October 6, 2006

Hydrogen as a Fuel

Much research & hype about fuel cell-driven cars hitting the market soon but critics argue that powering vehicles with hydrogen fuel cells is both inefficient and expensive despite what the US Dept. of Energy has proclaimed:
'This emerging technology can significantly reduce energy use and harmful emissions, as well as our dependence on foreign oil.'
So, people argue that GM's billion-dollar bet is a bad strategy for the beleagured company. You ask why? Well...because:

Hydrogen fuel must be extracted from fossil fuels or water--both energy-consuming processes. Once produced, the gas must be compressed or liquefied for distribution, and this process and the distribution itself take yet more energy. By the time the hydrogen has been delivered to the fuel cell for conversion to electricity, then, a significant amount of energy has been lost to these processes.

"Along the way, you've thrown away nearly three-quarters of the electricity. No one in their right mind would do that--if your alternative is to just string a power line from zero-carbon electricity and charge a battery onboard a car," says Joseph Romm, executive director of the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, and formerly in charge of energy efficiency and renewable energy at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Romm says a more promising alternative to internal-combustion engines are plug-in hybrids, which combine an electric motor powered by batteries with a conventional gasoline- or diesel-powered engine, but rely on the electric motor far more than today's hybrids. Plug-in hybrids, which are being developed by Toyota, with conversion kits for ordinary hybrids already available through several companies, would not eliminate the use of gas, but they would cut down on it significantly. In one type of plug-in hybrid, electricity from the grid can provide enough power for an average commute, at a fraction of the cost of gasoline.

Charging a battery in a plug-in hybrid would be around three to four times more energy efficient than going through the intermediate steps required to make hydrogen fuel from water, using a process called electrolysis, according to Ulf Bossel, organizer of the European Fuel Cell Forum, which supports fuel cells for electrical utilities.

There is more...read it at the article.

Also read:

News from 2003: Research, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), US, says that diesel and petrol hybrid vehicles will still be the best option at this point, despite the prospect of "aggressive research" on hydrogen fuel. The report undermines the prospects of early success for President George W Bush's recently announced $1.2bn drive to develop commercially viable fuel cell "freedom cars" by 2020.

Hydrogen's Dirty Secret and this quick enumeration of the negatives of fuel cells from Hybrid Car supporters - though there apparently are a few happy customers and many supporters* of fuel-cell technology too. What was that they said about ignorance being bliss?

The Bumpy Road to Hydrogen - a paper by Daniel Sperling and Joan Ogden, Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Davis. Presented at World Hydrogen Energy Conference, Lyon, France, June 15, 2006. The accompanying presentation can also be found online (pdf).

Learn about how Fuel cells work (including an animated video)and here's a riposte to some of the questions you've been hearing and reading about hydrogen and fuel cells.

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