What he doesn't say is that if proved to be commercially viable it would give oil companies a serious competitor and turn highways from pillars of pollution to clean, moisture-laden vapor trails.
Lazar proposes converting everyday internal-combustion automobiles to operate on hydrogen. The fuel, he says, can be produced from a solar-powered system that costs about $10,000. It uses electrolysis to separate hydrogen gas from water.
He's among a growing group of backyard mechanics, university research teams and even automotive manufacturers looking to shift into burning one of the cleanest and most plentiful elements in the universe. The trouble appears to be cost and infrastructure and, perhaps, getting a deep-pocketed or politically influential sponsor.
“If we had the budget of only one day in Iraq, this entire system would be available to everybody,” Lazar says.
Who's killing the hydrogen car
Lazar's system is the subject of the video short “Who’s Killing the Hydrogen Car?” by Jon Farhat, one of the film industry’s top visual effects guys. Farhat asks straightforward questions, sounding more like a guy who went over to Lazar's garage and stumbled upon a really awesome custom car.
Certainly, Lazar, whose company is United Nuclear Corp., has a cool car. It's a 1994 dark red Corvette that runs on hydrogen.
After separating out the hydrogen molecules, Lazar stores the gas in tanks similar to the oxygen bottles carried around by the old smoker down the street or the nitrous tanks in the dentist's office. And this appears to be Lazar's lock on the process.
As he explains to Farhat, transporting gaseous hydrogen by standard means would require huge tanks while liquid hydrogen requires keeping the gas extremely cold, about 423 degrees below zero or hanging around the surface of Jupiter. Instead, Lazar uses four tanks containing a hydride compound, which stores the hydrogen until heat is applied to release it.
Going the distance
“That’s the volume it takes to propel this car close to 400 miles, just about what it gets running on a full tank of gas," Lazar says. "And it’s a lot safer than gasoline. They can be shot at with incendiary bullets, cut in half with a chain saw. You can throw a match on them and they just smolder. … Only the hydrogen you need is released when you heat it so there’s never much gaseous hydrogen in the system.”
Kevin Kantola of www.hydrogencarsnow.com, who has been writing on the subject for about six years, says most, but not all, of the industry has settled on compressed hydrogen gas as the standard.
"There are some others working on developing cars that use a chemical carrier for hydrogen such as magnesium + hydrogen, different hydrides, ammonia, slurries, etc.," Kantola says via email.
Hydrogen production & distribution
Kantola says how to produce and distribute hydrogen is still up in the air, with manufacturing it from natural gas being the most popular method. He adds that there are some solar-electrolysis stations and even a wind-electrolysis station making hydrogen. "So, as an emerging technology there is a lot of flux right now."
One of the biggest problems is that of infrastructure. The transportation systems in our global economy are geared now to run our cars, buses and trucks on fossil fuels. The corner gas station from Deadhorse, Alaska to Hoboken, N.J. is part of the landscape.
"It's not so much an issue of cost, as the economics of producing and distributing hydrogen are understood," says James Warner, director of policy, Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, via email. "The issue is, how to build sufficient stations for a vehicle rollout, and how to keep them in the black as the population of vehicles increase."
How important is clean air?
It's really a matter of values. How important is clean air? Can a price tag be applied to stopping the flow of carbon into the air, acidity into the oceans and pollutants into the food chain?
To me, that's rhetorical. To others, the whole climate debate is considered misguided. Our economy is based on coal and oil. Separating such a major component is like slicing out a conjoined twin. One will surely die.
But do we have a choice? More rhetoric. But I'd certainly like to keep driving, and this hydrogen option sounds like a good one.
This could take awhile
Scouting around the web, I found quite a bit on the subject. An older piece in Popular Mechanics describes the contentiousness surrounding the technology and details the pullback by the Obama Administration after President Bush's endorsement.
Erik Sofge of Popular Mechanics writes in his piece, "Why the Hydrogen Feud Needs to End: Analysis," that hydrogen fuel cell research, which appears to be the method of choice for automotive propulsion, is mired in "tumultuous debate."
Sofge says while proponents sink money into research and marketing, opponents refute their claims with their own numbers, "asking that researchers shift time and money to more promising technologies, like batteries."
The answer may be grassroots
Endless debate won't shift even a small percentage of automobiles or fleets onto a hydrogen highway.
I stumbled (seriously, on stumble.com) across a video from Juan Pablo Girardi, engineer and a founder of the Santa Monica, Calif.-based Brain Optimization Institute. He says while electric cars don't burn fossil fuel, they require creation of toxic materials via construction of their lithium-ion batteries. He also touts hydrogen.
Girardi says health-wise the evidence against gasoline is overwhelming. As for hydrogen, he says its development is not a technological issue but a political one. He urges a grassroots movement for getting U.S. government support of the production of hydrogen cars and the conversion of existing cars.
Maybe that will happen. But collateralized debt obligations, which in part led to the housing crisis masking toxic mortgages to investors, still exist despite heated opposition to the practice. So maybe not. This may need a big corporate supporter.
"You can move a 747 with hydrogen," Girardi says. "The technology is there. Let us stop procrastinating."
Hydrogen gets YouTube hits
There is interest. On YouTube, Girardi's video has just 3,660 hits. However, a test drive in a hydrogen BMW has 232,000 and an instructional piece with about the Formula Hydrogen racing car project, a collaborative exercise between RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia and the University of Applied Sciences, Ingolstadt, Germany has about 72,000.
Geoff Pearson from RMIT's School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering heads the team and explains very simply how it works. "A lot of the technologies are very similar to what you'd find in your standard vehicle," he says.
Using standard technology is exactly how Steve up in Davis, Calif. attracted a collective 356,700 hits on his YouTube channel. His most popular is a 1:31 minute video of a raggedy old Ford running off a standard welder's tank in which he says is hydrogen. "The truck runs better on hydrogen than gas," he writes.
Steve, who goes by powerzap69, also peddles several books he's written on converting anything to run on the gas.
The tiger in your tank will cost
Gene "Hydrogene" Johnson, an energy consultant and managing editor of H2 Nation who lives in Fresno area, puts it in perspective. He told me awhile ago, "Let's help get the OPEC monkey off our back."
Hydrogene sent me a picture of his H2 HHR SSR, an acronym for Hydrogen Hot Rod Super Sport Roadster, taken at Sunline Transit H2 Refueling Station in Palms Springs, Calif. back in 2007. He says hydrogen is possible. “The challenge with anything new is the cost. The tank alone (on the SSR) cost us $10,000. Total install cost around $20,000.”