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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 vehicles themselves -- not the fuel source.

  • 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 '19 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. – RollingCompass Oct 29 '19 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. – blacksmith37 Oct 29 '19 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 '19 at 18:57
  • There are two issues with hydrogen. The first is, it is extremely explosive. The walls of the containment tank need to be thicker because the hydrogen molecule is very small & it tends to diffuse through the walls of the container. – Fred Nov 21 '19 at 18:13
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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 '19 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. – Jean-Paul Calderone Dec 6 '19 at 14:17
  • Also, I didn't say anything about lithium in my answer. – Jean-Paul Calderone Dec 6 '19 at 14:17
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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 '19 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 '19 at 20:35

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