You’ve probably heard that the auto industry is looking into hydrogen as a possible fuel for future cars and trucks. Hydrogen offers the potential for cars with close to zero harmful emissions, but those cars won’t be on the roads in big numbers anytime soon. Dustin Dwyer has this look at what’s being done now to get ready for a hydrogen future:
You’ve probably heard that the auto industry is looking into Hydrogen as a possible fuel for future cars and trucks. Hydrogen offers the potential for cars with close to zero harmful emissions, but those cars won’t be on the roads in big numbers anytime soon. Dustin Dwyer has this look at what’s being done now to get ready for a hydrogen future:
To many people, hydrogen-powered cars might sound about as legitimate as flying cars. They both seem like really good ideas. Hydrogen could lead to cars that have basically no harmful emissions. Flying cars are just cool. For flying cars, the technology hasn’t come through. That’s despite all the promises of countless sci-fi movies.
But people in the auto industry insist hydrogen cars are the real deal, and they’re backing it up with real investment money. General Motors, the world’s biggest car company, has spent more than $1 billion already to develop hydrogen fuel cells.
Julie Beamer is GM’s director of fuel cell commercialization. She says things such as biofuels and gas-electric hybrid technology are important in the short term.
“But ultimately, you are back to what is the long-term sustainable solution? We believe very strongly, it is hydrogen and fuel cell technology.”
At GM, hydrogen fuel cells represent a complete reinvention of the automobile. The internal combustion engine, which has powered nearly every car for the past century, is out. And there’s a lot of other high-tech gadgetry in GM’s prototype hydrogen vehicles.
But Hydrogen doesn’t have to be a revolution. You can actually use existing engines.
Jeff Schmidt is an engineer with Ovonic Hydrogen Systems in Michigan. He’s hooking a hydrogen pump up to a modified Toyota Prius.
“You can hear the fuel is pushing through the nozzle, there are orifices and it just whistles as it’s fueling up.”
This is a pump that looks like any other gas pump you see. It has a few extra tubes and wires, but basically it works the same as gas pumps you use all the time. As Schmidt jumps behind the wheel, he says that was the idea with the prototype car, as well.
“The car is very similar to standard Prius in function and drivability. Simply a matter of getting in the car, seat belt, push the power button to start.”
Essentially, Ovonics just pulled out the standard gas tank, and put in a tank that could safely store Hydrogen. That tank is a little bit heavier than a normal gas tank, and you lose some horsepower from an engine that was originally built for gasoline. But Schmidt says for the most part, this hydrogen powered car works the same as your car does. It just uses a cleaner fuel.
And the technology is pretty much ready to go. Schmidt says the car could be mass produced and put on the roads right away. The problem is nobody would know where to fill up.
“That has to be worked out. I mean, we see a gas station on every corner right now.”
Gary Vasilash is editor of Automotive Design and Production magazine. He points out there are already problems with just getting biofuels such as ethanol into gas stations, and he says getting Hydrogen to filling stations will be much worse.
“People are talking about, ‘Well, gee it’s so difficult to get ethanol,’ you know, and ethanol’s from corn, right? Well, where is there free hydrogen? Nowhere.”
The most talked about way of getting hydrogen at least in the short term, is from a process involving fossil fuels, but that process would create heavy CO2 emissions on the production side. So the total measure of pollution from cars, what’s called the well-to-wheel impact, might only be cut in half compared to current levels.
So GM’s Julie Beamer says the ultimate goal is using renewable wind or solar electricity to pull Hydrogen out of water through electrolysis.
“Those sources obviously, while they’re near term not as economically attractive as what natural gas would be, but the renewable-based options do represent to completely eliminate greenhouse gas emissions through the total well-to-wheel basis.”
That could be a big, big improvement for the environment. But no one can really say how long it might take. In the meantime, auto companies and researchers continue to work on the incremental steps, while the rest of us wait for the era of truly clean automobiles to take flight.
For the Environment Report, I’m Dustin Dwyer.