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Hydrogen is being touted by automakers as the clean-energy alternative to battery-electric vehicles.

KIM HONG-JI/Reuters

Hydrogen is being touted by automakers as the clean-energy alternative to battery-electric vehicles. But to claim the clean-car crown, the technology has to overcome one major obstacle – the way most of the world’s supply is made.

Sure, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles emit no exhaust fumes – just heat and water vapour. But critics say the concern is with what happens before hydrogen gets into your car.

Hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements on earth. Yet, it is almost always found as part of another compound, such as water, and must be separated from those compounds before it can power your vehicle.

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The most common refining process is natural gas reforming. In this process, also known as steam methane reforming, natural gas is mixed with very hot steam. This produces carbon monoxide, which reacts with water to produce hydrogen.

Because it is a relatively cheap process, about 95 per cent of the hydrogen used in North America is made this way. Yet, it involves fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and the product has been labelled “blue” hydrogen because it is less clean than the less-common green hydrogen, which is produced with renewable energy, but not as bad as the dirtiest processes, which produce “grey” hydrogen.

“Blue hydrogen is the lowest-cost production pathway,” said Bora Plumptre, senior analyst of federal policy at the Pembina Institute, a Calgary-based think tank that advocates clean-energy alternatives. “We really need to set policies for the greenest production possible.”

Greener refining techniques are being tested. Electrolysis, for example, uses an electric current to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen. But critics say this process is only as clean as the source of electricity. It might be clean if the power comes from hydro-rich provinces, such as Quebec or British Columbia, but not so clean if the electricity comes from coal-fired plants, as in Alberta.

With such a massive environmental hurdle, it might be surprising to learn that many automotive industry executives are betting on hydrogen fuel cells. A 2017 survey of 1,000 senior auto executives conducted by KPMG found that most believe hydrogen fuel cells have a better long-term future than electric cars. Further, they agreed fuel cells represent “the real breakthrough” in efficient technology.

That sentiment has grown even stronger since then. In June, Wan Gang, a former Audi executive who is now a vice-chairman of China’s national advisory body for policy making, told Bloomberg News that his country now wants to build a “hydrogen society," and aims to have one million hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles on the road within a decade.

Wan is called China’s father of electric vehicles. He told Bloomberg the country has more than two million BEVs on the road, including 421,000 electric buses.

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In Japan, the energy ministry provides subsidies equal to more than $26,000 for the purchase of hydrogen powered vehicles. It wants to have 40,000 fuel-cell electric vehicles on the road by 2020, and 200,000 such vehicles within six years.

The hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirai.

Mark Blinch/Reuters

Toyota Motor Corp. and Hyundai Motor Co. are leading the race to bring fuel cell vehicles to market. Toyota’s Mirai is sold in California, but is only available in fleets in Canada. Hyundai’s Nexo is available to anyone, but comes with a list price of $73,000 in Canada.

Other manufacturers with fuel-cell vehicles on the market include Mercedes Benz (F-Cell), Honda (Clarity) and Britain-based Riversimple (Rasa). More than a dozen concepts from other manufacturers are also in the works.

Fuel-cell cars such as the Nexo, which I sampled at a recent test drive of high-efficiency vehicles, combine the best of both internal combustion engine (ICE) and battery-electric vehicle (BEV) technology. Unlike BEVs, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles have a refuelling range similar to tried-and-true gasoline-powered vehicles. They can also be refilled in minutes, rather than the hour or more it takes at the highest-capacity recharging stations.

The Hyundai Nexo.

Unfortunately, hydrogen-fuel-cell stations only exist in British Columbia and Quebec. During the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada EcoRun, held this summer in Alberta, writers learned what that meant. With no hydrogen refuelling stations, the demonstration ended when the fuel ran out.

That is partly why electric car champion Elon Musk, chief executive officer of the battery-electric automaker Tesla Inc., has famously dismissed hydrogen “fool cells” as “mind-bogglingly stupid.”

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Don Romano, president of Hyundai Canada, doesn’t think so. Fuel retailers, he said, are reluctant to invest in a massive network of hydrogen refuelling stations across Canada until they see which technology will win the hearts of consumers. Right now, just three cities have refuelling stations: Trois-Rivières, Que. (one), Montreal (one) and Vancouver (two, with three more on the way).

Craig Scott, director of Toyota’s advanced technologies group in Los Angeles, disputes hydrogen’s dirty image. He says hydrogen produced through steam methane reforming is still 50 per cent cleaner than gasoline produced for ICEs in the United States on a “wells-to-wheels” basis.

“Hydrogen is definitely not a dirty fuel,” he said.

Pembinaʼs Plumptre agrees, saying that even blue hydrogen achieves lower carbon dioxide emissions than gasoline used in ICEs: “A tonne reduced is a tonne reduced.”

And even the province most identified with fossil fuels – Alberta – could produce hydrogen with a lower carbon footprint using the latest natural gas technology. In fact, the Alberta Zero-Emissions Truck Electrification Collaboration (AZETEC) pilot project has two heavy-duty Ballard hydrogen fuel-cell-powered trucks travelling between Edmonton and Calgary.

Nicolas Pocard, director of marketing at Ballard Power Systems Inc. in Burnaby, B.C., says there are affordable ways to create green hydrogen. In Europe, for example, companies buy excess electricity produced by wind farms during off-peak hours at next to no cost to create hydrogen through electrolysis. It can be produced, compressed and delivered to the customer at cost-parity with diesel fuel, he said.

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Canada could do the same, especially British Columbia and Quebec, which generate excess power from hydroelectric facilities at off-peak hours, Pocard said. Hyundai’s Romano agrees. Noting that Ontario Hydro sells excess hydroelectric power to U.S. markets at “25 cents on the dollar,” he said, “We could convert what we’re overproducing into hydrogen” at very low prices.

Even cleaner processes are possible. In late September, researchers from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology unveiled a water-splitting technology they claim is 98.7-per-cent efficient and could reduce the cost of the equipment to produce hydrogen by half.

Plumptre says the success of the electrolysis method “will be driven by the electricity price.”

In heavy industry, Romano says, hydrogen fuel cells are “the only solution” because the heavier the load, the less viable BEVs become. Large trucks, he said, are unable to accommodate “giant batteries on wheels.”

Pocard calls heavy-duty fuel-cell vehicles “the low-hanging fruit.” A fleet of buses in one city, for example, can be refuelled daily with just one hydrogen station. As the price of technology goes down and refuelling stations are added, he predicts light-duty vehicles will also become viable.

BEV or fuel cell? Romano believes there is room for both.

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“The technology that’s going to lose is the internal combustion engine,” he said. “I am absolutely positive hydrogen systems are a part of our future.”

Adds Plumptre: “The role of hydrogen seems pretty clear to me. It’s going to have a huge role.”

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