pa4086c.jpg Paul Lachine

The Great Hydrogen Hope

Today, several hundred hydrogen-powered prototype cars, buses, vans and minivans, a motorcycle or two, a few scooters, utility vehicles (including a slew of forklift trucks), and even a couple of farm tractors are already operating. Manufacturing them is still prohibitively expensive, but major carmakers are poised to bring down costs sharply in the coming years.

RHINECLIFF, NEW YORK – In Jules Verne’s novel The Mysterious Island , published in 1874, Cyrus Harding, the book’s engineer/hero, declares that “water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light.” Water, Harding announces, would be decomposed “doubtless by electricity” into hydrogen and oxygen.

Many of Verne’s musings remain fantasy, but where hydrogen is concerned, his time has come. Today, several hundred hydrogen-powered prototype cars, buses, vans and minivans, a motorcycle or two, a few scooters, utility vehicles (including a slew of forklift trucks), and even a couple of farm tractors are already operating. Two years ago, the European Parliament in Strasbourg overwhelmingly passed a declaration urging a green hydrogen economy. 

The hydrogen projects are being developed in North America, Europe, Japan, Korea, Australia, South America, and, embryonically, in China and India. Most of the hydrogen-driven vehicles are powered by fuel cells, but both BMW and Mazda have converted gasoline engines to hydrogen fuel (spiffy V-12s for BMW, rotary engines for Mazda).

Indeed, such major carmakers as Toyota, Honda, Daimler, General Motors, and Hyundai/Kia are deep into plans for commercial production of cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Honda showed a prototype fuel cell car assembly line last year; Daimler already launched one this year; Hyundai/Kia plans to have one by 2012, and Toyota, probably the biggest player, by 2015, with small outputs initially, by the thousands later, and increasing steeply after that.

Like natural gas, hydrogen can be used as a car fuel with engine modifications. But carmakers think fuel cells are the better, more efficient, silent, clean power source for transportation. They function somewhat like a battery, except that their fuel is constantly replenished, reacting electrochemically with the air’s oxygen to make electricity to drive an electric motor.

Today, such vehicles are hand-built and expensive, typically costing roughly a million dollars each, give or take a few hundred thousand dollars. But costs will come down once series production gets underway: Toyota says that it expects to “shock” the industry with its cost reduction numbers when it launches commercial production. It expects costs for the fuel cell stacks, the heart of the drive train, to decline as much as 90%.

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In its most recent analysis, the US Department of Energy estimated that, using 2010 technology and assuming a production volume of 500,000 units, production costs for an 80-kilowatt fuel cell would be about $57 per kilowatt. With expected technology improvements, the cost would drop to about $47/kW by 2015, within shouting range of the department’s target of $30/kW, a benchmark figure that more or less corresponds to today’s manufacturing cost for gasoline engines.

As for hydrogen fuel costs, there are currently no fixed numbers, but the US target is $2-3 per kilogram by around 2018 (a kilogram of hydrogen has about the same energy content as a gallon of gasoline). Because fuel cells are about twice as efficient as internal combustion engines, the effective cost per unit of distance would be about half that.

The US has traditionally been in the forefront of research and development in this field, but in recent years hydrogen has been elbowed aside by intense lobbying for other alternatives. Some influential supporters argue plug-in hybrids, battery-powered vehicles, and biodiesel cars are closer to market, and that they are better, less costly technologies than hydrogen and fuel cell cars.

That view was embraced by the Obama administration, leading to some embarrassment this summer for new Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Chu had ordered a $130 million cut in funding in 2010 for hydrogen and fuel cell transportation technology. But an outcry from groups ranging from the Union of Concerned Scientists, the National Research Council, fuel cell and hydrogen associations to the American Lung Association and car manufacturers, coupled with strong support in Congress, will probably lead to a reversal of the cuts.

It is worth noting that hydrogen’s supporters do not oppose battery powered cars, and they embrace biofuels as another renewable source of hydrogen. But because of the weight of electric batteries, their limited range, cost, and other considerations, batteries are best suited primarily for short-range city cars. In any case, hydrogen fuel cell cars typically incorporate batteries in hybrid configurations, enabling them to cover the 300-mile range demanded by consumers.

Countless laboratories are working on better, cheaper hydrogen production and storage methods, and on ways to bring down costs and boost fuel cell durability. Both shortcomings remain major concerns.

Moreover, a hydrogen fueling infrastructure must be built. This will be expensive, but probably not more so than maintaining the current fossil fuel structure, and will most likely start as station clusters or corridors in metropolitan areas that gradually spread outward. Cluster seeds are already underway in the Los Angeles and New York metropolitan areas and, very significantly, in Japan. Indeed, in Tokyo more than a dozen major Japanese energy companies are said to be banding together to push the creation of a national hydrogen fueling infrastructure by 2015

The hydrogen revolution has started, but with a slow-burning fuse. Hydrogen is not the only weapon in the fight against global heating, but it is an essential element – in the truest sense of the word.