Hydrogen is a clean-burning fuel and perhaps the most plentiful element in the universe.
Its atomic number is one. The sun, which has a mass about 333,000 times that of earth, is about three quarters hydrogen.
So why can't I convert my car to burn it? Jay Leno drove the BMW Hydrogen 7
, which runs on hydrogen or gasoline with the flip of a dashboard switch. (I am so jealous.) But he doesn't own one, at least as far as I know.
Ask the best friend
I ask my friend Eric Storms what's going on. "Why can't I have a hydrogen-powered car?"
He says (and I'm making this up since I haven't really asked, but we've done this back and forth so often my guess is usually pretty close), "Because you're not Jay Leno."
Me: "So what?"
Eric: "You don't pull down an annual salary of $30 million, you're worth far less than $150 million and you don't employ a massive garage filled with expert mechanics who do nothing but maintain and restore your amazing automotive toys."
Me: "Yeah, I get that. But I'm talking daily driver. A car for the masses."
Eric: "You already have a VW Bug."
We have the technology
Me: I look at him sideways. "It needs a paint job and a new wiring harness. That's not the point. I believe we have the technology to extract hydrogen from whatever source be it natural gas or electrolysis of water and run our cars on it. We'd use internal combustion engines because we've already mastered that technology. We'd continue to research fuel cells but we'd develop infrastructure to support our existing transportation network of two cars for every adult in the United States."
Me: I ignore the comment.
Eric: "We love oil. It's in our blood. You grew up in Alaska. You get it. Oil is our way of life. It pays your Permanent Fund Dividend check. It is the nectar of gods."
Me: "Nectar of gods? And I haven't lived in Alaska since 1992 when the evil McClatchy empire bought and shut down the Anchorage Times."
Eric: "You know what I mean."
Me: "Yeah. I do."
Hydrogen fuel may be close
This particular conversation between Eric, who lives outside Seattle, Wash., and I can continue for hours and sometimes does, especially these days via cell phone. However, in this case I believe we may be closer to using hydrogen than I first believed.
BMW says it's already developed the first production-ready hydrogen vehicle and boasts, "It's already proving itself in the real world too: we're putting 100 of them to the test as loan cars for leading figures from the worlds of culture, politics, business and the media."
There's that Leno reference.
Delving deep into automotive hydrogen
I recently stumbled across a site devoted to hydrogen-powered automobiles, hydrogencarsnow.com
and read through quite a bit of the reference information and blog posts. The site also features online conversations about insider topics that required me to do research just to get an inkling of what the writers are talking about.
But the information is fascinating and gives insight into what may be around the corner. Yeah, I know. Dumb reference with zero time element. OK, maybe down the road is a better idiom. I just hope Cormac McCarthy
won't write the script.
According to hydrogencarsnow.com, Nissan is scaling up the heights of hydrogen fuel cell development and are ready for commercialization. Even better, "the cost of the 2011 fuel cell stack is near what the U.S. DOE has been asking for in regard to commercializing fuel cell vehicles," the post
Technology advances rapidly
And there's a bunch more information out there. The Department of Energy commissioned an exhaustive report that chronicles much of the nation's hydrogen research, patents and developments. Dubbed "Pathways to Commercial Success
," the 240-page report features a mass of data about such things as the advances made by DuPont Fuel Cells (with DOE aid) in creating more chemically stable fuel cell polymer technology eight times more stable than than existing technologies.
The problem with fuel cells is their inner workings break down, meaning cost goes up.
Other advances in the DOE report include developments in advanced coolants for fuel cells, thinner and cheaper fuel cell "stacks" and new generation methods.
New players emerge
Up in Modesto, Calif., Hydrogen Technologies Inc.
continues to work on bringing its energy-generation systems to market. It has partnered with the Plumbers and Pipefitters UA Local 442.
Boulder, Colo.-based analyst Pike Research released a report
saying fuel cell vehicles will reach the market by 2015, and, according to the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association
, the market could reach $16.9 billion by 2020. Pike says the problem with the cars is cost.
So what's it all mean? Heck if I know. Like most consumers I wonder about variables like: How much will it cost? Where can I find it? Will my wife allow me to spend more money?
What's the hold up?
I pose the question of what's keeping hydrogen from automotive tanks to James Warner, director of policy for the Washington, D.C.-based Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, and he says, "Industrial hydrogen production is well-developed and has been for years. The issue is getting hydrogen infrastructure installed — what comes first, cars or infrastructure?"
It's "not so much an issue of cost, as the economics of producing and distributing hydrogen are understood. 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?"
Kevin Kantola of Hydrogen Cars Now says he test drove a BMW Hydrogen 7 dual fuel car a couple of years ago. "It was a nice ride, but it could only go 60 miles on hydrogen before it ran out and had to switch over to gasoline," he says.
Kantola explains that the BMW used liquid hydrogen. He says the automaker has since backed off on the concept perhaps because it is comparatively expensive to cool, store and build the equipment to do it. He says other major automakers have opted to run their cars on gaseous hydrogen, which is supported by most of the vendors building fueling stations.
If I start seeing hydrogen at the corner gas station, I'll believe hydrogen has gone mainstream. Otherwise it's just one of those "good for the Space Shuttle" fuels. Still, I remain ready to jump on the band wagon. I love the concept: clean, green and plentiful.
I can imagine what Eric's thinking.
Eric: "Buy a Ford. Then order the chicken-fried steak at the Country Cousin in Centralia."
Me: "And forgo my peanut butter sandwich?"