approximately 4,200 sold, according to an October 2022 report from consulting firm Interact Analysis. In South Korea, despite a national strategy which gives hydrogen a central role in decarbonization efforts, the report said sales of fuel cell passenger cars such as the Hyundai Nexo tallied only 8,500 in 2020 and 2021.
Neither automaker has lost its appetite for hydrogen.
Hyundai intends to develop hydrogen fuel cell versions of its entire commercial lineup by 2028, with a next-generation system due next year. It foresees fuel cell uses in trucks, trains and maritime vessels.
Beyond the Mirai, Toyota partnered with BMW in August to design and produce a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle it anticipates selling as early as 2025. Toyota is also working on hydrogen buses, testing Class 8 fuel cell trucks developed with Kenworth in Los Angeles, and plans medium-duty fuel cell trucks with Isuzu and Hino Motors.
The automaker said in December 2021 that it would invest $70 billion in both battery electrics and hydrogen fuel cell technology.
The focus on multiple options struck some as a curious decision when most competitors are more squarely focused on battery electric vehicles. But Toyota favors a nuanced approach to an energy transition. It thinks different technologies might best serve distinct vehicle segments and geographies, and it says it’s too early to tell where matches are found. It also is exploring hydrogen internal combustion engines.
“We’re very humble about this whole thing: We don’t know,” said Gill Pratt, chief scientist at Toyota Motor Corp. and CEO of the Toyota Research Institute. “And the honest truth is we don’t think anybody else knows either.”
The argument over what technology is best to drive down carbon emissions is reminiscent of similar squabbles between the wind and solar industries a generation ago, Pajarito Power’s Stephenson said.
He expects battery electrics and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will be more complementary than competitive over the long term.
“When we get to the point where market forces are able to really dictate people’s decisions in this regard, we can move beyond the competition and see the larger opportunities that come about in the use of both,” Stephenson said.
Deloitte sees a similar trajectory. Just like solar and wind were “the surprise of the last decade,” a new report from the consulting firm says it “now looks likely” hydrogen will be the next energy to scale. Hydrogen-related venture capital activity reached a record of almost $2 billion last year. Deloitte projects 2022 will top that.
Nonetheless, hydrogen still struggles with a chicken-and-egg conundrum. The existing infrastructure is insufficient to support a critical mass of early adopters.
There are 48,148 electric-vehicle charging stations in the United States, according to November 2022 figures from the Energy Department’s Alternative Fuels Data Center, and infrastructure is starting to grow quickly.
There are just 54 public hydrogen fueling stations.
“When you ask people in real estate what’s important and you hear, ‘location, location, location,’ here we think the most important thing is, ‘infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure,’ ” Pratt said.
A critical mass of users must exist for hydrogen fueling stations to achieve economic viability. Depending on frequency of fill-ups and use cases, each filling station could support anywhere from 100 to 400 vehicles, according to a 2017 report from the International Council on Clean Transportation.
While infrastructure requirements for commercial trucking networks can be tailored to specific locations, many now doubt hydrogen fuel cells will ever catch up to battery electric vehicles in light-duty applications.
“In terms of infrastructure for hydrogen, we just don’t have it yet,” said Ringland at Ernst & Young.
“That time gap will give an extra boost to batteries. It’s extra time for people to learn how to use them and adapt to them and say, ‘this can actually work.’ ”
Whether primarily for trucking or more widespread purposes, the Energy Department is beginning to lay the hydrogen infrastructure groundwork. As it builds 500,000 charging stations for battery electric vehicles, the department is concurrently spending $8 billion allocated from the bipartisan infrastructure law to create six to 10 hydrogen hubs in locations that will be a nexus for hydrogen producers, consumers and businesses.
The Energy Department began soliciting applications from regions vying for this funding in September. Selections are expected next spring.
These hydrogen markets will be a catalyst for the department’s Energy Earthshot, a strategy to reduce the price of clean hydrogen 80 percent to $1 per kilogram over the next decade from today’s levels of approximately $5 per kilogram, according to the department.
For all its potential to emit nothing but water, hydrogen still has a big roadblock on the way to a zero-carbon economy. Much like battery electric vehicles might rely on electricity from coal-fired power plants depending on the region, the pollution-free advantages of hydrogen are negated when it is created using fossil fuels.
Green hydrogen, produced with only renewable energy, accounts for 0.1 percent of total hydrogen produced today, according to the World Economic Forum. Experts suggest a decades-long road lies ahead before green hydrogen enters the mainstream.
“It’s taken us 20 years to get to where we are with EVs, and I would expect it would take the same amount of time to get there with hydrogen,” said Sara Baldwin, electrification director at Energy Innovation, an energy and climate policy think tank. “There’s plenty of fossil fuels we can keep burning. But I think the point is to get us off fossil fuels.”
Regardless of emissions, hydrogen is coming. The European Union embarked on a plan to slash its dependence on Russian oil and as a result, the current pipeline of global hydrogen electrolyzer projects has more than doubled since April, according to Aurora Energy Research.
The push toward energy independence underscores the seismic change now afoot thanks to hydrogen. But there’s another transition underway that McCormick, who started the modern-day fuel cell effort, suggests is more profound.
“People talk about the end of petroleum, and I think they’re missing the point,” he said. “What we’re talking about is the end of combustion. From people in caves until today, that’s what we’ve lived on. That’s truly epochal.”