All Aboard For The Magical Mystery Hydrogen Tour

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer
all aboard for the magical mystery hydrogen tour

If business and government both agree that hydrogen is the future, they must be right, right? Well, the "Hydrogen Road Tour 08" has just completed the first hydrogen-powered, cross-country road trip despite the fact that there are only 60 hydrogen stations in he country. So how did the public-private publicity tour manage this feat? Well, they didn't actually. "There were stretches without hydrogen fueling stations when the vehicles were carried on flatbed trucks," reports Reuters. The longest was a 937 mile jaunt from Rolla, Missouri to Albuquerque, New Mexico. But wait, cries DOT Administrator For Research and Innovative Technology (really) Paul Brubaker, all those hydrocarbons were not combusted in vain! One of the goals of the tour was to actually demonstrate the need to build more fueling stations. So, y'know… failure is success. Not to be out-Orwelled, the Department of Energy put out its own fawning "Suggested Talking Points For The Hydrogen Road Tour" (PDF) . There you can learn that the DOE has purchased a fuel-cell Chevy Equinox, and that it is refueled at a Shell station. Furthermore, "data collected from this effort will be integrated with data from the National Hydrogen Learning Demonstration to validate real-world performance." Which is important, because you'll want to know how often you'll have to be towed in a flatbed truck between fueling stations. Unless the hydrogen-producing firms behind the tour get their fat government checks to build an expensive new infrastructure. And all this despite the fact that in a best-case scenario, automakers will only sell about 2 million electric vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells by 2020 according to the National Research Council.

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  • Joeaverage Joeaverage on Aug 25, 2008

    Sounds like a standards war like Blueray vs HD or DP vs HDMI vs DVI or VHS vs Betamax. I think I'll sit this one out too. Give me a call in 20 years when they get it all sorted out. I know which direction I want to go - any direction that does not include big oil monopolies. I'll get my energy from the sun or wind thanks and drive back and forth on battery power. Totally possible NOW with tech available NOW. Unfortunately I can't afford much of that tech NOW. Will have to wait two more years and then I'll start buying the pieces.

  • SunnyvaleCA SunnyvaleCA on Aug 25, 2008

    There might be long-term potential for a hydrogen economy, but science really needs to improve first. Instead of putting the cart before the horse, we need basic scientific research. If/When the technical breakthroughs come, people will leap on the bandwagon willingly. BMW ICE hydrogen/gasoline engines: ICE is generally inefficient; a hydrogen ICE gives up even more efficiency in order to accommodate gasoline. "Cost will obviously come down with mass production and economies of scale." Some parts of the cost will come down. On the other hand: platinum and palladium, two precious metals used in fuel cells, will grow more expensive with the extra demand. Hydrogen is the least dense element on earth, so you have to use a huge amount of energy to compress the gas into something reasonably small. You either end up with high pressure gas stored in super-strong cylinders or you cryogenically freeze the stuff (even more energy consumed there) and then have a giant thermos as a fuel tank. That thermos would constantly need to boil off liquid hydrogen in order to not explode. This aspect of hydrogen causes lots of energy loss and complicates storage and handling. Hydrogen is the smallest element on earth. It tends to escape through containers designed to hold it. As such, you'll be constantly oozing compressed hydrogen from the fuel tank and other plumbing components. If you push hydrogen through a pipeline to transport it, you'll lose huge amounts of hydrogen in the process because it will just go through the walls of the pipeline. This aspect of hydrogen makes storage and transfer difficult. There are two basic ways producing hydrogen. The first is to strip it from natural gas. I believe that hydrogen is mostly made this way now. Lets see... take natural gas, strip the hydrogen, compress the hydrogen, transport the hydrogen, put it in a car at extremely high pressure, then burn it in either an ICE or use a $1,000,000 fuel cell. Using the ICE is clearly stupid: the Honda GX uses an ICE that runs directly on natural gas that you can fuel from your own home, it costs much less, and it uses the natural gas more efficiently than if you go the hydrogen route. How about the million dollar fuel cell? It's not hugely more efficient when the full hydrogen cycle is considered and then there is the cost. Plus, you can run the fuel cell from compressed natural gas, which would be more efficient and allow for much more compact storage. Hydrogen can also be stripped from water using electrolysis, an electricity-intensive process. More than 50% of the electricity used in the USA comes from burning coal and about 25% comes from burning natural gas. Burning coal produces huge amounts of sulphur, mercury, radon, particulates, soot, etc. Coal puts out much more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than gasoline, diesel, or natural gas. If you are using natural gas to create electricity, then you're right back to using the Honda GX instead. How about more nuclear plants? It takes 10 to 20 years to build them, so we'll talk then.

  • BuckD BuckD on Aug 25, 2008

    Obviously hydrogen as a viable fuel for cars has a lot of technical challenges to overcome. My point is that of those challenges, lack of fueling stations is hardly a major one, despite how the original post spun it. Below are links to possible solutions for the problems of storage and generation: Assuming something can't be done assures it never will be.

  • AG AG on Aug 25, 2008

    We need a huge top-down effort where the government coordinates all our resources to create the best solution in the most efficient way possible. We could start with a Five-Year Plan...