The Great Race

Science or Science Fiction?

I used to read a lot of science fiction. The future of energy and transportation were subjects close to my heart. The limitless power of cold fusion. The wonder of matter-antimatter reactors. The challenge of dilithium crystals and warp drive. I almost believed it. I wanted to believe it. But, as it turns out, the future of energy is and always has been all around us. It is as natural as wind, sunlight and water. Science overtakes science fiction and gives us...Hydrogen! I admit that it is terribly anticlimatic. But then we must realize that this changes everything. Political alliance and policymaking, troop deployment, transportation, ecology, the stock market and energy impacts us at every turn. When will the hydrogen economy get here?

Powerful Motivation

Priorities are changing. You once heard about the world's supply of oil running out, which it is. We once worried about the ecological effects of automobile pollution. But now, the battle cry is security. We need energy security and power made right here at home and lots of it. Wonderful, abundant, clean, renewable, sustainable power. We need to be about the task of finding alternative fuels and energy sources. In the mean time, we need to wean ourselves from dependence on Mid-East oil, use our oil more efficiently and, almost as an afterthought, lower levels of pollution from our vehicles.

Efficiency and cleanliness, while perhaps being next to godliness, have lately taken a back seat to security. However, research and development efforts are mutually beneficial. The next generation of fuel will be both cleaner and locally made. Major auto manufacturers and oil companies have often been seen as part of the problem (we can't buy what they refuse to make). But, from their perspective, they can't sell what we don't want to buy. To them, it is our penchant for gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles (SUVs) that is dangerous, wasteful and suddenly unpatriotic.

Hydrogen is abundant, but there are supply problems.

The Age of Electricity

Electricity in automobiles used to be all about batteries. They were mostly heavy and slow with limited range before needing a multi-hour recharge. They were nothing that John Q. Public was ever likely to get excited about. Now fuel cells have been added to the mix. Soon, we will not only think of golf carts when people talk about electric vehicles. And talk, they will. The technical journals and the popular press are fully on this bandwagon. It is exciting and new. There is something for everyone.

The truth is that through advances in regenerative braking and other technologies, electric vehicles will not need to be plugged in or carry a thousand pounds of batteries. The range and performance will be competitive with current (no pun intended) offerings.

Sources of Electricity

Although its use is clean, the production of electricity is not usually pollution-free or cheap, and in some cases, there is not even a reliable supply. Running cars on electricity made from a coal-fired plant, for example, would be an unacceptably dirty solution. Solar, wind and hydroelectric power are cleanly if not cheaply made, but inappropriate for mobile applications. They might, however, be part of a solution.

Fuel cells are battery-like devices that combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity. This is not a high-temperature combustion process, like when gasoline combines with oxygen in present day autos. Internal combustion produces an explosion and is transformed into mechanical energy. The fuel cell houses a relatively low-temperature chemical reaction that combines hydrogen with oxygen after the hydrogen atoms have completed an electrical circuit through a proton exchange membrane (PEM) catalyst.

There are several types of fuel cells, but the weight, operating temperature and cost favor the PEM for mobile applications. Besides electricity, the reaction produces water and some heat energy. But no carbon. No greenhouse gas. No mercury or lead. It is nearly too good to be true. Unfortunately, this method of producing electricity starts by importing electricity. First, we need the hydrogen.

Hydrogen Sources and Supply Infrastructure

Hydrogen is abundant, but there are supply problems. Hydrogen is almost never found in its pure form. It is already combined with other elements to form water or any number of organic compounds. To get pure hydrogen, you have to separate it from something. In the case of water, the process is called electrolysis. In hydrocarbon fuels, it is called reformation. Although hydrogen has been successfully reformed from all major fuels, industrial applications for hydrogen today generally rely on reforming it from natural gas. This technique can at best be a short-term solution if the goal is to be independent from fossil fuels. Other sources of hydrogen include glucose, sodium borohydride and even bacterial composting. Not all of these will make the cut. Renewability is a key issue.

The money, time and effort to turn gas filling stations across America into hydrogen filling stations is mind- and budget-boggling.

The other problem is supply infrastructure. The money, time and effort to turn gas filling stations across America into hydrogen filling stations is mind- and budget-boggling. There is considerable mental energy going into solving these problems, but they will not be solved quickly or cheaply. However, the first few hydrogen filling stations are popping up in Japan, Europe and the United States.

There are also safety considerations. Images of the Hindenburg come to mind when mentioning hydrogen safety. Actually, hydrogen is safer in many respects than fossil fuels. It will not seep into soil or groundwater. It is lighter than air, which means if accidentally spilled, it would dissipate into the air rapidly, and if ignited, would burn very quickly. It was quite likely that the oil-based coating on the skin of the Hindenburg was the main culprit in that tragedy, not the nature of the hydrogen itself. Containment structures, storage pressures and temperatures are being optimized with safety in mind. Storage pressure is also the key to increasing vehicle range. We will assume that all these challenges can be overcome. But what about the interim?

Views of the Interim

Toyota and Honda are leading the pack with the first generation of hybrid IC/electric vehicles (HEVs) for commercial markets. In its third year of U.S. availability, the Toyota Prius is a compact sedan that delivers 52 miles per gallon (mpg) in city driving. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) is optional, while a regenerative circuit from the antilock brakes recharging the battery is standard. This vehicle meets SULEV (Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle) standards.

Predating the Prius by a year is the Honda Insight. Boasting the highest mileage numbers in a production automobile, the two-seater is rated at 61 mpg in the city and 68 mpg on the highway, due to the marriage of an efficient three-cylinder engine and a small electric motor. The brakes recharge the battery, which runs the electric motor when needed. Joining the Insight in the Honda lineup this year is the Civic hybrid. It is nearly indistinguishable in looks and performance from the Civic we already know and love, which is precisely the point. The packaging and marketing of hybrids so far has not appealed to the mainstream in great numbers. The retrofit is hoping to bridge the gap. If it fares well at the dealerships, a hybrid version of the CR-V SUV is ready go into production, as well.

Other familiar names are going the hybrid route over the next couple of years. SUVs, such as the Ford Escape, Dodge Durango and Jeep Liberty hybrids, are likely for the 2004 model year, as are GMC Sierra and Dodge Ram pickups. Ford Focus and Toyota Rav-4 hybrids are also nearing market readiness. Almost every manufacturer has at least one hybrid project in the works. The race is on for our hearts, minds and wallets.

Beyond Hybrids

Fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) are the odds-on promise of the future. The race to market a zero-emission, pure electric FCV is dizzying to industry watchers. The prize? In addition to market share, public relations mileage and historical importance, is an inevitable fight for the adoption of standards. Will hydrogen be reformed on-board the vehicle or reformed and ready-to-use at a station? Will it come from water through electrolysis? How pure does the water have to be? At what temperature and pressure will the hydrogen be stored? What power source(s) will distill the hydrogen? What safety testing standards will it need to meet? The winner of this race will have an obvious advantage in answering these and other important questions. Honda and Toyota are again the front runners. They have working prototypes that are going through testing and certifications now. The future is closer than we think. The down side is that the lack of infrastructure will not permit mass production of FCV autos for several years even if all goes well. Look for a few fleet purchases where there is a hydrogen supply within two years. Fuel cell busses are already being tested on a few real streets.

The race to market a zero-emission, pure electric fuel cell vehicle is dizzying to industry watchers.

General Motors has combined a PEM fuel cell feeding an electric motor at each wheel and a high-tech drive-by-wire system built into a universal "skateboard" chassis on which any number of body styles could be attached. The GM Hy-wire, while the first driveable concept to combine these elements, is only one interpretation of this future. This view of automotive design would be free of conventional engine compartments and therefore, very versatile.

Hydrogen can be used in another way. BMW's vision of the future is liquid hydrogen running like gasoline through an internal combustion engine. Toward that end, BMW has a small test fleet of 745h sedans in Germany that have two fuel tanks, one for gasoline and the other for liquid hydrogen. When one tank runs out, the engine makes some adjustments and switches to the other one. The power, range and reliability have been impressive. The gas tank will remain only until there is sufficient hydrogen distribution infrastructure in place. The vision includes hydrogen made from solar, wind and hydroelectric power. The rural landscape would change. There would be wind farmers who make more from windmills than they ever did from crops.

No one can predict exactly what will happen or when. Laboratory breakthroughs and industry partnerships are weekly events. Oil companies are calling themselves "energy" companies. Stay tuned.

Our Turn

Maybe now we are beginning to be sufficiently motivated to do our part in the conservation and cleanup effort. Perhaps we are finally willing to welcome creative alternatives. Possibly the packaging and marketing of alternatives is maturing. Certainly costs can be reduced through mass production efficiencies and federal rebate incentives. Auto manufacturers must believe it, because they are absolutely racing each other to be the heroes of the next age in personal transportation.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2002 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 13, No. 10, p. 40.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2002 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Gary Gray is a freelance writer, designer and web developer with a special interest in business innovation. He can be reached via e-mail at

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