(H+)eir Apparent

As the search for gasoline's replacement intensifies, hydrogen fuel cells may soon become the alternative fuel of choice for the automotive industry

It took years and years of designing, planning, and problem-solving before a vehicle that wasn't powered by a gasoline engine actually made it onto the market in quantities sufficient to satisfy more than the most adventurous or environmentally conscious of consumers. Even now -- in the age of gas prices that are forcing even the most brazen of SUV owners to rethink their weekend getaways -- cars that run on alternative fuels aren't all that common. The alternative-fuel market is ripe for a major entrant that can satisfy growing public demand for a cheaper, cleaner way to get from point A to point B.

Enter the hydrogen fuel cell (FC), a clean-running battery that produces energy from renewable resources with zero hydrocarbon emissions. On paper, it sounds like the perfect alternative to gas, but it has a few issues to work out before hydrogen stations start popping up all over the country.

Square One
The first electric cars struggled trying to find a place in the automotive market. They weren't sexy; the small, economy-minded early vehicles were just odd, not to mention slow. And then there was the added conundrum of where to refuel if the batteries ran down in the middle of the desert.

Really, who could blame the public for not showing much interest during those early days? Lukewarm buying response stifled any real dedication to research. None of the major manufacturers were motivated to take a serious stab at bringing an alternative fuel vehicle to market.

In 1999, the first hybrid vehicle hit U.S. streets, and the ripples in the alternative-fuel market have only gotten wider ever since. The half-gas, half-electric Insight, a tiny sub-compact car manufactured by Japanese automaker Honda Motor Co. Inc., contentedly planted itself in a very small corner of a very large room dominated by much larger, burlier, and dirtier vehicles.

Honda, which now offers three hybrid models, reported in May 2005 that it had sold 100,000 hybrid units worldwide, an impressive milestone to be sure, but minuscule when compared to the 185,643 conventional cars sold, in February 2005 alone, by the Chrysler Group. Conventional vehicles still rule the heap, but the market is wide open for the next invention to come along and change everything in a way that hybrid technology only hinted at.

A Perfect Fuel
From an ecological standpoint, hydrogen fuel cells are the perfect fuel source -- using the most abundant element in the universe to produce combustion-free energy from an electromechanical device that causes a chemical reaction between hydrogen and air to produce energy, which, in turn, moves your vehicle or anything else you want it to. It's simple and clean, but that's just the beginning; for the environmentally conscious, the really appealing part of this new fuel is that, when it's spent, it gives off pure, clean water vapor instead of toxic gases. The technology holds revolutionary potential for cleaner air and economic independence -- it could, theoretically, change the world, but it's not quite ready for all that.

A typical hydrogen fuel cell works like a battery. It has a couple of electrodes, a cathode and an anode, and a proton-exchange membrane. When hydrogen passes over the platinum catalyst in the anode and combines with the waiting oxygen (O2), a reaction takes place that converts the gas into negative electrons (e-) and positive ions (H+). The electrons get diverted and used to supply the electricity needed to power the vehicle, and the ions flow through the membrane into the cathode where they are combined with the waiting oxygen in a process that ultimately produces water as the only byproduct.

Conventional gasoline combustion engines are extremely inefficient machines. In general, only between 13 percent and 25 percent of the fuel that goes through a gasoline engine is used to produce energy to make the vehicle move. The rest evaporates into increasingly polluted air. Stated another way, between 75 percent and 87 percent of the fuel that goes through a gasoline engine is wasted; it does little more than burn, pollute, and stink.

In order to be a truly viable replacement for gasoline, a fuel must fulfill certain criteria: It must be abundantly available in all parts of the world; it must be reasonably priced when compared to other fuels; and it must be significantly easier on the environment in terms of criteria pollutants -- especially carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Hydrogen is the only known energy source that can claim that it meets all the criteria.

Hydrogen fuel cells, right now, can operate at between 40-percent and 58-percent efficiency, and they produce no harmful waste.

"It's hard to make a good case for any alternate fuel vehicle, other than hydrogen, for being a replacement for gasoline and diesel vehicles," said Gene Nemanich, chairman of the board of the National Hydrogen Association and one of the author's of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap said. "That's not to say that fuels like ethanol and bio-diesel won't have a role, they do and will have a bigger one going forward. Hydrogen, in an FC car, is the only alternate fuel that meets all of the important criteria that any fuel must meet for it to be a viable primary fuel."

Not So Perfect
While the idea of a zero-emissions vehicle that uses an abundant element as its fuel source is an attractive idea, hydrogen production consumes a massive amount of energy that, for the time being, is still being harvested from non-renewable resources like coal and other hydrocarbon fuels. Right now, the most common way to produce hydrogen in a form usable to fuel cells is to split water into its component parts. It's an easy enough task, but one that can't yet be done efficiently on a large enough scale.

"Right now we just steam-reform natural gas...that's basically how we get almost all hydrogen. It's not an energy carrier, and I don't see the world putting much emphasis on finding new ways of producing hydrogen until hydrogen becomes an energy carrier," said Rob Wilder, PhD, JD, CEO of WilderShares LLC, and President of the Hydrogen Fuel Cell Institute. (Note: An "energy carrier" is a secondary source of energy that delivers that energy to consumers.) "If hydrogen is going to be used for fuel cells, and we want to do it cheaply and cleanly, then there'll be a whole new push to generate hydrogen in new ways, but right now steam-reforming natural gas fits the bill. It's a case where fuel cells have to become practical and then there'll be a rush to improve ways of releasing hydrogen."

Large quantities of CO2 are released into the atmosphere during hydrogen extraction -- a big obstacle when one of the main reasons for extracting it is to reduce the level of harmful gases released into the air. The possibility exists that large-scale hydrogen production could result in a negative energy gain where more energy is being used to extract the fuel than can be harvested from it. Until the negative-energy-gain problem can be solved, fuel cells are destined to remain a nice idea, and nothing more.

Nemanich painted a decidedly more hopeful picture for hydrogen's chances at becoming the fuel of choice in vehicles.

"I think that widespread hydrogen use can result in much lower emissions of all criteria pollutants and CO2," he said. "Just how much lower depends on the source for hydrogen and the efficiency of the production and the efficiency of the FC car itself. One thing is for certain, the primary release point will move away from the car and back to the production facility which is much more easily controlled.

"The FC is much more efficient than the internal combustion engine. It more than makes up for the less efficient production process to make the hydrogen."

A Little Help?
FC technology hold so much promise as an alternative energy source that even the Bush administration is excited about their potential, making it a key point in its plan to decrease U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Bush found the technology so important to the country's future that he announced the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative in his State of the Union address in 2003. The initiative promised to dole out $1.2 billion in subsidies to help fund research through 2008; combined with funding to the FreedomCAR program, the Administration has pledged a total of $1.7 billion to help make hydrogen-powered vehicles a reality.

"I know that the administration made a fair amount out of the amount they spent on hydrogen, but a lot of that spending was pork spending for items that weren't especially conducive to the true expansion of hydrogen," Wilder said. "The criticisms have been made that the current administration is using hydrogen as a way to burnish its environmental credentials in that arena."

U.S. automakers were caught unaware when Honda introduced the Insight, and they've never quite recovered from their slow response in introducing hybrids of their own. Right now, American manufacturers are licensing hybrid technology from their Japanese competitors, and they're working hard to make sure they don't miss the boat again with hydrogen.

"The auto companies are spending billions developing the FC car because it just might work," Nemanich said. "GM, Toyota, and Honda are the technical leaders. Their cars are really very advanced, not commercial yet, but fast approaching it. The rest of the industry has the dilemma of either following suit or betting against the technology. The U.S. auto industry is very concerned that Toyota and Honda will beat us to this very important technology and further consolidate their leadership positions."

But Honda, once again, got the drop on all the competition, foreign and domestic, when it delivered the first consumer-ready hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the FCX, to a Los Angeles family in late June 2005. The zero-emissions FCX is the only fuel-cell vehicle certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board for regular commercial use. Honda has been offering hydrogen fleet vehicles for more than three years, but the FCX marked the first one delivered to an individual consumer. The owners of the vehicle are among the first to use California's Hydrogen Highway refueling stations.

It's more a symbolic experiment than an actual threat to U.S. automakers, but it signals that the competition in the alternative fuel market is starting to get fierce, and there might not be any more room at the party for latecomers.

So, undaunted by Honda's early finish in the race to get a hydrogen cell vehicle to market, GM is continuing to develop its own technology, and it's spending almost $50 million along the way.

Visions of the Future
FC technology is still a long way from becoming a reality. The Japanese automakers say they'll be ready by 2015, while GM says 2010 is its year. Wilder said that 10 years is about the earliest he would expect to see a hydrogen car. Either way, FC cars aren't going to be pulling up alongside gasoline vehicles at the filling station anytime soon. And whether hydrogen ever becomes the next fuel of choice is unclear, but what is clear is that, after almost a century of dominance, serious efforts are finally being made in the search for a cleaner, more responsible alternative to gasoline.

"Gasoline powered vehicles won't be the only vehicle out there," Wilder said. "In the short and midterm we'll see all kinds of different vehicles. In the long term, things will sort themselves out -- eventually there will be a fuel, hydrogen may well be it, but who knows at this point?"

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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