The Rather Quiet Hydrogen Revolution, Part 3

The NMA Foundation presents The Car of the Future weekly feature:

Check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this three part series on The Rather Quiet Hydrogen Revolution.

For many years, hydrogen has in some ways been a pie-in-the-sky sort of alternative fuel dream. In researching this series though, I have realized that hydrogen could be a brilliant way to energize the future. It is abundant, flexible and only emits water—all characteristics that matter for a fuel of the future.

Charles Freese, the man in charge of GM’s fuel cell development, said recently in an interview with Truck.com, “Hydrogen is just a way to store energy, so you can make it from whatever is in the field, from wind, solar, jet fuel, natural gas, any petroleum source.” GM has been building a U.S. military application for hydrogen fuel cell technology. The company recently announced that they have built a military truck ZH2 (on par with a Humvee) that is a serious contender.

What excites Freese the most about fuel cell technology is that it can be relatively modular if you design the right system. He added:

“The advantage of the fuel cell is the scalability and flexibility for a wide range of applications. We can stack fuel cell systems, reusing the investment that’s been made. I can use one full stack, say under the hood of a passenger vehicle, a third of stack in a forklift, and I can put two stacks together side-by-side and get into some bigger truck applications.”

GM is taking a land-sea-air approach to fuel cells and has already scaled for a Navy unmanned undersea vehicle. Even though GM does not yet have a vehicle ready for consumers, other carmakers are indeed moving ahead. Daimler announced earlier this year they will roll out a Mercedes-Benz GLC fuel cell/battery plug-in hybrid SUV with a range of 500 KM (close to 311 miles).

A fuel cell and electric car hybrid may be the future of both alternative fuels.

Renewable-energy consultant Geoff Budd recently said in an interview that automakers and auto parts suppliers are increasingly using the fuel cell/electric battery combination as a way to balance electric vehicle range requirements and speedy refueling. Budd says this is the newest trend in alternatively fueled cars–a hybrid fuel cell/battery powered engine.

Magna Steyr Engineering (an Austrian unit of Magna, a Canadian-based auto-parts giant) announced in September that they have created a range extender fuel cell/battery (FCREEV). The concept engined-vehicle, converted from a hybrid minivan, can operate in different modes to optimize the system depending on charge and the kind of driving the user plans to do. The fuel cell range extender addresses one of the most critical problems of electric vehicles: the amount of time it takes to charge.

Budd says that other auto suppliers such as Robert Bosch and Siemens are also working on these hybrid systems. He added that hybrids have advantages over pure fuel cell platforms. It all depends on how the vehicle will be used and how much downtime the vehicle have in its working life.

The most abundant chemical element in the universe, hydrogen is not the easiest of fuels though—it actually does not exist on its own because it is always bound up in a compound. Colorless and odorless, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) says hydrogen can store and deliver usable energy.

If you combine the fuel cell, which turns the chemical energy in hydrogen into electricity, with an electric motor, the DOE says that the efficiency is two to three times more efficient than an internal combustion engine powered by gas.

To extract hydrogen is a tedious and expensive process that requires a separating membrane. The expensive precious metal Palladium has been used as the membrane for the most part but researchers are looking diligently into other materials.

The liquid metal Gallium is one alternative that researchers from the Worcester (MA) Polytechnic Institute have been testing. Gallium is a liquid at room temperature and has proven to be significantly more effective than Palladium even though according to researchers, creating the working membrane has been somewhat difficult.

CleanTechnica.com recently had a great deal to say about hydrogen and specifically four characteristics that might or might not allow fuel cells to be viable for all forms of transportation.

1)    Hydrogen has a tiny molecular structure. It is costly to store and has a tendency to make metals brittle.
2)    Hydrogen requires high pressures to pump which is expensive, creates temperature variations, and has flammability issues.
3)    Consumer level distribution networks for hydrogen fuel do not exist which inhibits the appeal of hydrogen as a fuel source. A few industrial distribution networks exist, however. Building the infrastructure to support hydrogen will be expensive since it involves a completely different infrastructure than electric and gas vehicles.
4)    Some forms of transportation make hydrogen more viable due to weight restrictions or range requirements.

Another issue with hydrogen is the actual fueling station. Even though the Japanese love hydrogen, building stations to pump hydrogen has been difficult in the country due to stringent safety regulations. Taiyo Kawai, project general manager of Toyota’s R&D and engineering management division says that the regulations for the gas were designed with chemical plants in mind.

Currently, building a hydrogen pumping station in Japan costs two to three times more than in Europe and is also expensive to operate. The regulations include a large prescribed space around a vehicle during the refueling process and the pumping parts must be a particular grade of steel since hydrogen has a tendency to make certain grades brittle. Supervisors must have experience handling high pressure gases such as hydrogen and meticulous records must be kept on who handles and purchases the fuel.

Unfortunately, hydrogen has been trapped in a kind of catch-22 situation: No one will buy a fuel cell car (or hybrid with electric) if there is no fueling infrastructure and no one wants to build the infrastructure unless there are cars to use it. Perhaps hydrogen fuel is no longer a pipe dream but it still has a long way to go before it hits the mainstream.

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The NMA Foundation is a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting your interests as a motorist and citizen through the multi-faceted approach of research, education, and litigation.  The Foundation is able to offer this assistance through tax-deductible contributions. 

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If you are interested in learning more about the Car of the Future check out the following NMA resources:

NMA Driving News Feed—Over 50 Car of the Future stories are placed each month in the NMA Driving News—the go-to source for all your driving news information from around the country.

NMA’s Flipboard Magazine called Car of the Future—Over 50 stories are placed each month in this magazine devoted to the Car of the Future.  Stories featured include future car politics, industry news and thought pieces.

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