Jul 17 2009

Whatever Happened to Hydrogen Fuel Cells?

I wonder if in 20 years comedians will joke about the coming of the hydrogen economy the way they now joke (in the US) about the coming of the metric system. For about the last decade I have been reading about hydrogen fuel cell cars as if they were just around the corner. General Motors fatefully decided to pursue hydrogen fuel cell cars rather than developing hybrid or battery technology. In 2003 G.W. Bush announced a 1.2 billion dollar initiative to develop the technology. In California Governor Schwarzenegger decided to build a hydrogen infrastructure in anticipation of the coming fuel cell car.

I was reminded of all this by yet another breathless article, this time on BBC news, talking up the hydrogen fuel cell car.  This one links development of hydrogen technology to the Apollo missions – a timely connection, given the upcoming 40th anniversary of Apollo 11. This article could have been written 10 years ago (minus a couple of anachronisms).

To be clear, I am not down on the hydrogen fuel cell. It is a nice technology with many advantages. The technology itself is about 150 years old – combine hydrogen and oxygen and you get energy + water. Water is a better byproduct than carbon dioxide. Hydrogen is a reasonably energy dense material. There are already hydrogen fuel cell cars on the road – the technology can work.

However, there are major roadblocks to filling our highways with such cars, and it is frustrating when the media or politicians gloss over these problems.  The BBC article does address one of them – where are we going to get all the hydrogen? They point out that currently hydrogen is stripped off of natural gas – a fossil fuel, and doing so releases carbon dioxide, although only about half as much as burning the gas directly. Therefore burning hydrogen from this source is not 100% green but it is still better than burning fossil fuels directly.

But then the article says this:

The ultimate goal is to produce an efficient way of extracting hydrogen from water. Imagine that? Cars powered by water.

Ugh!  Such cars would not be “powered by water” – they would be powered (ultimately) by whatever energy source was used to “extract” the hydrogen from water. This is a common mistake, often exploited by cranks and cons – water is not a source of energy. It takes energy to separate the hydrogen from the oxygen in water, and you get some (but not all – darn thermodynamics) of that energy back when you recombine hydrogen with oxygen back into water.

The bigger issue here is that there is no significant source of free hydrogen on the earth. If we lived in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter, maybe we could use hydrogen as an actual energy source. But on earth, hydrogen is not a source of energy – it is only a reservoir for storing energy, but that energy must come from somewhere else. Today most energy stored as hydrogen comes from natural gas (the real source of the energy), which is not a renewable source. In the future we may obtain most of our hydrogen by hydrolyzing water, using solar, wind, nuclear, or some other power source.  This all has to be calculated in when we contemplate a hydrogen economy.

The BBC article, however, did not even mention the biggest roadblock to fuel cell cars at present – how to store significant amounts of hydrogen on board a car.  Free hydrogen gas must be stored under pressure, and in order to get a decent range would require high pressures – 5,000-10,000 psi. This would still require a large tank to hold 4kg of hydrogen, which would get a range of 200-320 miles. Doable – but not easy.

Also, compressing the hydrogen to that pressure requires a lot of energy – and that energy has to be calculated into the efficiency of using hydrogen fuel.

There are possible solutions in the works. One method is to use metal hydride to absorb the hydrogen, allowing hydrogen to be stored without the need for high pressures.  However, this process creates heat, requiring cooling, or else the refueling process may take up to 40 minutes, which is not practical.

Another approach is to use a stack of a material that holds the hydrogen tightly packed together.

These approaches are all promising, and one or more of them may pan out. But so far there is no workable solution that can go into production now and produce a hydrogen fuel cell car that is practical enough (in terms of energy efficiency, range, safety, cost, and refueling time) to be widely used today. Further, no one can predict when the technology will be ready. And of course these issues are all separate from the need for a massive hydrogen infrastructure, which has its own technical limitations.

Further, the potential of the hydrogen fuel cell needs to be compared to the potential for battery powered electric cars. A battery powered car has the major advantage of not necessarily requiring a new infrastructure to be practical. This technology is also not ready for prime time, but advances in battery capacity and efficiency are also in the works.

This is, actually, an exciting competition between these two major approaches to replacing the fossil fuel engine. I honestly don’t know which one will win – both still require significant breakthroughs in order to cross that line where everyone will want one.

For this reason I think it is folly for politicians to bet on one technology over the other. In 2003 President Bush bet on hydrogen fuel cells. Now, President Obama is cutting funding for hydrogen research for cars and shifting into developing electric vehicles. I know the government has to decide what to fund, but it seems they should be hedging their bets a bit more rather than banking on one winner, and they certainly shouldn’t be trying to rig the game.

The auto industry also needs to decide where to spend their research dollars. Honda, Toyota and GM are continuing to invest in hydrogen, but are also developing electric car technology. These decisions may very well determine industry winners and losers in the next decade. We may be heading for a VHS vs Betmax war.

Let the better technology emerge victorious.

42 responses so far

42 Responses to “Whatever Happened to Hydrogen Fuel Cells?”

  1. DevoutCatalyston 17 Jul 2009 at 10:25 am

    How about the quick swap battery idea for cars?


    Shai Agassi is either the world’s greatest scam artist, or the guy who showed us the future. Well, you get my drift…

  2. Steven Novellaon 17 Jul 2009 at 10:36 am

    I think this is a good idea – but it requires an infrastructure (which is exactly why I said electrical cars do not “necessarily” require a new infrastructure). The advantages are the quick recharge, and not having to own an expensive battery.

  3. Nigelon 17 Jul 2009 at 10:53 am

    There is a third option, which is noted in the last Scientific American for “Grassoline.” It has the advantage of not needing a huge infrastruction change at the delivery point, and for the end user it is convenient. The downside is once again it takes more energy to make this type of fuel than it contains, which means we need to external power source since this is another energy storage medium.

    A big problem with battery powered and I believe to some extent fuel cell cars is they are really heavy and fairly bulky. It degrades efficiency and makes for some interesting physics in crashes.

  4. PhilBon 17 Jul 2009 at 10:55 am

    Just out of curiosity, Honda has been leasing a fuel cell car in California for around a year now. I haven’t really kept up on it, other than catching the Top Gear episode where they actually reviewed the car. Has data started to come out of the leasing program that would help the technology move forward?

  5. stompsfrogson 17 Jul 2009 at 11:14 am

    There was a guy on Science Friday a while ago, talking about storing hydrogen in chicken feathers instead of metal hydride.


  6. daedalus2uon 17 Jul 2009 at 11:49 am

    I have actually worked with high pressure hydrogen (3,000 psi), and it is a complete bear to work with. Only metal to metal seals are good enough. Any kind of elastomer is going to leak, which means flexible hoses are kind of difficult and o-ring seals are not good enough. The smallest leak and the H2 leaks out very rapidly, many times faster than N2 or air.

    Hydrogen is much more dangerous than gasoline or methane. The explosive range is much larger (% H2 in air that is combustible), the ignition energy is much lower, the flame propagation speed is much faster, the quench distance (the gap that a flame won’t propagate though) is much smaller.

    A hydrogen fueled car won’t be allowed inside enclosed buildings or tunnels, or under building parking garages under current safety regulations. In an accident H2 fueled vehicles will blow up the way that vehicles do on TV (gasoline fueled vehicles don’t blow up in accidents the way they do on TV), but the flames will be invisible.

    I think Obama was correct to cancel research funding for H2 fueled vehicles. I see that as a complete dead-end. Research into battery technology is (I think) a better approach. I don’t think we are giving up very much by not looking into H2 for vehicles. Maybe liquid H2 would be suitable for aircraft but liquid methane would be a lot easier. Replacing short range aircraft with high speed train would be better still.

  7. stompsfrogson 17 Jul 2009 at 1:15 pm

    Storing the hydrogen in a substrate bypasses the need for pressurization. I think it’s a bit early to write off the potential of H2 as a fuel. Or to bank on it.

    The carbonized chicken feather guy says he can make a 75 gallon gas tank for $200 with a range of 300 miles under normal atmospheric pressure.

    I don’t think anyone’s suggesting we use liquid hydrogen. Anyone sane, anyway.

  8. dahduhon 17 Jul 2009 at 1:15 pm

    Had GM invested in batter technology we might have at least ended up with a decent pudding!

    My suspicion is that the hydrogen initiative for vehicles has been a stealth attempt to prolong the life of the hydrocarbon industry. The current most cost-effective way of generating hydrogen is steam reforming of natural gas. Create an industry using lots of hydrogen and you can sell natural gas with a value-added markup, and prolonged demand for at least another 30 years.

    The best bet for fuel cells is local power generation at factories or large buildings in which natural gas is reformed and waste heat can be used for heating; in effect, using gas to heat your water and getting electricity for free – as long as the fuel cell is cheap enough, still not the case.

    I agree with daedalus that electric is the most promising way to go for vehicles. Even if not another jot of progress is made in storage technology, simply bringing down battery manufacturing costs will make it viable. In addition, having to stretch battery life as much as possible will encourage automakers to focus more on efficiency, like reducing vehicle mass, rolling friction & drag; in other words, reduce energy demand.

  9. Bronze Dogon 17 Jul 2009 at 1:27 pm

    I’ve always known there were plenty of headaches involved with hydrogen vehicles, so I’m definitely not one of those people who think it’s right around the corner.

    I’ve had no shortage of headdesking from hearing people going on about the water emissions without bothering to think about where the hydrogen came from.

  10. Magnuson 17 Jul 2009 at 2:42 pm

    I remember Mildred Dresselhauser saying something about the difficulty of storing hydrogen in the Nanotechnology lectures you can access online. Apparently even carbon nanotubes failed to be able to produce the results for which the government is looking. Using pressure didn’t seem to work either. I got the impression that scientists have no idea how to come up with an affordable solution in any near future.

  11. Karl Withakayon 17 Jul 2009 at 3:01 pm

    “General Motors fatefully decided to pursue hydrogen fuel cell cars rather than developing hybrid or batter technology.”

    Mmmmm, cars that run on cake batter, yummy!

  12. Adam_Yon 17 Jul 2009 at 3:08 pm

    Gosh darn it. I would actually have to write an article just to correct the problems with your article. It unfortunately shows a lack of fundamental basics of the chemistry involved. Biofuels are a kickass hydrogen source.

  13. Adam_Yon 17 Jul 2009 at 4:42 pm

    That would be a nice conspiracy theory if it wasn’t for the fact that you can’t use hydrogen extracted from hydrocarbons in a fuel cell. There is something in chemistry called catalyst poisons. A catalyst poison is a chemical that binds to the catalyst site and stays there rendering that site completely useless. The major byproduct of extracting hydrogen from hydrocarbons is Carbon Monoxide. Unfortunately, Carbon Monoxide is a catalyst poison and actually kills the fuel cell so it would be utterly dumb and stupid to run a fuel cell with that purity level. Now if this were an ICE on the other hand then that doesn’t require getting rid of the Carbon Monoxide.

  14. DevilsAdvocateon 17 Jul 2009 at 5:09 pm

    My local news radio had a story about NC State having discovered a way to extract htdrogen from urine. The story was likely overhyped, given to terms like ‘miracle’, ‘revolutionary’, and the like. Oddly, I can’t find a ref to it for a link provision.

    I hope I get credit for not making the obligatory joke about needing a longer filler tube. Oops, too late. I went there.

  15. daedalus2uon 17 Jul 2009 at 7:00 pm

    stompsfrog, the storage of H2 in the chicken feather technology reportedly was at -266 degrees C. That is solid H2 temperatures (BP = -253, MP = -259).


    But this is probably a mistake by the journalist. The talk mentions 77 K (-196 C), which is liquid N2 temperatures.


    But this was at ~350 psi (25 bar) not one atmosphere.

    Liquid nitrogen Dewars in that size range that are empty cost a lot more than $200 (at least an order of magnitude more).

  16. davewon 17 Jul 2009 at 7:57 pm

    “They point out that currently hydrogen is stripped off of natural gas – a fossil fuel, and doing so releases carbon dioxide, although only about half as much as burning the gas directly.”

    This strikes me as rot. Natural gas is mostly ethane so every molecule has one carbon atom that has to go somewhere. CO and CO2 are the most likely places for it to go. I suppose if half the carbon goes off as carbon monoxide, as it does in the simplest reformation process, then you can claim less carbon dioxide release, but carbon monoxide has greenhouse implications as well. Plus usually the reformation process is taken one step further to get more hydrogen, but then the remaining carbon monoxide is converted to carbon dioxide. Plus this reforming natural gas requires energy so there’s more carbon. Plus H2 is a bitch to ship and store so there’s more carbon.

    The other problem we have is fuel cells currently are very expensive due to the need for a platinum catalyst. Work is being done in this area, but there is no design I know of that is cheap enough to sell in a car. All the hydrogen fuel cell cars are currently leased.

    I support research into alternative transportation, but most of this is magical thinking. People try to convince themselves that our lifestyles and economies will run forever on cheap and abundant energy. It seems more likely that none of these technologies will be the magic bullet and subsequent generations are going to be living in a very different and much less convenient world.

  17. tmac57on 17 Jul 2009 at 9:25 pm

    I’m getting pretty good mileage from my 2008 Jeter .343 equipped with a supercharged Louisville Slugger. Knocks a bit though.

  18. Ribozymeon 17 Jul 2009 at 10:39 pm

    Stompsfrogs: A major car company, BMW, is already selling cars that use liquid hydrogen and has liquid hydrogen “gas” stations in several cities in Germany.

  19. Michael Kingsford Grayon 18 Jul 2009 at 1:06 am

    I shall stick my neck out here and judge that battery-electric vehicles of some type will pre-dominate the roads in say 50 years time.

    They will NOT use the current method of chemical storage, but may well use the electric field method, as in super-capacitors.
    These can be charged as quickly as the infrastructure will allow, and are very light.

  20. superdaveon 18 Jul 2009 at 2:10 am

    That whole powered by water thing is so obviously wrong to anyone with any knowledge of basic chemistry that it actually took me a concerted effort to realize what the claim is.

  21. tmac57on 18 Jul 2009 at 9:41 am

    Ribozyme- From what I saw about the BMW, there are about 100 experimental cars that are LEASED, not sold,and they burn the hydrogen in a conventional engine ( also burns gasoline via a 2 tank system) rather than using a fuel cell.

  22. DevoutCatalyston 18 Jul 2009 at 10:20 am

    “I shall stick my neck out here and judge that battery-electric vehicles of some type will pre-dominate the roads in say 50 years time.”

    I won’t be alive then, can you make it in, say, 15 years?

    By the way, electric motorcycles are here now, as in this battery
    powered drag bike demo:


    Electric motorcycle road racing had its big inaugural event this year:


    Battery electric dirt bikes are also available — now.

    Although currently produced in limited numbers, electric bikes have been embraced enthusiastically by motorheads, people who love going fast and love making modifications to their ride.

    The general public should have no problem accepting electric cars when they’re ready, and not just the Prius granola crowd, but people who actually enjoy driving. Fun is a great reason to choose a vehicle propulsion system, and electric cars can mean a big toothy grin as you are mashed back into your seat.

  23. Matt Rogerson 18 Jul 2009 at 10:36 am

    Lets not forget that VHS wasn’t better (it fact its worse) then Betmax it was just more popular! maybe public oppion will play into which car wins this race

  24. daedalus2uon 18 Jul 2009 at 2:34 pm

    I agree, in 50 years battery-electric will probably predominate for individual passenger cars (if they remain commonplace). Bulk transport of commodities will probably still use hydrocarbon fuels (unless there is a massive shift back to electric powered trains). To transport many tons of cargo long distances takes power to overcome friction.

    Matt makes an excellent point. What succeeds in the marketplace is not necessarily the “best” technological solution.

    If there were fuel cells that could run on methane, the obvious place to put them would be in individual homes where the waste heat could be used to make hot water. That removes the difficulty of making them light and vibration resistant to put them in vehicles. Couple them to the internet and control them based on electric power demand and heating needs and there would be gigantic savings. The barriers to that approach are not technical, they are financial. The successful implementation of that requires coupling between the electric power grid, gas delivery, communication, financial transactions, the manufacturers and purchasers of such equipment. Each of those links in the chain wants too much of the “value-added” to make the approach viable.

    There were proposals some years ago to transport coal as a slurry in pipelines. They didn’t go anywhere because the railroads refused to allow coal pipelines to cross the railroad right-of-way.

  25. davewon 18 Jul 2009 at 2:46 pm

    @DevoutCatalyst “The general public should have no problem accepting electric cars when they’re ready, and not just the Prius granola crowd, but people who actually enjoy driving.”

    I am a huge fan of electric vehicles. I’ve been working on a forum devoted to that topic for years now (http://visforvoltage.org/) and I’m here to tell you that electric cars will never replace gas-powered cars. In the time a logical bit has gone from the size of my fist to something a few atoms wide the battery pack to power a car has gone from the size of a trunk to the size of something slightly smaller than the size of a trunk. The charging times have changed about as much. All the improvements have been incremental at best. Batteries do not react well to heat, cold, being changed too fast, being discharged too fast, or being discharged too much. There are a lot of potential improvements on the horizon, but I don’t see any game changers. Electric vehicles are for the foreseeable future are for short-range driving only. As big a fan of electric vehicles as I am, and I am, they aren’t the magic bullet either.

  26. Ribozymeon 18 Jul 2009 at 4:58 pm

    tmac57: I just wanted to make clear that although Stompsfrogs says that using liquid hydrogen would be insane, someone is already doing almost commercially. I didn’t mention the rest of the information you cite because I didn’t think it necessary to make my point. The BMW Hydrogen 7 can also run on regular gasoline, and so it’s more compatible with existing infrastructure (I suppose that’s BMW’s point). And the car must be a real gas guzzler, with a 6 liter V12 engine.

  27. llewellyon 18 Jul 2009 at 8:51 pm

    We may be heading for a VHS vs Betmax war.

    Let the better technology emerge victorious.

    Ironically, VHS vs Betmax was decided largely on non-technology issues.

  28. Michael Kingsford Grayon 18 Jul 2009 at 9:46 pm

    You may have noticed that I share your opinions about chemical batteries.
    But Supercapacitors work on an entirely different principle, pack a power density/weight ratio that may one day exceed that of hydrocarbon fuels.

    With their ability till ‘fill up’ at around the same rate as gasoline, even long haul transport vehicles can use them.

  29. DLCon 18 Jul 2009 at 9:57 pm

    Liquid Hydrogen would be worse in some ways, but I like the idea of using a hydrogen -fueled conventional internal combustion engine. Storing the stuff is the only difficult point, and I think that’s something you can beat.
    I once speculated about using the car’s generator to split off hydrogen from oxygen right on board the car, but it isn’t really do-able — you can’t make enough hydrogen fast enough.
    Battery technology is coming along, but really needs more work to get there.
    Who was it, ford or GM, who produced an experimental turbine-powered car back in the early 60s ? I don’t remember now, but the nice thing about a turbine is it’ll burn about anything.

  30. DevilsAdvocateon 18 Jul 2009 at 10:11 pm

    “Scientists at North Carolina State University have discovered a nanoscale method for extracting hydrogen from water that requires only half the energy of current hydrogen production methods.”



  31. Steven Novellaon 19 Jul 2009 at 9:03 am

    The problem with supercapacitors is their capacity is too low. They are useful for capturing charge quickly (like regenerative braking) and providing it back quickly, but not for long distance.

    I agree that current battery technology is not there, and incremental improvements are not enough. I have read about some potential game changers in the lab, however. It remains to be seen if they can scale to the factory.

    That Betamax was superior to VHS is actually a myth. Read this: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2003/jan/25/comment.comment

    The biggest point is this – Betamax tapes lasted only one hour, so you couldn’t set it to record a two hour movie. That was a deal killer for many people.

    The analogy holds with regard to cars – you have to consider the usability of the entire infrastructure, not just performance in laboratory settings.

  32. tmac57on 19 Jul 2009 at 9:30 am

    DLC-“Who was it, ford or GM, who produced an experimental turbine-powered car back in the early 60s ? I don’t remember now, but the nice thing about a turbine is it’ll burn about anything.”
    Actually, it was Chrysler. I saw one at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chrysler_Turbine_Car
    It looks like the turbine car had multiple technical problems that caused Chrysler to abandon the project.

  33. DLCon 19 Jul 2009 at 10:09 am

    The cool thing about hydrogen is that you can make it at a low rate using currently available solar electric cells and utilize the economy of scale to make large quantities. A relatively small area land out in the Arizona desert could make enough hydrogen to fuel the state. The problem is, as Steve points out, the lack of infrastructure. There’s no infrastructure to deliver the stuff to the putative end-users. It would cost a large hunk of money, and have a perceived danger issue.

  34. Steven Novellaon 20 Jul 2009 at 4:23 pm

    We moved the NESS website over to new host. Some comments were lost while the new site was propagating through intertubes. Sorry for any inconvenience.

  35. stompsfrogson 22 Jul 2009 at 10:49 am

    It does seem sad to me too, that they make hydrogen out of natural gas. :^(

    Batteries are great, except where to get all that lithium? That stuff is hard to come by, as I understand it. I heard Afghanistan has lots of it.

    Sorry I gave you a poorly written article, deads. I was only half listening to the podcast at work, and when I looked up that article to show to you it said all that great stuff. The journalist totally quotes the guy saying that he can make a gas tank for $200, at normal atmospheric pressure with a range of 300 miles. I guess they were wrong? Did sound a little bit too awesome…

    I don’t know about Dewars. I keep my liquid nitrogen in a styrofoam cooler from WalMart. It works fine for a week or so. Once, we had some dry ice, and somebody stuck a chunk of it in a dixie cup full of oil, and it took all day to boil off? Isn’t that weird? I wonder if you could store solid hydrogen in oil.

    I think they meant they got twice as much energy for the same carbon emissions, dave. Not that they got less emissions from the same amount of fuel. And isn’t there already a wad of platinum, or palladium, or something, in you car? In the catalytic converter?

    BMW uses liquid hydrogen? That sounds CRAZY dangerous to me. I guess they figured it out? I wouldn’t want one. I’d take a Tesla though… http://www.teslamotors.com/


  36. Joeon 22 Jul 2009 at 12:16 pm

    @stompsfrogs on 22 Jul 2009 at 10:49 am “I don’t know about Dewars. I keep my liquid nitrogen in a styrofoam cooler from WalMart.”

    You should not do that, no matter how long you have gotten away with it. In old handbooks and articles, various blends of organic solvents with liquid N2 were recommended for achieving particular temps. It turns out that improperly prepared or stored L-N2 can contain or acquire enough L-O2 to become explosive. It seems the same could happen with styrofoam.

    (Or, do I misunderstand that the cooler insulates the vessel with L-N2.) Even then, you should look into getting a stainless steel Thermos bottle at MallWart, and cap it with a loose cork, as a permanent solution. The initial outlay may be counterbalanced by the nickel-and-dime approach you are taking.

  37. stompsfrogson 22 Jul 2009 at 1:30 pm

    So, wait, the oxygen in the air can like, get frozen by the nitrogen and then blow up? Yeah, it’s just the liquid sloshing around in a cooler. I don’t need it very often, dry ice usually serves but I’d definitely rather not blow up.

    Kind of hard to suspend parts in a thermos, though… I’ll need a right big ‘un.

  38. ktb973on 24 Jul 2009 at 3:08 pm

    I don’t understand the lack of adoption of natural gas for automotive uses. Won’t existing engines properly modified run on it? Plus it would be great to be able to fill up at home.

    I’m sure there are plenty of hurdles that I don’t know about or aren’t thinking of.

    But it seems to me that natural gas would at least be a viable short term solution.

  39. MisterMarcon 25 Jul 2009 at 1:34 pm

    I can’t help but think that the reason hydrogen cells were so embraced as an alternative fuel source was precisely due to the fact that they required so much infrastructure. The need to manufacture and supply hydrogen for HFC cars would build an industry in itself, and supply a controllable commodity for business to market to consumers. Going electric would decentralize the fuel industry, essentially handing all that profit over to the utilities in the short term, anyone with home solar panels in the long term. The bottom line, as usual, is making money. And there’s more money to be made (for corporate america, and their friends in washington) via the fuel cell tech.

    Just, my humble analysis.

  40. artfulDon 25 Jul 2009 at 1:50 pm

    Actually there’s no society that can maintain itself for long without finding ways to create jobs for its citizenry. So even if it were true that creating such a new industrial structure for its own sake was a hidden goal of the hydrogen cell advocates, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

  41. daedalus2uon 25 Jul 2009 at 10:30 pm

    Liquified natural gas is really dangerous, maybe an order of magnitude more dangerous than gasoline which is a lot more dangerous than diesel. Liquid hydrogen is maybe two orders of magnitude more dangerous, so the relative safety of liquified natural gas is enough to use it over liquid H2, but not enough to use it over gasoline.

    Natural gas can be converted into gasoline at probably 90% efficiency or so. Maybe more in a fully integrated refinery.

  42. advent128on 31 Oct 2009 at 1:26 pm

    Actually your analysis of the situation is a bit out of date. Fuel Cell car characteristics are inefficient by itself. It can not increase and decrease output efficiently like a gasoline car, and so the original idea of a fuel cell car has faded. What has now been accepted by car companies is the Electric Vehicle (EV), and Plug-in Hybrid Electric vehicles (PHEV). The fuel cell is still used, but as a range extender in plug-in hybrid vehicles. GM’s Volt is an EV with a gasoline range extender built-in, and the platform has been designed so that in the future the gasoline range extender can be replaced with a fuel cell range extender without the need to change the entire layout. All of the current fuel cell cars have a battery pack on-board and are recharged by the fuel cell, or also most of the time they can also be recharged by being plugged into the grid.

    You mentioned that not much of the infrastructure has to be changed for the EV, but in reality a lot has to change. The current grids are unable to handle the large draw of power from several thousands of EV’s trying to charge at once. This is what brought the idea for the grid controlled EV charging stations, part of a future smart grid technology.

    Also with the increase in solar and wind power, the current grid will no longer be able to handle the fluctuations that come from these sources when, for example, a gust of wind, or bright sunlight hits directly on the solar panels when the clouds part both cause sudden spikes in power. Increasing the current solar and wind grid input from 14% to 33% makes this a problem, and so large mega-battery packs will have to be used to store the incoming energy, and then send out a controlled output. This has been proposed as part of the future smart-grid. As well as hydrogen vehicles and EV’s as being able to inject power into the grid for emergency power.

    Also hydrogen extraction was mentioned. It is true that so far the two main methods for extracting the hydrogen is either converted from methane or by electrolysis of water. The methane method can be used with 100% efficiency wherever natural gas can be routed, allowing anyone to set-up a power station that converts methane into hydrogen and then into electricity, water, and heat. This is useful for buildings that wish to supply greener off-grid power, water heating, and hydrogen for vehicles or storage. There are also smaller units for households so that they may power a home, heating, and generate hydrogen for storage.

    The electrolysis of water method has been used more with solar hydrogen stations that use the power from solar-panels to use electrolysis to break up the water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then stored and compressed to usable pressures. Usually nearby, fueling stations would be set-up and hooked up to the converting unit.

    Also another source that has been working great is water treatment to energy. Usually the sewer “sludge,” (a kinder word for human waste products) has heat pulled from it before it is treated, and the heat is used for energy. Now, they are also using the methane that is emitted from the “sludge” to generate hydrogen and use that to create electricity, heat, and power to run the plant.

    Currently to get the full range in a hydrogen car, the hydrogen needs to be stored at high pressures. A lot of places only have something low like 10k pascals, but that doesn’t work well. In Irvine they have a 70 Mpa (Mega-pascals) hydrogen fueling station that isn’t much bigger than a normal gas station. This is stored in the high-pressure tanks in the vehicles, the GM Volt uses a thick steel cylinder surrounded by carbon fiber for extra protection and strength. This high pressure allows for the current full-range of a fuel cell vehicle.

    Also as for efficiency of vehicles, they tend to average the following:

    Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) = 16%
    Hybrid (Electric – gas) = 32%
    Plug-in Hybrid (Electric – gas) = 40%
    Fuel cell (without battery pack) = 40%
    Plug- in Hybrid (Fuel cell – electric) = 60%
    Battery powered Electric Vehicle (EV) = 72%+

    The EV is the most efficient, but the efficiency depends on the drive train, transmission, etc. Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV is about 72% efficient, and is where that number came from. I have seen higher for EV’s, but 72% will possibly be a minimum in 2010 when EV’s arrive for actual purchase and not lease.

    There is too much to write about, so that will be all for now.

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