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Hydrogen Vaporware VS the Big Battery Breakthrough

Lou Grinzo's picture

Lou Grinzo is a writer and researcher residing in Rochester, NY. He blogs at The Cost of Energy (

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  • Dec 14, 2013

Large Battery Breakthrough

To no one’s surprise, there’s been some news lately about both a (potential) BBB (Big Battery Breakthrough) as well as RCH (Really Cheap Hydrogen).

Starting with the BBB, we have Japan’s Sekisui Chemical develop Silicon based 600 km range battery:

Sekisui Chemical has developed a material that can triple the capacity of lithium ion batteries, allowing electric vehicles to travel about 600km on a single charge — roughly as far as gasoline-powered cars can go without refilling.

The new material stores electricity using silicon instead of conventional carbon-based materials. The company’s silicon alloy overcomes the durability issue that had kept silicon from being used.

Sekisui Chemical also developed a new material for the electrolyte, which conducts electricity within the batteries. This eliminates the need for equipment to inject liquid electrolyte into batteries, stepping up battery production by 10-fold.

The company believes that the new material can bring battery production costs down to just above 30,000 yen ($290) per kilowatt-hour, a decrease of more than 60 percent from around 100,000 yen ($976) today, according to a report in Nikkei.

Sekisui Chemical plans to begin sample shipments to domestic and overseas battery manufacturers as early as next summer, with mass production to kick off in 2015. It is targeting annual sales of 20 billion yen by fully entering the business of automotive battery materials.

The first rule of reading such articles is to always remember that going from “Hey! Look what I made work in the lab!” to “You can buy it in the local car showroom/web site right now, at a less-than-excruciatingly high price” is a very, very difficult path. There’s almost no end of perverse things that can happen to trip up a new technology, from expensive materials and processes (including yield and scaling issues) to no end of political hassles, as in trying to get enough of Magic Ingredient X from a source that doesn’t want to sell it. (Sometimes it’s a wonder that any product more complex than a Slinky ever gets to market in mass quantities.) How will this particular breakthrough translate from lab to market? I have no bloody idea, and neither does anyone not working on it. Hell, I’d wager that most of the people working on it don’t know the answer to that question, simply because they’re experts in chemistry or packaging or materials science or whatever, and not economics and politics.

The second rule is to be on the lookout for hints about availability and price. The article makes it sound like this is not yet another case of vaporware, as it mentions samples reaching manufacturers in just a few months and production in 2015. But the price issue isn’t so rosy. That $290/kWh of capacity is certainly not the major step-change improvement we plug-in car geeks have been pining away for since, well forever. My understanding is that battery prices in production quantities are already under $400/kWh, so a roughly 25% reduction, while welcome, isn’t going to reshape the competitive landscape. On a car with a 24kWh battery pack, that’s a cost reduction of $2,640. Again, I’d rather have that cost drop than shun it, but it’s not going to get most of my neighbors into an EV overnight.

Another factor to consider is the much smaller battery volume, which is a nice ancillary benefit as it makes it much easier for EV makers to avoid the huge humps in some models (like the Focus EV).

So, is this the BBB we’ve all fantasized about? Probably not, but it sounds like a nice step in the desired direction.

And I would add that I’m still confident that somewhere, sometime very soon, we will see the BBB, simply because the economic benefits would be almost incalculable. Between turbo charging the EV movement and turning intermittent renewable energy into dispatchable power, the market for a “killer battery” technology is virtually unlimited for the first several decades after the breakthrough.

And then, there’s hydrogen: New formula for fast, abundant hydrogen production may help power fuel cells:

Scientists in Lyon, a French city famed for its cuisine, have discovered a quick-cook recipe for copious volumes of hydrogen (H2).

The breakthrough suggests a better way of producing the hydrogen that propels rockets and energizes battery-like fuel cells. In a few decades, it could even help the world meet key energy needs—without carbon emissions contributing to the greenhouse effect and climate change.

In a microscopic high-pressure cooker called a diamond anvil cell (within a tiny space about as wide as a pencil lead), combine ingredients: aluminum oxide, water, and the mineral olivine. Set at 200 to 300 degrees Celsius and 2 kilobars pressure—comparable to conditions found at twice the depth of the deepest ocean. Cook for 24 hours. And voilà.

Where to begin? Microscopic cooker? Diamond anvil? Olivine and aluminum oxide? Heating to 200C to 300C? Does any of this sound, how shall I put this delicately, affordable or scalable? It sure doesn’t sound that way to me.

The only way to produce hydrogen at industrial scale now is by reforming natural gas or electrolyzing water. The first produces about 5.5 kg of CO2 for every kg of H2, and the second takes hideous amounts of electricity. And in either case, you then have to burn a lot of energy to compress the hydrogen to cram it into a 5,000 psi tank inside your vehicle. And even that’s assuming that you’re doing the hydrogen production in the gas station and not at some remote site and piping(!) or trucking(!!!) it to the filling station.

The longer this little drama between batteries and hydrogen goes on, the less likely it is that hydrogen will be a major player in the long run. For one thing, batteries are getting significantly cheaper, with one estimate being that they dropped 40% in cost from 2010 to 2012. So hydrogen is aiming for a quickly moving target. But even if you assume someone makes a wicked good hydrogen breakthrough today, and they find a way to generate it at absurdly low cost and without any additional environmental issues, like the CO2 emissions from natural gas reforming, then we’re still on the short end of the stick regarding infrastructure. Building out a hydrogen transport and refueling infrastructure would be hideously expensive. By comparison, EV recharging stations are dirt cheap. For example, Rochester, NY just started installing the first of 24 EV chargers at a total cost of $285,000 — call it $12,000 each. Hydrogen stations are currently about 4 million dollars each, with hopes to get the price down to 2 million. And that’s not taking into account all the EV drivers, like me, who have never used a cheap, public charging port and simply recharge from a home outlet.

Please don’t mistake my comments here as a sign that I hope hydrogen fails. I would dearly love to see both EVs and HFCVs (hydrogen fuel cell vehicles) enjoy wild success and battle it out in the marketplace for years as drivers are happily reducing their marginal carbon emissions to practically zero. But the cost/infrastructure deck is so heavily stacked against hydrogen that it’s ever harder to justify spending more money on it as a motor vehicle fuel instead of using those funds to subsidize EVs or build additional publicly available EV chargers.

Photo Credit: Battery Breakthrough/shutterstock

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Dec 14, 2013

The compressed gaseous hydrogen & PEM FCV path is not the only route to a hydrogen economy.  

Hydrogen has many problems (e.g. very high cost for fuel cells and very poor energy density).  But ammonia (NH3) is also a carbon-free fuel, and it has an energy density a little better than that of cng (and double that of 10,000 psi H2), so it can be burned in a modified internal combustion engine (ICE) and it still produces adequate vehicle range (like diesel fuel, ammonia can be burned with a high compression ratio engine, so the efficiency will be midway between that of a fuel cell and a gasoline engine). 

The most important feature of ammonia ICE cars is that they will cost about the same as gasoline powered ICE cars, which is to say much less than fuel cell or battery electrics.  This means that they complement rather than compete with battery electrics (since batteries give lower refueling cost).  And fuel cells that run on ammonia do exist (most natural gas fuel cells can run on ammonia), so that option may play a role as costs come down.  Ammonia is also well suited to heavy duty trucks, buses, trains,  and stationary diesel generator (which would not be considered for batteries).

The ammonia path has a lower infrastructure barrier than hydrogen, since ammonia is much cheaper to transport by truck or rail than is hydrogen (due to the better energy density and much lower pressurization).  We already have a couple thousand miles of ammonia pipeline in the USA, which is used to distribute ammonia for use as fertilizer.  Ammonia is made today from fossil fuel (in some cases using carbon capture and sequestration) for a cost that is competitive with gasoline.  It is also the cheapest fuel that can be made from solar, wind, or nuclear power.  

Ammonia has the added advantage that when made from sustainable sources, it will be cheapest in developing nations with low labor costs, i.e. it is a technology that targets nations like China and India whose CO2 will soon dwarf those of the developed world. So world emissions wise, a US investment in ammonia technology would be highly leveraged.  If we mature the technology by converting a few percent of our vehicle fleet to ammonia (using Government incentives), China and India could conceivably convert a majority of their fleets to ammonia, saving money and improving their trade balances in the process.

Note also that ammonia fuel synthesis is a great way to smooth seasonal supply/demand mismatch in energy supply.  With refrigeration (to -33C), ammonia can be stored at normal atmospheric pressure.  This means that warehouse-sized insulated tanks are feasible.

Here’s a good intro to ammonia fuel:  NH3 – The Other Hydrogen

Here is a story about a Toyota sports car that has been modified by an Italian team to burn ammonia, here is a conversion done in South Korea.

Tim Havel's picture
Tim Havel on Dec 14, 2013

Anyone who’s ever had a wiff of ammonia will not want to drive a car filled with the stuff. At one point it was used in most refrigerators and too many bad things happened, so they developed CFC’s (and then something even worse happened in the stratosphere, but that’s another story).

Hydrazine is a much better carbon-free energy carrier. It is toxic but no worse than gasoline (and much better than leaded gas was). The anhydrous form can be burned but can also explode, so that’s out; the hydrate (a 64% by weight solution in water) is however hard to ignite and even harder to make explode. Alternatively hydrazine can be stored as hydrazone that readily decomposes in water. But the best thing about hydrazine as a fuel is that it can be converted to electricity by a low-temperature fuel cell that doesn’t need a platinum catalyst and has a much higher efficiency than by burning it.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Dec 14, 2013

The issue here is olivine, which is a reagent in the reaction rather than a catalyst, i.e., it is used up in the process. Therefore to get hydrogen this way, you have to mine olivine. 

Here’s predicting this particular method of making H2 will never be commercialized.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Dec 15, 2013

I accept that ammonia is more dangerous than other refrigerants, but it does not appear that ammonia is more dangerous than other fuels.  Here is a presentation on ammonia safety, which claims that ammonia is no worse than gasoline (the higher toxicity is offset by the lower fire/explosion hazard), and better than LPG.

The material safety data sheet for hydrazine looks worse than ammonia‘s.  In particular, ammonia can be detected by smell at harmless concentrations, but hydrazine cannot; hydrazine is much more explosive and seems to be much worse when spilled into the environment.  Hydrazine is also carcinogenic and can be absorbed through the skin, but even long term exposure to low ammonia dosages is harmless (ammonia is a natural part of the metabolism of all land animals). 

On issue of special the fuel cells: reverse fuel cells have been demonstrated in the lab for ammonia.  This is a device which is fed steam, nitrogen, and electricity, which outputs ammonia.  If scaled up, this could easily reduce the cost of liquid fuel from renewable electricity by 20%.  There is probably a market for a safer fuel wherein people would pay 20% extra for a fuel like DME, but no one is going to pay extra for hydrazine, it’s not safer.

Jean-Marc D's picture
Jean-Marc D on Dec 15, 2013

Nice debunking, thanks. I’m not as optimistic as you about the BBB coming any time soon, simply because the economic benefits has been huge since a very long time, and despite of that the latest real breakthough to hit the stores is still LiIon, which are commercialized since the start of 90’s, and the technology was known long before.

Well there has been one significant real industrial breakthough since a few years, LiFePo4 batteries, but while being on the whole a very significant progress, it’s not enough of a breakthough to make people really excited. Still, except on the fact the density is lower, it’s a very useful progress on many point, the higher number of cycles make it significantly cheaper when considering lifecycle cost.

Tim Havel's picture
Tim Havel on Dec 15, 2013


Tim Havel's picture
Tim Havel on Dec 15, 2013

The thing makes ammonia worse than gasoline is that it’s a caustic gas (vapor) under ambient conditions, while gasoline is merely a volatile liquid. That means a tank of liquid ammonia is necessarily under considerable pressure, and if it leaks it all comes out at once and mixes with the surrounding air. If you’re in the garage or even the vicinity of an automobile accident outdoor when a tank ruptures, you’re going to get caustic burns all over, including your eyes and lungs. And if that mixture with air just happens to be roughly four parts ammonia to three parts oxygen, you’ve got a fuel-air bomb ready to explode at the slightest spark.

Like gasoline, hydrazine hydrate is a volatile liquid, and it does have a weak ammonia-like oder which could easily be made a whole lot stronger by adding an oderant, possibly even a bit of ammonia. I believe the same sort of alkaline fuel cell could be used with both ammonia and hydrazine, so it’s possible that a suitable mixture of water, ammonia and hydrazine would actually be the best such energy carrier. In which case we’d both be right!

By the way, hydrazine flunks the Ames test but like many such substances it’s a very weak carcinogen, probably not much worse than meat treated with sodium nitrite. That is to say it would be bad to get a bit inside you every day but is otherwise nothing to panic about. Toxicity is another matter. The LD50 of hydrazine is around 100 mg / kg orally or twice that if adminstered dermally, so you’d need to get about 10 grams of the hydrate on your skin to be in a panic situation (run for the shower!). The tetraethyl lead they used to put in gasoline is much worse than that, and it’s capable of causing chronic poisoning which as far as I can tell hydrazine is not. Choose your poison?

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Dec 16, 2013

Here‘s a 2007 article about the hydrazine fuel cell. It is interesting, so it’ll be interesting to see if this technology goes anywhere.  Note that the fuel cell stack has to be cost competitive with an ICE (after correcting for fuel cost) to be a win.  The solid fuel idea is novel, but it sounds like the vehicle must also be tanked up with water, which would be a hassel for consumers.

Note that the explosive range of fuel/air mixtures is much narrower for ammonia than for gasoline or cng, and hydrogen (and anhydrous hydrazine) are much worse; plus ammonia has a much higher ignition temp compared to gasoline or hydrogen, so it requires a bigger spark.  Also note that ammonia will be at under 200 psi, compared to 5,000-10,000 psi for hydrogen, so it will come out more slowly for a given leak.

The safety reports on ammonia for car fuel I’ve read basically said that major fuel leaks only occur in a tiny fractions of accidents, i.e. the accident must be so severe that the passengers are all screwed anyway.

Gary Tulie's picture
Gary Tulie on Dec 20, 2013

One aspect of the economics missed out in the discussion is the relative cycle efficiency of hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric vehicles. If you take losses in the hydrolysis / fuel cell generation cycle into account, you need about twice as much primary energy for a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle as for a BEV. 

Regarding the new Silicon based batteries, if weight and volume reduction of the battery pack including BMS and containment were to be of the order of 60% this could help to make electric vehicles significantly lighter and a little smaller for a given useful capacity (passenger and luggage space).

Weight reduction would be both direct and indirect with reduced volume and weight allowing other smaller lighter components. 

For a similar battery capacity, it therefore seems to me that range might be increased by 5 to 10%.


Doug Payne's picture
Doug Payne on Dec 21, 2013



Does this mean, at the wheel we get about 17% of the 12 KWH in the litre of petrol as mechanical energy.

2.7 KWH

As for the 3.5 KWH of battery, we get about 2.9 Kwh of mechanical energy at the wheel.

You dont have to be overly optimistic to realise with a few simple calculations that electric cars provide mechanical energy at the wheel at about 10% of the cost of petrol.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Dec 25, 2013

The second of the challenges for hydrogen are why the most realistic hydrogen electro-fuels are more likely to be Ammonia (NH4) or Methane (CH4) than hydrogen gas.

The race is between battery cost per kwh and capital cost of solid state electrolysis technology, since the approach of over-supplying intermittent renewable capacity like windpower and PV and using surpluses to generate electro-fuels depends on the economics of electro-fuel production on a 25%-40% duty cycle.

Add the extra energy cost of compressed natural gas on top of that, and that sets the economics of hydrogen as an electrofuel an additional substantial step behind that of ammonia or methane. And some solid-state technologies produce syngas ( ) which is in some ways better suited for production of ammonia or methane than for production of hydrogen gas.

Lou Grinzo's picture
Thank Lou for the Post!
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