Olympic Hydrogen Hype

Today’s Japan Times reports that the Organizing Committee of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is considering the use of hydrogen torches to light the Olympic flame (“Olympic panel mulls high-tech hydrogen torch, pares soccer venues” — JT, 2017-02-27):

“An important theme of the Olympics is how to promote environmental sustainability. We will talk to experts and see how realistic it is in terms of technological development,” a committee member said.

One official said there are still safety and cost concerns, and asserted that there also was a need for a lightweight torch that can be easily carried.

In March 2016, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government announced a project to have the 6,000-unit athletes’ village for the games run entirely on hydrogen power.

The Japanese government is one of the most active promoters worldwide of a so called “hydrogen economy”. It sees the 2020 Olympics as an opportunity to showcase Japan’s lead on hydrogen. Other projects are the construction of a nationwide network of hydrogen filling stations for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCV) such as the Toyota Mirai, research into shipping liquefied hydrogen from overseas using special tankers and production of hydrogen from lignite (brown coal) in Australia for export to Japan.

Let’s start with the most obvious problem in the article, the hydrogen fueled torch: The usual Olympic torches use LPG (propane/butane) as a fuel, a gas mixture that can be stored as a liquid under moderate pressure at normal outdoor temperatures. This makes it easy to carry a significant amount of fuel in a light weight container. Hydrogen by contrast does not liquefy unless chilled to about -252 C. Hydrogen powered vehicles run on compressed hydrogen instead, at pressures of up to 700 bar, equivalent to half the weight of a car on each cm2 of tank surface. As you can imagine that kind of pressure calls for some fairly sturdy containers. An even bigger problem is that pure hydrogen flames are invisible because they radiate energy not as light but as UV. You could feel the heat, but you couldn’t directly see if the flame is burning or not, which makes it quite hazardous. Talk about playing with fire…

The comment about running the Olympic village on “hydrogen power” is quite misleading. It’s like saying they would run the Olympic village on battery power, without explaining where the energy to charge those batteries came from. Like batteries, hydrogen is not a primary energy source, it’s an energy carrier. Since elementary hydrogen does not exist in significant quantities on earth, it has to be produced using another energy source such as natural gas or electricity generated using coal, nuclear, wind or solar.

Though it’s possible to produce hydrogen from carbon-free energy sources such as solar electricity (splitting water through electrolysis) and then produce electricity from hydrogen again, this process is far less efficient than either consuming renewable electricity directly or via batteries. When you convert electric energy to chemical energy in hydrogen and back to electricity, about 3/4 of the energy is lost in the process. This is incredibly wasteful and far from green.

With its sponsorship of hydrogen, the Japanese government is trying to create business opportunities for industrial companies such as Kawasaki Heavy Industries, a Japanese shipbuilder (see “Kawasaki Heavy fighting for place in ‘hydrogen economy'” — Nikkei Asian Review, 2015-09-03) and for its oil and gas importers, as almost all hydrogen is currently made from imported liquefied natural gas (LNG). In the longer term, the government still has a vision of nuclear power (fission or fusion) producing the electricity needed to make hydrogen without carbon emissions. Thus the ‘hydrogen economy’ is meant to keep oil companies and electricity monopolies like TEPCO in business. The “hydrogen economy” is coal, oil and nuclear hidden under a coat of green paint.

These plans completely disregard the rapid progress being made in battery technologies which have already enabled electric cars with ranges of hundreds of km at lower costs than HFCVs and without the need for expensive new infrastructure.

Hydrogen, especially when it’s produced with carbon-intensive coal or dangerous nuclear, is not the future. Japan would be much better served by investing into a mix of wind, solar, geothermal and wave power, combined with battery storage and other technologies for matching up variable supply and demand.

See also:
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Are Not The Future (2016-12-05)

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Are Not The Future

On my bicycle ride last Saturday I passed a service station near Hachioji in western Tokyo that is being set up as a hydrogen station for fuel cell cars. Japan is in the process of setting up such infrastructure to support a small fleet fuel cell vehicles such as the Toyota Mirai (its name means “future” in Japanese).

For decades, hydrogen has been touted as an alternative fuel for transport once we move beyond fossil fuels. The idea was that it can be made in essentially unlimited amounts from water using electricity from solar, wind or nuclear power (from either fission or fusion reactors). The only tailpipe emission would be water, which goes back into nature.

Unlike electric cars, which have limited range compared to fossil fuel cars, hydrogen cars can be refilled fairly quickly, like conventional cars, giving them a longer operating range. Car manufacturers have experimented with both internal combustion engines (ICE) running on hydrogen and fuel cell stacks that produce electricity to drive a traction motor. Both liquefied and compressed hydrogen has been tested for storage.

Here is a Honda fuel cell car I photographed on Yakushima in 2009:

It’s been a long road for hydrogen cars so far. Hydrogen fuel cells were already providing electricity for spacecrafts in the Apollo missions in the 1960s and 70s. With the launch of production cars and hydrogen fuel stations opening now in Japan, the US and Europe it seems the technology is finally getting ready for prime time. However, the reality is quite different.

Arguably the biggest challenge for hydrogen cars now is not the difficulty of bringing down the cost of fuel cells or improving their longevity or getting refueling infrastructure set up, but the spread of hybrid and electric cars. Thanks to laptops and mobile devices there has been a huge market for new battery technology, which attracted investment into research and development and scaled up manufacturing. Eventually reduced costs allowed this technology to cross over into the automotive industry. The battery packs of the Tesla Roadster were assembled from the same industry standard “18650” Li-ion cells that are the building blocks of laptop batteries.

Li-ion batteries have been rapidly falling in price year after year, allowing bigger battery packs to be built that improved range. A car like the Nissan Leaf that is rated for a range of 135 to 172 km (depending on the model) would cover the daily distances of most people on most days without recharging during daytime. Not only are prices falling and range is increasing, the cars can also harness the existing electricity grid for infrastructure. A charging station is a fraction of the price of a hydrogen filling station.

Here in Japan I find many charging stations in convenience store parking lots, at restaurants, in malls and at car dealerships – just about anywhere but at gasoline stations, which is where the few hydrogen stations are being installed.

After the tsunami and nuclear meltdown hit Japan in March 2011, some people here viewed electric cars and their claimed ecological benefits with suspicion: The Nissan Leaf may not have a tail pipe, but didn’t its electricity come from nuclear power stations? This criticism is not entirely justified, because electricity can be produced in many different ways, including wind, sun and geothermal. Car batteries of parked cars are actually quite a good match for the somewhat intermittent output of wind and solar, because they could act as a buffer to absorb excess generating capacity while feeding power back into the grid when demand peaks. If cars were charged mostly when load is low (for example, at night) then no new power stations or transmission lines would have to be built to accommodate them within the existing distribution network.

The dark secret of hydrogen is that, if produced from water and electricity through electrolysis, it is actually a very inefficient energy carrier. To produce the hydrogen needed to power a fuel cell car for 100 km consumes about three times as much electricity as it takes to charge the batteries of an electric car to cover the same distance. That’s mostly because there are far greater energy losses in both electrolysis and in fuel cells than there are in charging and discharging a battery. On top of that, even fuel cells still costing about $100,000 are not powerful enough to handle peak loads in a car, so during low engine load the fuel cell is run at constant output to charge a small battery, which then supplies boost power during peak load. This means a fuel cell car suffers the relative small charge/discharge losses of a battery-electric car on top of the much bigger losses in electrolysis and fuel cells that only a hydrogen car has.

What this 3x difference in energy efficiency means is that if we were to replace fossil-fueled cars with hydrogen-fueled cars running on renewable energy, we would have to install three times more solar panels and build three times as many wind turbines as it would take to charge the same number of electric cars. Who would pay for that and why?

Even if the power source was nuclear, we would be producing three times as much nuclear waste to power hydrogen cars than to power battery-electric cars — waste that will be around for thousands of years. That makes no sense at all.

So why are hydrogen fuel cell car still being promoted then? Maybe 20-30 years ago research into hydrogen cars made sense, as insurance in case other alternatives to petroleum didn’t work out, but today the facts are clear: The hydrogen economy is nothing but a boondoggle. It is being pursued for political reasons.

Electrolysis of water is not how industrial hydrogen is being produced. The number one source for it is a process called steam reformation of natural gas (which in Japan is mostly imported as LNG). Steam reformation releases carbon dioxide and contributes to man-made global warming. By opting for hydrogen fuel cell cars over electric cars, we’re helping to keep the oil industry in business. That you find hydrogen on the forecourt of gas stations that are mostly selling gasoline and diesel now is not a coincidence. Hydrogen is not the “fuel of the future”, it’s a fossil fuel in new clothes.

Due to the inefficiency of the hydrogen production it would actually make more sense from both a cost and environmental point of view to burn the natural gas in highly efficient combined cycle power stations (gas turbines coupled with a steam turbine) feeding into the grid to charge electric cars instead of producing hydrogen for fuel cell cars from natural gas.

Even if electrolysis is terribly inefficient, by maximizing demand for electricity it can provide a political fig leaf for restarting and expanding nuclear power in Japan. Both the “nuclear fuel cycle” involving Fast Breeder Reactors and the promise of nuclear fusion that is always another 30-50 years away were sold partly as a power source for a future “hydrogen economy”.

While I’m sorry that my tax money is being used to subsidize hydrogen cars, I don’t think it will ever take off in the market. Electric cars came up from behind and overtook fuel cell cars. The price of batteries is falling rapidly year after year, driven by massive investment in research and development by three independent powerful industries: IT/mobile, automotive and the power companies. The hydrogen dream won’t die overnight. I expect the fuel cell car project will drag on through inertia, perhaps until there will be more battery electric cars than fossil fueled cars in Japan and then will be cancelled.

Electricty in Japan

Our household of four uses about 500 kWh of electricity per month on average, a considerable portion of which is consumed by the computers I run my business on. The total tends to be more in July and August, when we also run air conditioners to take the edge of 35+ centigrade heat, whereas in the winter our municipal gas bill tends to go up a lot because of heating. All year round we use gas for cooking and hot water.

TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company), the local utility for the Kanto area, charges us about 25 yen per kWh on average (the exact rate varies a bit month by month, as the company tries to even out charges for its customers against seasonal consumption patterns). That’s about US$0.28 / EUR 0.18 per kWh at current exchange rates.

While electricity in Japan tends to be expensive by US standards, its supply is also extremely reliable. Until a few years ago uninterruptable power supplies (UPS) for domestic use used to be almost unheard of here, because we’d expect maybe one brief blackout per year. The Japanese power grid tends to be a lot more redundantly laid out and with more spare capacity than in the US, where cost is the top priority.

The voltage of A/C power in Japan is 100 V compared to 230 V in Europe and 110V in the US. Western Japan (Nagoya, Osaka and further west) uses a mains frequency of 60 Hz like the US whereas Eastern Japan (including Tokyo) uses 50 Hz like Europe. Equipment sold in Japan works with either frequency, but often the Wattage rating is slightly different depending on the frequency. Japan uses two pin plugs like ungrounded US plugs and usually they’re not polarized. If equipment has a ground wire it is attached separately, not via a plug pin.

Electrical appliances purchased in the US will usually work OK at the slightly lower voltage of Japan, but the reverse is more risky. I once managed to fry a power brick for a USB hard disk which I took to the US and used without a step-down transformer (110 V to 100 V). Moving between Europe and Japan, a transformer is almost always required, with the exception of consumer electronics items that use a 100-240 V universal switched mode power supply. These days the latter category includes almost all notebook computers, digital cameras, video cameras and many desktop computers, flat screen monitors, etc.

Japan generates about 30% of its electricity from nuclear power, 7% from hydroelectric dams and the rest from fossil fuels including coal, natural gas (imported as LNG) and oil.

In recent years the electric utility companies have been aggressively promoting “orudenka” (all electric power) homes, i.e. new homes that use electricity for cooking, cooling, heating and hot water, with no propane, natural gas or heating oil usage in the house.

So called “EcoCute” heat pumps produce hot water using ambient heat and electricity. Even if they manage to provide two extra units of heat for every unit of electricity, they are unlikely to save much CO2 output compared to burning gas, as fossil fueled power plants only produce one unit of electricity for every three units of heat from burning fuel. Yes, it may be better to use a heat pump to make hot water from electricity than a simple heater element, but at the power station you’re still wasting 60-70 percent of the primary energy from coal, oil or LNG, which goes as waste heat into a river or ocean or up a cooling tower. It would make more sense to burn gas at home to heat water, instead of two conversions (from heat to electricity to heat) and transmission losses. With the current power infrastructure EcoCute is hardly the way of the future.

EcoCute would make sense only with plenty of wind, geothermal or hydro power to supply electricity without pumping out CO2 or piling up toxic radioactive waste. In reality Japan is generating almost two thirds of its power from fossil fuels. Its utility companies are sitting on piles of nuclear waste that has nowhere to go. Japan is lagging far behind other developed countries in wind power or other renewable energy sources while confidence in its nuclear industry has been shaken by several high profile accidents since the 1990s.

If you’re going to burn anything at all to make electricity (as we’ll probably have to for a few more decades), a much more promising concept is the “Ene Farm” combined heat and power (CHP) generator promoted by several gas utilities and oil companies, launched in Japan in June 2009. It’s a residential fuel cell producing electricity from hydrogen and oxygen while heating water with the waste heat. Like in prototype automative fuel cells (e.g. Honda), the hydrogen is extracted from natural gas through a process called steam reformation. A fuel cell CHP system located where heat can be used directly is about the most economical way imaginable of using fossil fuel, if you’re going to use it at all.

The biggest current drawback of Ene Farm is the high cost of the system: 3,255,000 yen ($US36,000) for a system that puts out 250 to 700 W of power and a multiple of that in heat that goes into a 200 l storage tank. A 1,400,000 yen subsidy by government does make it a bit more affordable, but still its cost needs to come way down to make it popular enough to make a big dent in CO2 emissions from Japanese homes. Its proponents are hoping to reduce the equipment cost by as much as 90% over the next decade. I hope they succeed – at a lower price it could be a killer product.

A very similar idea, but taking a different route is the Linear Free Piston Stirling Engine (LFPSE) cogeneration unit jointly developed by Infinia, Enatec, Bosch and Rinnai (a Japanese maker of gas appliances). Instead of a fuel cell it uses a Stirling engine to convert heat into mechanical motion, which via a moving coil generates electricity. The waste heat produces hot water or heats a home. First generation prototypes are being tested in Europe from 2008 to 2010, with mass production by Rinnai in Japan scheduled for 2011.

The “run your car on water” scam

Every crisis can also be viewed an opportunity, or so it seems. As many motorists are having trouble making ends meet with rising fuel (and food) prices, various websites are popping up (usually with affiliate schemes) that make tempting promises such as:

  • “…use water as fuel and laugh at rising gas costs…”
  • “double your mileage”
  • “…cooler running engine…”
  • “no knocking”
  • “one quart of water provides over 1800 gallons of HHO gas which can literally last for months”

You will find numerous websites if you google for “water fuel car” or similar terms. Mostly the websites that make these claims sell e-books and other kits with instructions on building your own hydrogen generator from glass jars, electrodes and tubes to hook up to your existing engine.

Such kits draw power from your car’s electrical system (the battery and the generator charging it) to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gas, which is then fed into the air intake of the engine, so the hydrogen-oxygen mixture will be burnt along the air/gasoline mixture in the car’s combustion chambers. How well can such a system really work?

If a a “water-engine” as described above were to produce extra power beyond the power obtained from burning gasoline it would violate fundamental laws of physics. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that no energy is ever lost or gained, it just changes form, such as chemical energy to heat when you burn wood or heat to mechanical energy in a steam engine. An engine that uses only liquid water to produce water vapour (i.e. water plus heat) in its exhaust while providing mechanical energy violates this law of energy balance. It outputs energy with no energy going it. It would be a perpetual motion engine, which is physically impossible.

The sad fact is, people who buy these systems usually have a very rudimentary understanding of science. They take these unverified claims at face value, or are at least prepared to give them the benefit of doubt and spend money on testing unverified claims.

The “water-fuelled car” in detail

To split water (H2O) into its constituent elements hydrogen and oxygen takes electric energy. While the engine is running that energy will come from a generator driven by the engine via a belt. Just like running with your headlights on or your radio blaring will cause your engine to work a bit harder and burn more fuel, so will an electrolytic “hydrogen generator” take its toll on your gas tank.

Assuming an efficient setup, about 50-70% of the electrical energy provided will end up as chemical energy in the explosive hydrogen-oxygen mixture fed back into the engine, the rest will just warm up the water. A gasoline engine manages to convert up to 20% of the chemical energy contained in its fuel into mechanical energy, which is then available for driving the wheels or a generator. That generator converts maybe 90% of its mechanical input into electrical power. Altogether this means that burning the hydrogen returns only around 1/10 of the power originally invested into generating the hydrogen from water. It’s like you just burnt 10 litres (or gallons) of fuel in order to avoid burning one litre (or gallon).

What this of course means is that a “water-powered car” actually burns more gasoline and gets worse mileage than an unmodified car. However, the output of the “hydrogen generator” is so small and its practical negative effect on fuel mileage is so minor, you are unlikely to actually notice that, even if you accurately measure fuel economy. For example, a setup that draws 3 amperes of current from your generator (as claimed in one of the websites we’ve studied) will only use 1/20 of one horsepower (3 A x 12 V = 36 W = 0.036 kW = 0.050 hp). The difference in fuel usage is smaller than the difference between say driving with a full or a half empty fuel tank, which also changes fuel economy as a heavier car takes more power to accelerate.

The advertised fact that the “water-powered car” uses so little water (“one quart lasts for months”) is actually a give-away that the system is a hoax. If you produced hydrogen at home from tap water and a solar panel on your roof and stored it in a pressurized tank in your car to run it on only hydrogen, you would find that the amount of water used to make the hydrogen is still in the same order of magnitude as the amount of gasoline used, maybe something like a third by volume (I’d have to look up the exact numbers on relative energy content of hydrogen and hydrocarbons). In a water car that uses virtually no water (no matter where the electricty to make the hydrogen came from) the hydrogen can not be making any significant contribution to running it because there’s too little of it!

Less pinking / knocking?

I don’t know how many of the people who sell these useless plans are simply ignorant about science and how many are fully aware they’re scamming people. In any case, their other claims are equally baseless as their claims about improved fuel economy. Hydrogen has a higher energy content but also much lower octane rating than gasoline because it burns faster, more violently. This means your engine is more likely to start knocking or “pinking” than when run on gasoline (or gasoline / ethanol mixtures), not less. This is a problem that BMW had a hard time dealing with when they converted the engine of a 7-series saloon car to run on hydrogen. In practice this problem doesn’t matter in a “water car” because those “hydrogen generators” output so little hydrogen that it makes almost no difference to the engine, unlike real hydrogen cars with hydride or high pressure hydrogen tanks.

Cooler running engine?

Also, a hydrogen / oxygen mixture does not burn “cooler” than a gasoline / air mixture. Ask the space shuttle designers: The only reason the space shuttle’s hydrogen-oxygen engine doesn’t melt itself is because it’s cooled with liquid hydrogen (at -253 C / -423 F). Hydrogen / oxygen flames burn so hot they can be used for cutting steel like butter. First, hydrogen release more energy per unit of weight than does gasoline. Secondly, while the oxygen used for burning gasoline in a car engine is diluted with nitrogen (which makes up 80% of the air we breathe), the ogygen / hydrogen mix from the generator has not been diluted with anything inert, which is another reason why it burns so hot.

The vater vapour in the “water car” exhaust has no cooling effect whatsoever, because it’s not derived from liquid water, hence there’s no cooling effect from evaporation heat. Again, in the “water car” setup it makes no difference because there’s too little hydrogen involved.


In reality a “water as fuel” car is a placebo. Technically it doesn’t make any noticable difference to the amount of gasoline you use per kilometre or mile, but it may change the way you think about driving. If you do see any drop in fuel usage, it may be simply that you’re thinking more about fuel usage because of the investment you’ve just made and now drive less aggressively than before and that can indeed result in a modest reduction. Beyond that, any claimed changes are either due to wishful thinking, a vivid imagination or a cruel hoax to deceive unsuspecting customers.

The only way you’ll really see a 50% drop in your monthly fuel bill is if you basically cut your driving in half or if you change to a significantly different kind of car, such as from a bulky V6 to an economical Toyota Prius.

The number one factor that affects fuel economy around town is weight: A lighter car uses less fuel. Don’t get a more powerful engine than you really need. A more efficient setup, such as a hybrid or a new clean diesel can make a big difference too. Use public transport, ride a bicycle or walk wherever you can. It’s good for your health too 🙂

UPDATE: Here is a good page that explains in more detail why the claims for “HHO” don’t add up (use Ctrl+A to mark the text as it’s difficult to read as dark text on dark background).

Media fall for “car that runs on water”

Nikkei and Reuters report about an announcement by Japanese company Genepax of a car that supposedly runs on only water. One litre will keep the car running at 80 km/h for about an hour, reports Reuters.

Genepax CEO Kiyoshi Hirasawa is quoted by Reuters as stating that the car requires no external inputs but water. As long as water is available, it will keep running.

Reuters states things a bit differently:

Though the company did not reveal the details, it “succeeded in adopting a well-known process to produce hydrogen from water to the MEA,” said Hirasawa Kiyoshi, the company’s president. This process is allegedly similar to the mechanism that produces hydrogen by a reaction of metal hydride and water.

The uncritical reports by these two sources barely scratch the surface of this story. Hydrogen is not an energy source, it’s an energy carrier as there are no natural sources of it on earth. It always has to be produced through physical or chemical processes that require external energy input of some source, either fossil natural gas or coal or biomass or electricity generated from some source.

The Genepax website does not shed much light on how the hydrogen is produced for their fuel cell. The description of their technology on the company website consists of all of two sentences and one diagram of a fuel cell.

If you produce hydrogen in a chemical reaction of metal hydride and water, you use up not only water, but also metal hydride. Typically, metal hydrides take a lot of energy to produce. Substances such as alkali metal hydrids or aluminium that easily release hydrogen when reacting with water consume huge amounts of electricity in their manufacture — hardly a case of “no external input”.

The car uses a 300W fuel cell, presumably only to supplement a conventional battery, as 0.3 kw is far too little drive a car. That fuel cell sells for about 2 million yen ($19,000), almost enough to buy a Toyota Prius (the base model of which costs 2.3 million yen here in Japan).

Even if the “hydrogen generator” could produce hydrogen indefinitely with no external input (otherwise known as a perpetuum mobile), 300W is not enough power to keep even a small car running at 80 kp/h. It would take at least tens of kW, or the output of maybe 50 of these fuell cells. The concludion is that the demo car ran on a set of batteries previously charged from the mains grid, with no assistance from the Genepax fuel cell that was either significant or sustainable.

While we are not sure about all he facts behind the announcement by Genepax (such as whether they happen to be selling stocks to science-challenged would-be investors right now), we’d suggest taking any of their announcements with considerably more than a pinch of salt.

The domain genepax.co.jp was registered only on May 8, 2008, a mere five weeks ago. That seems awfully recent for a company that claims to have spent years developing this technology.

Whichever way you look at it, the story quickly falls apart, but the journalists hardly seem to notice. With rising fuel prices people will be interested in such “news” and that seems to be all that matters.