Researchers Warn Against Becoming Too Dependent On Hydrogen To Power Cars

British manufacturer Riversimple’s hydrogen-powered car.
British manufacturer Riversimple’s hydrogen-powered car.
Photo: GEOFF CADDICK/AFP (Getty Images)

Using hydrogen as a source of power for vehicles certainly has its drawbacks—among them the cost and the inefficient use of energy—but researchers are now warning against hydrogen for another reason, The Guardian reports: scarcity and a subsequent dependence on fossil fuels.


Hydrogen-based fuels are already expensive, and while there’s also research to suggest that a growing demand could enable cheaper prices, even a large-scale swap isn’t going to create the infrastructure needed to distribute hydrogen on a large scale. Demand also isn’t going to immediately solve hydrogen’s other main issues: that you get less energy per unit volume than other fuels, that liquefaction (as in, the simple ability to easily refill a fuel tank at a pump) is challenging and costly, and hydrogen’s volatility. You’re going to face the same exact problems you currently have with the meager electric charging infrastructure, but things are amplified.

But perhaps the biggest issue is the fact that hydrogen could enable us to stick with the same fossil fuels that we’re trying to eradicate. In other words, if hydrogen turns out to be scarce and we still have a combustion engine in our car, we’re likely to just turn back to gasoline.

Here’s a little more from The Guardian:

“Hydrogen-based fuels can be a great clean energy carrier, yet their costs and associated risks are also great,” said Falko Ueckerdt, at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany, who led the research.

“If we cling to combustion technologies and hope to feed them with hydrogen-based fuels, and these turn out to be too costly and scarce, then we will end up burning further oil and gas,” he said. “We should therefore prioritise those precious hydrogen-based fuels for applications for which they are indispensable: long-distance aviation, feedstocks in chemical production and steel production.”

Basically, the research found that it took six to 14 times more electricity to power in-home gas boilers with hydrogen-based fuels than with other fuels. I’ll let the experts explain:

The research, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, calculated that producing and burning hydrogen-based fuels in home gas boilers required six to 14 times more electricity than heat pumps providing the same warmth. This is because energy is wasted in creating the hydrogen, then the e-fuel, then in burning it. For cars, using e-fuels requires five times more electricity than is needed than for battery-powered cars.


Basically, it’s massively inefficient to use hydrogen fuel when you could just be using electricity and getting the job done with much quicker.

As researcher Falko Ueckerdt noted, there are some industries where it's much harder to utilize electric power as a more eco-friendly option: long-distance air travel, steel production, shipping, and other chemical manufacturing. In those instances, it's not a problem to consider hydrogen-based fuels as a stepping stone to more efficient options, as going fully electric all at once will be a challenge. For cars or amenities in our homes, we should stick to straight electricity. 

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.



Hydrogen can work great and be extremely green. You just have to be a bit blue about how to make it.

Nuclear power plants will break apart water molecules and generate hydrogen without using any extra fuel. It isn’t using electricity to break the molecule, but the radiation from the fission reaction. It is actually a problem in power plants that if they run too hot, they make too much hydrogen and that can cause an issue (that’s what happened at Fukashima when it lost cooling). If a nuclear plant is reconfigured to intentionally produce hydrogen, it can produce as much hydrogen as if 50% of the plants electricity was focused on making it the traditional way and only loose something like 3% of the actual electrical output (all of that just to pump the hydrogen to a higher pressure).

If you design a plant from the start to make hydrogen, you can actually make around 5% more electrical power and those massive amounts of hydrogen, all without using any more fuel.

So, in other words.. it will never happen in North America or Europe.