Is Canada Ready for Hydrogen Cars?
Perhaps you’ve heard that the next big thing in personal transportation for Canadians will be hydrogen cars. At first, such a concept probably sounds quite strange. You’ve no doubt heard of hydrogen, but how would cars run off it?
To really understand if Canada is ready for hydrogen cars, you need to understand to an extent how the cars themselves run, where the hydrogen comes from, how it’s transported, and the unique position Canada as a country enjoys.
A Greater Convenience
While hydrogen fuel cell cars have struggled in the US, Canada might be a better fit for the alternative fuel. A greater percentage of Canadians live in shared housing like apartments, condominiums, and townhouses where garages are shared with others.
This presents a unique problem for electric cars and even plug-in hybrids. Having a charger installed in a common garage can be expensive. Many property owners and homeowners associations don’t want to bear the cost, meaning people who live in these arrangements would only be able to plug in at public chargers. That’s far from convenient.
The advantage with hydrogen-powered cars is that owners would be able to visit a fueling station and have a similar experience to what they know right now. After a few short minutes the fuel tank in a hydrogen vehicle is full, making the process quick and far more convenient.
As a fuel cell vehicle runs, hydrogen mixes with oxygen inside the fuel cells. Through an electrochemical process, that combination produces electricity, which then powers an electric motor in the car. The only byproduct of the reaction is water vapor, which of course is completely harmless. It’s easy to see why having cars which run off hydrogen seems like a dream come true.
Canada is rich in a number of resources, including usable hydrogen. This puts the country in a prime position to produce a steady flow of the fuel, which would have quite the positive impact on the economy.
Both Quebec and British Columbia leverage hydroelectricity, which is a renewable way of generating electricity for the grid. While that’s useful for watching television and keeping the lights in your house on, it’s also a viable way to produce hydrogen for fuel cell cars. Since the resource is renewable, this cuts down on the high emissions which are often a byproduct of making hydrogen for fuel, defeating part of the purpose of the technology.
While filling up your car with hydrogen sounds great, there is a catch. Despite being an abundant element on the planet, you can’t just harvest hydrogen out of some well drilled into the ground. It’s almost always present as part of a compound, such as water. That means you must separate the hydrogen from the other elements.
That’s where the catch comes. There are many ways to produce hydrogen to power fuel cell cars, but they are costly and sometimes can result in greater pollution than other fuel sources. Also, some production processes aren’t very efficient, which also defeats the purpose.
One method for producing hydrogen is through natural gas reforming. By combining natural gas with a high-temperature steam, a synthesis gas which is made of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and some carbon dioxide is produced. By triggering a reaction by combining the carbon monoxide with water, even more hydrogen is produced. The advantages of this method are many, including the cost and efficiency. This is why hydrogen is most often produced using natural gas reforming, at least globally.
There is another way to produce the synthesis gas, called gasification. Using a pressurized gasifier, you must combine coal or biomass with high temperature steam and oxygen. The synthesis gas contains hydrogen and carbon monoxide, but combining it with more steam separates the hydrogen.
The most common method for producing hydrogen in Canada is electrolysis. Using an electrical current, workers split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Since there are renewable ways to produce high amounts of electricity domestically, that means the hydrogen itself is technically renewable. As a result, the what’s called wheels-to-well environmental impact of this method is quite low, usually making it a cleaner way of powering cars than virtually anything else.
With renewable liquid reforming, ethanol or other renewable liquid fuels are exposed to high temperature steam as a way to make hydrogen. This method is best done at or near the hydrogen fuel station.
Finally, there is fermentation. Converting a biomass into a high sugar feedstock, it is then fermented as a way to produce hydrogen. This, of course, takes some time.
There are also some more experimental ways to produce hydrogen, such as splitting water molecules using a nuclear reactor. Because these methods haven’t been proven as viable for commercial use, for now they’re not a known factor. These or other methods could suddenly make producing hydrogen cheap, quick, and simple. If that happens, the viability of hydrogen cars would skyrocket, possibly ushering in their adoption as a mainstream means of transportation.
It’s not at all an overstatement to say that Canada is a leader in the hydrogen car industry. Thanks to early investments in the technology, the country is seeing the fruits of these labors.
This position of leadership has been a big boom for the Canadian economy. For example, Daimler spent $70 million on a plant in Burnaby, BC that manufactures automotive fuel cells for hydrogen cars. There is no other facility in the entire world like it, making Canada that much more unique.
Of the hydrogen and fuel cell technology developed and manufactured in Canadian borders, about 90 percent of it is exported to other countries.
According to the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, about 2,000 Canadians are employed by the hydrogen and fuel cell industry. They work for both small and medium businesses and research organizations spread around the country, adding a solid boost to the local economy. These workers earn good salaries and are highly trained professionals.
Because of the unique position Canada has placed itself in with the hydrogen economy, it’s better prepared to support a network for manufacturing and distributing hydrogen fuel for cars.
First Fueling Station
British Columbia made big headlines in June of 2018 when it opened the first retail hydrogen fueling station in Canada. Before then, members of the public had no way to refuel a fuel cell vehicle. That surely put a damper on interest in hydrogen-powered cars in Canada, because not being able to refuel your vehicle isn’t an option.
Located in Vancouver, the fueling station is the first of eight planned for the province by 2020. Five of those stations will be placed at already existing fuel stations. A dedicated hydrogen fueling station will be constructed on the University of British Columbia’s campus. For the final station, one that has been operating for many years at the Powertech campus of BC Hydro will fill that role.
While news of the new station opening and eight more coming in British Columbia made big headlines, some have tried to detract from the news. After all, a few stations spread around one province isn’t all that practical if you really want to go somewhere with a hydrogen fuel cell car.
It just so happens that other Canadian provinces are rolling out plans for hydrogen fueling stations of their own. Not surprisingly, Quebec and Ontario have both revealed they’re working with automakers to establish a network of stations.
The station in Quebec was announced the day before the fueling station opened in British Columbia. With a location in Quebec City, the retail operation will be owned by Harnois Groupe Petrolier, which owns traditional fuel stations throughout the province. The hydrogen station will also feature electric car chargers, showing the company is embracing alternative fuels in a bigger way.
Some have observed that British Columbia establishing the first retail hydrogen fueling station in Canada has touched off a fresh rivalry. Competition among the three provinces, and hopefully others in the future, can help to spread hydrogen fuel cell technology further.
Automakers certainly wouldn’t complain to have some extra help from the provinces. In fact, Hyundai was first in line to pledge support for the new hydrogen fueling stations in British Columbia. Not to be outdone, Quebec scooped up 50 Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicles. Ontario reportedly is getting support from Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota in its quest to establish a hydrogen fueling infrastructure.
Even once those fueling stations have been established, it’s still not going to be possible to drive from one coast to another with a fuel cell vehicle. Still, the hydrogen fueling infrastructure needs to start somewhere.
While it’s great to see a growing network of hydrogen fueling stations in Canada, the hydrogen has to be transported to the facilities so consumers can use their cars. This has historically been a problem, because hydrogen presents some challenges when it comes to distribution.
For now, hydrogen is often produced right by fueling stations or facilities where it’s used. With a growing number of retail fueling stations, that might not be such a viable way of distributing hydrogen. There exist three main methods of transporting hydrogen to fuel stations.
The first method is one you might already know something about: pipelines. In Canada, there are pipelines for transporting all kinds of liquids and gases. It’s a relatively inexpensive way to transport hydrogen. However, there aren’t many hydrogen pipelines in Canada, so an infrastructure would need to be constructed for this solution to really work. The unique properties of hydrogen means specialized pipes and compressors must be used, ballooning the cost of installing pipelines.
Hydrogen can be transported in high-pressure tube trailers, which are pulled by a semi truck or can be loaded onto a train or boat. Because of the design of these tube trailers and how much hydrogen can be compressed into the container, this is an expensive way of transporting hydrogen.
Through cryogenic liquefaction, hydrogen turns into a liquid by rapidly cooling it. In liquid form, hydrogen can be transported at a much lower cost than with high-pressure tube trailers. The big catch with liquefaction is the cost, which for now is quite high. There’s a second issue with this method. If the rate of use of the hydrogen at the delivery site isn’t high enough, some of the liquid will boil off or evaporate from the tanks where it’s stored. That’s obviously not the result everyone wants, so there has to be a careful balancing of what’s delivered and consumption rates at the fueling station.
The current transportation methods for hydrogen doesn’t condense the fuel enough to make long-distance journeys worth the cost. That’s because the energy density per unit volume is actually lower than any other fuel, which must be used in the transportation process.
These challenges highlight why producing hydrogen onsite or near fueling stations is for now the best practice. One problem is that reality limits how many retail hydrogen fueling stations can exist in Canada, which in turn has a direct effect on the sale of hydrogen cars to the public. Also, producing hydrogen in large facilities reduces production costs, but it means higher distribution costs. Smaller production centres might cut down or eliminate the cost of distributing hydrogen, but it in turn increases the cost of making it.
Widespread adoption of hydrogen cars in Canada is going to take some time. The country enjoys some natural advantages when it comes to hydrogen production, plus hydrogen cars are beneficial to the lifestyle of many Canadians. However, fuel cell and hydrogen production technologies aren’t quite ready for mainstream use, although that could change in the not-distant future.