Jun

27

 Batteries will become increasingly important actors in the future. This opinion is shared by many managers in the utility industry. As evidence, there are massive R&D public/private partnerships already underway, involving government laboratories, universities, and corporate participants. There are at least five separate centers of innovation in the United States, Europe, and China. Already, there have been interesting breakthrough technologies announced, including lithium ion II batteries.

For our conversations, I believe it might be important to have a common understanding of the term "battery." For me, a battery is an energy storage mechanism. In most cases, it's a chemical.

In my opinion, a fuel cell is not a battery any more than a car engine is a battery. A fuel cell does not store energy; it converts energy. The fuel tank stores energy.

If you chose to combine the fuel tank with the fuel cell and call the combination a battery, that's fine. Personally, given where we are today, I don't believe there are many opportunities for fuel cells in the transportation sector.

A problem with fuel cell economics is how proponents set up the question. They usually begin the argument with, "given I have hydrogen," fuels cells are amazing. I might agree; fuel cells can be amazing little power plants if sourcing hydrogen were not a substantial challenge.

Unfortunately, that's not reality. If fuel were free, oil-burning power plants could also be amazing.

Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) serves to make a point. What is an FCEV? It's an electric car with a fuel cell, and a hydrogen tank bolted on. Like a Tesla, an FCEV needs a motor and a bank of batteries. However, FCEV's battery capacity has to be reduced to accommodate added weight and space needed for the fuel tank, fuel management system, and the [hot] fuel cell. To make concerns more challenging, the fuel tank in an FCEV has to be larger than normal because compressed hydrogen is a relatively low-density fuel and it can be hazardous.

The first macro question that should surface is basic. Specifically, what is accomplished by toting around hydrogen?

I will save time. If there's something to be gained, it's not substantial. Compared to a combustion engine, a fuel cell is more energy efficient. It's more energy efficient.

However, hydrogen is not economically efficient. If the objective is to compete with electricity, I doubt hydrogen could ever be a cost competitor anytime soon.

In many ways, hydrogen and electricity are similar. One is about protons, and the other is about electrons. Both are secondary fuels. Both are manufactured from primary fuels. Most important, both require vast investments in infrastructure to be useful.

They differ economically. The electric infrastructure is already built. Electricity already has a comprehensive infrastructure in place. It was developed incrementally over several decades. It cost hundreds of billions of dollars to build and more to maintain.

The hydrogen infrastructure does not exist. As a redundant fuel, to compete with electricity economically, any hydrogen infrastructure would be scaled, vast and costly.

As Western utilities move towards natural gas as their primary source of fuel, electric cars store natural gas' energy in their batteries. FCEVs store the same energy in hydrogen tanks. Why not deploy natural gas vehicles (NGVs)? You'd save several energy conversions.

TL;DR:

Approximate energy densities MJ/L:

Coal:        34-43
Diesel:        36
Gasoline     34
Fat:             34
LNG:           22
Wood:         13
H2 (comp):    9

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