Zero-Emission Hydrogen at $2.50 a Gallon? Just Check the Asterisks

Last Updated May 18, 2010 7:00 PM EDT

The holy grail of zero-emission fuel-cell cars appears to be coming closer, thanks to some fast-moving advances -- and at least one major scientific breakthrough (aided by nanotechnology) that could dramatically lower costs.

But there are some fairly major caveats here. Everything -- the cars, the fueling stations, the hydrogen technology -- are still in the lab and test program stage, and not yet close to commercialization. And many "breakthroughs" become less than what they first appeared when added costs are factored in.

The main reasons fuel-cell vehicles have been 20 years off since Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House are these:

  • Expensive cars hand-assembled by Ph.Ds
  • The lack of hydrogen filling stations
  • High-cost fuel at $7 to $8 a gallon equivalent before transportation costs are added
When these are put together, it's not surprising that fuel cells have stalled as electric cars have exploded and will be in the marketplace this year.

But things are looking up. Automakers, including Mercedes and Toyota, are producing very credible fuel-cell cars (and Toyota has a commercialization plan for 2015 that could include a $50,000 sticker price).

And there's more. An entrepreneur named Tom Sullivan is building a "hydrogen highway" between Maine and Miami. Falling prices for natural gas (from which most hydrogen is currently extracted) have reduced costs to $4.50 per gallon equivalent. And a researcher named Robert Dopp is claiming a significant breakthrough in using electrolysis to make hydrogen from water. He says that, using nanotechnology-sourced catalysts, he can make it for just $2.51 per kilogram (the energy equivalent of a gallon of gas).

The caveat is that, according to a white paper on Dopp's website, he assumed an industrial electricity cost of just five cents a kilowatt-hour when the national average is more like 12 cents. At the latter rate, his per-kilogram cost rises to $5.15. And, as Patrick Serfass, vice president of the National Hydrogen Association, points out, added costs to compress (to 5,000 psi) and purify the hydrogen could add another 11 percent to the bottom line.

"That $2.50 per kilogram sounds reasonable," Byron McCormick, GM's former fuel cell chief, told me in an email message. But he agrees that "the key question is the cost of electricity going in."

It's worth pointing out here, however, that fuel-cell cars go much further on a gallon equivalent than gas cars do, so a straight comparison is unfair. The average new car struggles to reach 25 mpg, but hydrogen cars averaged 47 mpg in 2008, and the new Mercedes-Benz B-Class F Cell promises 70 to 80 mpg.

Dopp, CEO of Marietta, Georgia-based GridShift, is hardly a newcomer to the field. He spent 18 years at Rayovac, and was a principal developer of the zinc-air technology that is now commonly used in the company's batteries for hearing aids. Before that, he'd worked on the same technology for electric cars and buses at Israeli firm Electric Fuel Corporation. GridShift's basic research is backed by renewable energy guru Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures.

Dopp said in an interview that his new electrolyzer -- just a lab-sized two-inch cube right now -- would if scaled up produce a very cheap and compact home hydrogen generator. A box two feet on a side could produce a kilogram of hydrogen a day. That could carry that Mercedes F-Cell car 70 miles.

Despite his caveats, Serfass said he finds Dopp's work intriguing. "Anyone who can make hydrogen at a price competitive to gasoline could shift how everyone thinks about alternative fuels," he said. "The assumption is that anything else will be more expensive than gasoline, but if it's equal or cheaper then it's a game-changing technology."

The key to cutting costs, Dopp said, is nanotechnology. "I found a way to coat nanoparticles on all sides of a complex shape," he said. "The result is a huge surface area. And it's not expensive because for catalysts we use, instead of platinum at $1,700 an ounce, very cheap transition metals such as iron and tin that cost $58 an ounce at the nanoscale."

Nano particles are really tiny, and their advantage is changing properties at infinitesimally small scale. Dopp's iron particles are 10 nanometers in diameter, and a nanometer relates to a meter as does a marble to the planet Earth.

Dopp is searching for venture partners to take his lab research to scale. Meanwhile, automakers seem determined to push hydrogen cars forward. Yoshihiko Masuda, Toyota's managing director of advanced vehicles, said early this month that the company had been able to cut by a third the amount of platinum catalyst needed for its hydrogen cars (from 30 grams to 10), and that it could sell its mid-sized fuel-cell car for $50,000 at a profit in 2015. "Our target is, we don't lose money with introduction of the vehicle," he told Bloomberg. "Production costs should be covered within the price of the vehicle."