Thursday, November 21, 2013

More Motley Foolishness -- Hydrogen is safe as a fuel, not as an investment

I spotted another doozy from Motley Fool. For a change, it doesn't involve Netflix or Disney, but other than that the formula is basically the same and the advice is, if anything, worse. As is often the case, the title gives you a good idea what to expect:

"Will This New Toyota Hydrogen Car Change the World?"

The story, by John Rosevear, is pretty much a retyped press release along with some standard pop science boilerplate on hydrogen fuel cells all delivered in MF's typical breathless style ("heavy bets on fuel cells — and hydrogen — as a way to power the automobiles of the future"). As always, MF is careful not to come out and say that this is the next big thing while being just as careful to downplay (or omit entirely) all the troubling facts that undercut their argument.

There's an old saying in military circles that goes "Amateurs talk strategy; Professionals talk logistics." When dealing with transportation technology, you might replace 'strategy' with 'features' and 'logistics' with 'infrastructure.' Transportation infrastructure often faces a nasty chicken/egg problem -- few people want to buy the vehicles until the infrastructure is in place and you can't get infrastructure funded until lots of people own the vehicles -- but with hydrogen fuel cell cars the problem is particularly acute. Not only is hydrogen somewhat difficult to handle, it is competing against a range of low and zero emission vehicles, all of which use well-established infrastructure. There is no county in America where you cannot get gasoline, diesel, natural gas, and electricity.

On top of that, you also have a serious concern about energy density. There simply is not that much power you can extract from a cubic foot of hydrogen, even under considerable pressure.Gasoline has excellent energy density. Diesel is even better. Batteries are constantly improving. With hydrogen, I don't see much room for improvement. Energy density isn't as much of a problem with stationary systems but if you have to carry your fuel around with you it's a big deal. The FCV has "two spun-carbon and aluminium tanks holding hydrogen gas pressurised to 700 bar (10,000psi)" for decent range. That's a solid piece of engineering by Toyota (which employs a lot of smart people) but you have to suspect that higher pressures will be very hard to come by.

I don't want to paint too grim a picture. It's possible that Toyota's FCV will lead to something major -- there could be an unexpected technological advance or a major government initiative that subsidizes both the cars and their infrastructure -- but based on current comparative functionality and infrastructure issues, this technology is very much a long shot.

More to the point, the challenges facing fuel cell vehicles are widely known and if you're reading something about investing in this sector, these challenges need to be prominently mentioned very near the top of the page. If they aren't, you need to ask yourself how much value to put on the writer's advice.

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