One Upside of All This: Hydrogen Fuel Cells Now Have Plenty of Hydrogen

While you can debate till the cows come home whether hydrogen fuel cells are the future of transportation, we can all agree that, as of right now, the practical application of this technology is still in its infancy. It is certainly in its infancy when it comes to infrastructure and finding a hydrogen station with any hydrogen.

As you may have read here, Autoweek has a long-term Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle. I, your humble narrator, have been driving this Toyota Mirai for the last year. The car itself, apart from a few foibles, is perfectly fine. It seats four (should seat five, what’s up with that, Toyota?), has a real-world range of about 250 or 260 miles and has been mechanically bulletproof in almost 10,000 miles of driving.

The problem I’ve encountered is not with the car, it’s with the fuel. Despite the fact that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it is not the most abundant element at gas stations. There is more Mountain Dew and Snapple at your typical hydrogen refueling station than there is hydrogen. I live and drive in Los Angeles, and here in Southern California there are 21 hydrogen refueling stations from San Diego to Santa Barbara. I periodically check all of them on the California Fuel Cell Partnership’s website to see which ones have fuel. Through highly unscientific anecdotal monitoring of all 21 stations I have determined that at any given time roughly half of them have zero hydrogen. Half! Zero!

I’m not complaining about that—it’s like standing at Kitty Hawk and yelling at the Wright Brothers: “Hey man, I gotta be in LA tonight and you guys are not ready! I have Plutonium status, man!” Big-time industrial supplies of H2 akin to what gasoline has are way off in the future. So I can’t whine.

But right now, in the middle of this coronavirus madness, with no one driving anywhere, it’s a hydrogen paradise out there.

I looked at my local station—the South Pasadena ARCO station—and found that they have 156 kilograms of the stuff. 156! A typical fillup means 3 kg. If you see 40 kg on the cafcp site in normal times you drop whatever you’re doing and go gas up. But 156??? OMG!

Then I looked at La Canada Flintridge: 132! Santa Monica: 116! LAX: 127! Lawndale: 160 freaking kilograms! SoCal is swimming in hydrogen!

But with restrictions on driving we can’t take advantage of it. We just sit here working from home and looking at the numbers all across the state and sigh.

The idea with hydrogen as a fuel is not so much that it is a great fuel, but that it will be used as an energy storage medium. A clean energy storage medium. If clean energy means using electrolysis to separate hydrogen—H from H2O, then the H can be stored until it’s needed, when the wind and the solar are not available. That will happen on a large scale someday. But it ain’t happening yet. Hence, my little moment of hydrogen joy here today.

OK, everybody get back to work. From home. And wash your hands!

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