Rethinking Hydrogen Cars

The July 18th issue of Science Magazine has an interesting article that gives a critical eye to the idea that hydrogen-powered automobiles is the best way to attack our environmental problems. (The article is also currently cached here for those without a subscription to Science.) The article makes two main points:

  1. The hydrogen-fuel infrastructure will be expensive (around $5000 per car).
  2. The bang-for-the-buck environmental improvement from replacing gas cars with fuel-cell cars won’t be as good as simply improving the fuel efficiency of existing cars on the road (especially ancient “high emitters”). They also identify fuel-burning power plants as a more cost-effective target for cutting emissions than the already-optimized gas-powered automobile. “When emission mitigation opportunities across the economy are ordered by their cost (to form a supply curve), dep reductions in automobile emissions are not inthe cheapest 30%… Hydrogen cars should be seen as one of several long-run options, but they make no sense any time soon” concludes the report. The report also notes that even in the area of transportation, hydrogen-powered heavy freight vehicles such as ships, trains and large trucks would be better first targets for conversion than the automobile.

Fuel Cell Today suggests that some of their numbers may be exagerated, especially when it comes to the cost of they hydrogen-fuel infrastructure needed for fuelcell-powered cars. In particular, they point out that the huge financial commitment auto makers have made to fuelcell technology is a good indication that they believe it will be economically viable. They also note that many of the alternatives raised in the Science article, while perhaps better targets from an energy-efficiency standpoint, are not possible in the current political climate.

Even given this criticism, the general point seems to be well-taken. As Marianne Mintz, author of one of the reports cited in the Science article, says to Fuel Cell Today, “They’re basically trying to make the point that there are other options that deserve a fair share of attention in the near term. I don’t think that anybody would argue with that.”


  1. Rethinking Hydrogen Cars (Science Magazine, 18 July 2003)
  2. Rethinking Hydrogen Cars (Science Magazine, 18 July 2003, Cached copy that does not need subscription)
  3. Fuel cell cost study gets mixed reaction (Fuel Cell Technology, 28 July 2003)