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I was recently reading that lithium mining for electric vehicle batteries is wreaking havoc on deserts in Chile.

One proposed alternative to EVs in the search for a replacement for petroleum-fueled vehicles is hydrogen vehicles. The most promising type of hydrogen vehicle uses a fuel cell to convert the chemical energy of hydrogen into electricity, with the only byproduct being water.

But I'm wondering if hydrogen vehicles may also have unique supply-chain issues like EVs.

Are there significant environmental concerns or issues with supplying the necessary materials to mass-produce hydrogen fuel cell vehicles?

I'm interested in issues related to production of the hydrogen fuel cell vehicles themselves -- not the fuel source, and not vehicles in general. I assume that there is technology in the vehicle for converting hydrogen fuel into energy, that does not exist in any other type of vehicle.

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  • They're cars... they're unsustainable per definition. You need ores, you need to refine them, you need oil/plastics, etc, pp.
    – Erik
    Oct 29, 2019 at 7:47
  • The biggest sustainability issue with hydrogen fuel cells is the same as for electric vehicles, namely the electricity source. The production of hydrogen fuel requires electricity (hydrogen is used as an intermediary energy storage), which may come from renewables or non-renewables. Ultimately the sustainability of the technology thus depends on this source. Oct 29, 2019 at 11:12
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    Having worked with hydrogen in a laboratory test situation , I am certain the general public could never handle hydrogen safely . That is the refueling and even garaging of vehicles , which will occasionally leak. Oct 29, 2019 at 15:22
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    @blacksmith37 At first I was a bit sceptical about your comment because I know there are already quite a bit of hydrogen cars out there and I hadn't heard of any problems with them. But after googling a bit I found: evtalk.co.nz/exploding-hydrogen-station-leads-to-fcv-halt and abc7news.com/bay-area-hydrogen-shortage-after-explosion/5328775 so safety does seem to be a problem.
    – THelper
    Oct 29, 2019 at 18:57
  • @Erik granted... but how do they compare with other types of vehicles, if we ignore the fuel source? That is my specific question here.
    – LShaver
    Dec 2, 2019 at 18:31

4 Answers 4

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The favored anode catalyst in a hydrogen fuel cell is platinum(1) or another platinum-group element (e.g. palladium). The catalyst is required in small quantities for an individual fuel cell but of course this demand scales up linearly with the number of fuel cells you want to produce.

There is ongoing research into development of alternative anode catalysts but the current generation technology still relies on relatively rare elements.

Thus, hydrogen fuel cell-based vehicles also imply a significant mining enterprise with the corresponding environment impacts.

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  • I disagree. Need for lithium in batteries will never go down as it's lithium that stores the energy, i.e. certain amount of lithium stores certain amount of energy. The catalyst usage can be optimized to practically zero. Catalyst takes no part in reaction, so there's a LOT of room to optimize.
    – juhist
    Dec 5, 2019 at 20:33
  • I didn't mean to imply anything about future technologies. My answer was just intended to describe the current state of affairs. Dec 6, 2019 at 14:17
  • Also, I didn't say anything about lithium in my answer. Dec 6, 2019 at 14:17
  • PEM fuel-cells, suitable for vehicles since they make less waste-heat, do require platinum. But the platinum is being reduced with a granulation on a geometric shape. Also, platinum mines tend to be the smaller underground mines with the platinum at a particular depth. Well, except that the palladium in Russia seems to be dispersed all through the nickel ore. Now street sweeper machines recover palladium from the highways since palladium is used in catalytic converters.
    – S Spring
    Apr 27, 2021 at 23:34
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Hydrogen is made in quantity by stream /methane reforming. Refineries currently make many tons per day with this process : it is used for hydrocracking , reforming ( making high octane fuels and plastics raw materials ) and other hydrotreating processes. Most of these processes consume H , but some actually produce H , but I no longer remember which is which. Many more tons ( maybe hundreds) per day of H are also used to make ammonia. So, there is essentially unlimited amounts of H available.

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  • I'm interested in issues with production of the vehicles themselves -- not the fuel.
    – LShaver
    Dec 2, 2019 at 18:30
  • This is a poor description of a soon-to-be-outdated hydrogen production technology. Electrolysis due to its environmental benefits is rapidly growing to displace steam reforming.
    – juhist
    Dec 5, 2019 at 20:35
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No. Hydrogen fuel-cell cars and fueling stations are well developed. Emission-free hydrogen, derived from water, is still not widely available. But this is an infrastructure development issue being addressed now.

https://www.quora.com/Is-Shell-reacting-to-a-change-in-the-publics-attitude-to-hydrogen-cars-in-this-expansion-of-its-hydrogen-filling-station-network/answer/Robert-Stodieck?prompt_topic_bio=1

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Yes, there is still a big issue.

The issue is steel making used to produce the vehicle. A vehicle needs probably more than a ton of steel. Iron oxide is still usually reduced by carbon, in a process that produces carbon dioxide.

Fortunately, this seems to be changing. The steel company SSAB is planning to introduce direct reduction of iron oxide using hydrogen, that presumably would be produced using electrolysis from renewables (wind, solar) when they are available and stored underground for use in times when renewables are not available.

Unfortunately, we're not there yet. Hydrogen is still predominantly produced from steam reforming of methane, and steel is still predominantly produced by reducing iron oxide using carbon. Electrolysis and direct reduction using hydrogen are still today just practically rounding errors.

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  • Seems like this would apply to any vehicle, and not just hydrogen-powered vehicles?
    – LShaver
    Jun 7, 2021 at 21:37
  • Yes, indeed. However the question did not exclude issues that apply to any vehicle, regardless of the fuel source.
    – juhist
    Jun 10, 2021 at 18:55
  • Actually, that was my intent. I've edited the question to clarify.
    – LShaver
    Jun 10, 2021 at 18:59

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