Can we send the robot on a road trip powered by hydrogen?

Some know the buzzword “hydrogen” as a replacement for petroleum. In fact, hydrogen is fuel-cell technology: a membrane encapsulated in carbon that generates electrical current when compressed, largely as a reaction between hydrogen and…

Can we send the robot on a road trip powered by hydrogen?

Some know the buzzword “hydrogen” as a replacement for petroleum. In fact, hydrogen is fuel-cell technology: a membrane encapsulated in carbon that generates electrical current when compressed, largely as a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. The electricity powers a combustion engine, producing electric power and heat. The current from the fuel cell and engine is even used to drive the vehicle’s controls.

But as of today, there are no practical hydrogen-powered vehicles for sale. But that’s starting to change. International Business Machines Corp. and General Motors Co. are currently developing the Chevrolet Bolt with the intention of using the hydrogen to power the engine. Ten Mile Hydrogen LLC, a company formed in January by two MIT scientists, is already selling 100 of its size-small niche fuel-cell cars to businesses and government agencies. The Hydrogen Now van has already driven a 101,500-mile route across the country.

But while hydrogen may offer technology investors the promise of a new transportation revolution, there are a few challenges to overcome before it’s a mainstream business. The primary obstacle to its widespread adoption is that transporting the actual fuel requires large amounts of infrastructure: Hydrogen produces huge amounts of heat, which requires a fairly sophisticated electrical power system to manage. Unlike lighter-than-air lighter metals such as gold or platinum, hydrogen does not behave like a metal. So heavy duty electronic fuels tanks must be installed at the facility storing the hydrogen or placed on top of the hydrogen tank.

Shipping Hydrogen into the US and Europe is also a bit of a headache because some of the chemicals used to produce the fuel at the point of consumption tend to go astray in the cross-continent shipping process. For instance, a pure hydrogen source can use sulphuric acid or ammonia as part of the fuel mixture, which can cause unpleasant odors. Plus, there isn’t always infrastructure that can support heavy hydrogen transportation.

The environmental advantages of powering vehicles with hydrogen also need some explanation, because in practice it is wildly different from the bulk of petroleum-based oil. Biomass, wind and solar generate power that can use hydrogen in the manufacturing process or to boost energy output (the fact that this not-yet-mainstream fuel doesn’t require any oil for production says a lot about its environmental advantages). Hydrogen, by comparison, is extracted using about one percent of the energy used in petroleum refining.

That’s all well and good, but the hydrogen from all those renewables isn’t going to be dumped back into the atmosphere to cook our planet. It’s more like it can be safely used, but not as it was in the great engine of evolution. Well, not necessarily. Some scientists say that what we’re making today at home, much less what you or I will produce to drive our next car, will be used to power a future engine powered by carbon nanotubes—the same material that could also eliminate our dependence on petroleum.

The catalysts in the nanotubes would help produce those waters of hydrogen that are needed for using hydrogen as a fuel, and they could even be used to manufacture fuel for large-scale hydrogen storage. Why? Because so much of that hydrogen is not created by natural processes but requires huge amounts of energy, because of some of the heavy chemicals that are extracted at the point of production. The uses for this carbon nanotube-based fuel are unclear, but all evidence indicates that they won’t require the amount of energy that the fuels of today require.

All is not lost for natural gas–hybrid vehicles, either. One of the more common examples of such a vehicle is the Honda Clarity, a plug-in variant of the Accord. There’s also the Toyota Prius, which was hailed at the time of its launch in 1997 as the first successful hybrid; the Honda Civic Hybrid, which might have been the closest thing to a natural-gas-hybrid, but was still a bit premature; and a host of other hybrid cars and trucks as well as cleaner versions of the internal combustion engine. Many of these vehicles aren’t real hybrids anymore, though. It turns out that a hybrid vehicle is so complex that it doesn’t really achieve gas mileage any better than when driven on the straight and narrow.

At the risk of bias, my auto experience as a car reviewer has been in advanced-technology cars. In these classes, internal combustion engines are as inescapable as octagons. I saw this once with fuel cells, but after long and frustrating winters in a gas-only vehicle, I’m looking forward to a sea change in

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