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Hydrogen Cars Will Save Lives -- and the Planet

Roland Piquepaille is an IT consultant who lives in Paris, France. He writes about Technology Trends and about the use of blogs by businesses.

What would happen if all U.S. current vehicles -- powered by fossil fuels -- were converted to hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles? In this article, Nature writes that a very detailed study from Stanford University reveals that a move to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles could save up to 6,400 lives each year due to improvements in air quality. The study's lead author, Marc Jacobson, argues that a focus on the health benefits of non-fossil-fuel vehicles may be a more familiar issue for policymakers than the climate, who may therefore be more willing to act.

After looking at several ways to produce hydrogen, the scientists also concluded that wind is the most promising means of generating hydrogen. It's even cheaper if some hidden costs to produce gasoline are taken into account: gasoline's true cost in March 2005, for example, was $2.35 to $3.99 per gallon, which exceeds the estimated mean cost of hydrogen from wind ($2.16 per gallon of gasoline equivalent).

Now the researchers are calling for an 'Apollo Program' for hydrogen energy. Will Jacobson's 'Apollo Program' be ever launched -- and if it is, will it work? Read this overview and tell us what you think.

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Comments

Look at the hydrogen car timeline. There were hydrogen cars 30 years ago that were capable of taking part in a rally, the "SEED rally". Does anyone know what this was?

Although gasoline use has indirect costs, there seems to be no dispute that the marginal cost of gasoline to government is negative: every additional litre sold brings in a dime or two, or in some countries a dollar. This very obviously influences the behaviour of persons on public payrolls: they don't enforce speed limits, they zone residential areas without small shops, sometimes without sidewalks, they give low-interest loans or outright grants to carmakers ... and they talk glowingly of hydrogen cars, apparently confident that the same pump-and-dump that worked 30 years ago is good for another go.

--- Graham Cowan, former hydrogen fan
boron: fireproof fuel, real-car range, no emissions


Posted by: Graham Cowan on 29 Jun 05

Interesting link, thanks. Here's info on one of Dr. Kordesch's fuel cell cars:

"In 1970 Dr. Karl Kordesch built an Alkaline Fuel Cell/Battery Hybrid Electric Car based on an A-40 Austin and drove it for his own personal transportation needs for over three years. The Fuel Cell was installed in the trunk of the car and hydrogen tanks on the roof, leaving room for 4-passengers in the 4-door car. It had a driving range of 180 miles (300 km). Thus, he was the first person in the world to have produced and driven a practical Fuel Cell/Battery Electric Car."

http://chem.ch.huji.ac.il/~eugeniik/history/kordesch.html


Posted by: odograph on 29 Jun 05

Just to be clear, I mean that as a caution. It is apparently quite possible to present a working prototype, and then 30 years later still be "decades" away from (presumed) mass-production.

As an engineer, I worry that breakthroughs might be (as I said) "presumed" at this point.


Posted by: odograph on 29 Jun 05

I'm tired of references to the Apollo project. The Apollo project, viewed from the long term, was a failure! Sure, we got a few flags on the moon, but it's been thirty years now and we haven't been back. We don't need an Apollo project for hydrogen cars; we need a Homestead Act.


Posted by: Mars Saxman on 29 Jun 05

There are too many technical and economical obstructions in order for the hydrogen car to become reality. What we really need is a breakthrough in battery technology. The hydrogen-fuel cell technology is in some sense a proposal for a new battery. Electrical motors have a very high efficiency (between 90% and 100%). All we need is a high capacity battery which is light and which occupies little space. Batteries could be replaced by supercapacitors having capacities measured in millions of Farad. Such capacitors do not exist presently. However, further progress in material sciences could make such a device possible, I would not be surprised if the car of the future turns out to be light weight and run on a electrical engine from either a battery or a capacitor. The top speed of that car should be limited to 50 miles per hour in order to achieve extraordinary efficiencies in terms of KWH of energy needed per mile driven. Regardless of what technology will ultimately emerge, it is already clear that cars of the future must be not only less in number than today, but each car must also use much less energy than our cars today do. In fact, in order to limit the impact of human society on the envirorement, the total amount of energy consumed by humanity must not only be limited, but more importantly, brought down from today's unsustainable levels. The idea that everybody will continue to drive cars in the future whose weight exceeds 2000 lb at a rate in excess of 10,000 miles per year is a dangerous fantasy. The sooner we give up on that dream the more time we will have to solve real problems.


Posted by: Robert Sczech on 30 Jun 05

I agree.


Posted by: Paul on 30 Jun 05

I don't agree.

It may be that once the divvying-up of the fossil fuel dollar no longer so disproportionately favours the tax-funded, they'll not spend so much of their putative work time thinking about how to get us on the road, driving, paying. Maybe, although this seems doubtful, the vast majority of us, without their subtle help, won't want big fast cars. But if non-fossil primary energy propels them, there's no technical reason we can't have them.

--- Graham Cowan, former hydrogen fan
boron: fireproof fuel, real-car range, nuclear cachet


Posted by: Graham Cowan on 30 Jun 05

Nature writes that a very detailed study from Stanford University reveals that a move to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles could save up to 6,400 lives each year due to improvements in air quality.

A move to zinc fuel cell vehicles could save lives due to improvements in air quality.

A move to battery vehicles could save lives due to improvements in air quality.

None of these things are arguments for hydrogen in particular; the gross inefficiencies of the conversion of electric power to hydrogen and back again are very strong arguments against it.

Robert Sczech writes:

Regardless of what technology will ultimately emerge, it is already clear that cars of the future must be not only less in number than today, but each car must also use much less energy than our cars today do. In fact, in order to limit the impact of human society on the envirorement, the total amount of energy consumed by humanity must not only be limited, but more importantly, brought down from today's unsustainable levels.
A two-car household driving 40,000 miles per year in vehicles using 250 Wh/mile would require 10,000 kWh.  The roof of a house in mid-Kansas receives about 1550 kWh/m^2/year, so you'd need a bit under 50 m^2 of it covered with 15% efficient PV cells to power the cars; the rest of it could power the house and things in the neighborhood.

Nihilism should commence with one's self; I can recommend a couple of bridges if you need help.


Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 30 Jun 05

The roof of a house in mid-Kansas receives about 1550 kWh/m^2/year, so you'd need a bit under 50 m^2 of it covered with 15% efficient PV cells to power the cars; the rest of it could power the house and things in the neighborhood.

1,550 kWh/m2/year?

Doesn't a PV panel at 15% efficiency produce 150 W/m2?

If so, it would take 10,333 hours to produce 1550 kWh of electricity. There are 8,766 hours in an average (365.25 day) year. What percentage of those 8,766 hours in mid-Kansas are full-sunlight hours directly hitting the panel?

My understanding is that the efficiency rating is for direct sunlight in full sun. In your scenario, you have fixed panels which won't be spending much time perpendicular to incident sunlight, and you also have variability in sunlight conditions.

I think the point is that your model is overstating the production possibility for the roof you're mentioning.

I can't speak to whether 250Wh/mile is a good assumption, as you seem to know quite a bit about that.

Say you get 5 hours of direct sunlight equivalent per day. And say you're using something like the Sharp 123W module, which is about 1 m2, and costs about $600.
http://www.realgoods.com/renew/shop/product.cfm/dp/1000/sd/1009/ts/4410177

With that, you'll generate 30.75 kWh/day. You said the two vehicles will require 10,000 kWh/yr, right? That's 27.38 kWh/day. So, you need 45 of those Sharp panels to power the cars at a cost of $27,000.

If you had two Priuses averaging 50 mpg traveling a combined 40,000 miles per year, the two cars would go through 800 gallons of gasoline per year. At $2/gallon, that's $1,600/yr.

So the payback on those panels is 17 years in that scenario. You'd then need to factor in all the other costs (inverters etc) and the tax breaks that may apply.

It's probably going to need to be an intertie system as well to provide consistent power during prolonged dark periods. And I would probably make adjustments for decreased vehicle and/or panel efficiency in cold weather.

There's also presumptions about either recharge speeds getting better (which it looks like they will) or that the vehicles in question won't be traveling long distances (like road trips).

I don't think any of this invalidates your model, but it does need to be flushed out with more details and some attention to the comparative economics.

And I don't think the gratuitous insults are necessary to enhance your argument, but rather detract from it.


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 30 Jun 05

Please keep the discussion focused on issues, not jibes. Don't make me pull this hydrogen/hybrid/electric car over...


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 30 Jun 05

Sorry, but with all the mindless doomsayers around it's just too tempting to ask them to spare themselves the suffering; if they did, the rest of us could work things out without all the noise.

1,550 kWh/m2/year?

Doesn't a PV panel at 15% efficiency produce 150 W/m2?

1550 kWh/m^2/year insolation is what NASA's EOSWEB server returned for a point I selected in mid-Kansas.  Multiply by 15% conversion efficiency and you get 232.5 kWh/m^2/year electric output.  Divide 10,000 kWh/year by that figure and you get 43 m^2 area required; 50 m^2 would give you some margin.  Total hours of sunlight, etc. are irrelevant.
My understanding is that the efficiency rating is for direct sunlight in full sun.
<shrug>  If you put 50 m^2 of panels on parts of the roof angled more favorably than a horizontal surface you'd get substantially more energy per square meter of panel (not per square meter of shaded ground) than NASA's figure suggests.
I can't speak to whether 250Wh/mile is a good assumption, as you seem to know quite a bit about that.
The CalCar Prius+ conversions are running a bit more than that in all-electric mode (one test measured 262 Wh/mile, which I believe was at the charger input).

The fact that the roof of your house could generate all the energy to drive 40,000 miles per year using present-day PV panels, batteries and even vehicles proves that we are not unsustainable in principle.  Advances like quantum-dot cells (potential efficiency up to 65%) would make it even easier; you could put a lot of the PV right on the car.

... say you're using something like the Sharp 123W module, which is about 1 m2, and costs about $600.
About $5 per peak watt.  H-Alpha Solar has a one-micron thick flexible "polymorphous" silicon cell which they claim could be made for 1 Euro ($1.34 or so) per peak watt.  I think we're going to be headed for $2-$3 in the next few years, as volume ramps up and economies of scale come on in a big way.  But let's go with your figure for now.
you need 45 of those Sharp panels to power the cars at a cost of $27,000.
If the panels carry the typical 25-year warranty, they'll power those two cars for their 150,000 mile lifespans, their replacements, the replacements' replacements, and the first third of the lifespan of the fourth generation.  That's before they come out of warranty, not before they stop producing.
If you had two Priuses averaging 50 mpg traveling a combined 40,000 miles per year, the two cars would go through 800 gallons of gasoline per year. At $2/gallon, that's $1,600/yr.
Gas will not sink below $2/gallon again absent something like a repeat of the Asian finanical crisis; I expect it to keep heading upward for quite some time.  At $5/gallon it comes to $4000/year and the simple payback takes less than 7 years; at $5/gallon and $3/watt the PV costs $22,500 and payback takes 5.6 years, and at $2/watt it takes just 3 years 9 months.  Long before PV hits that price point, electric propulsion will be putting strong downward pressure on motor-fuel prices; every spike will prompt more PV orders and destroy a chunk of demand for the next quarter-century.


Advances like that are World Changing in a way that few people appreciate... yet.

It's probably going to need to be an intertie system as well to provide consistent power during prolonged dark periods. And I would probably make adjustments for decreased vehicle and/or panel efficiency in cold weather.
Add a kilowatt of wind capacity per household; at 25% capacity factor, that's 6 kWh/day.  Wind peaks during the winter in most of the USA.  Use some combination of nuclear, coal-fired and CHP for the rest.  Grid-tie will let you handle demand management, e.g. charge cars in the morning, handle A/C loads in the afternoon.
There's also presumptions about either recharge speeds getting better (which it looks like they will) or that the vehicles in question won't be traveling long distances (like road trips).
The latest nano-particle Li-ion batteries have charge times measured in minutes and lifespans of many thousands of cycles.  Recharging as quickly as a fill-up will require charger power of a large fraction of a megawatt, but this is just a matter of engineering, planning and investment.


Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 30 Jun 05

I think E-P is generally correct here, although I'd argue against the wisdom of nuclear (even setting aside the waste and safety issues, there's the question of a non-renewable core fuel) and coal-fired (even the cleanest tech still produces CO2, and large-scale non-biomass sequestration is untested) -- I'm much more in favor of tidal and wave power, myself. The energy infrastructure of the sustainable future will combine a plethora of sources, both micro/local and big/centralized, and will not mean going off-grid -- it means tying the grid in all the more, really.

Add to that my regularly-beaten drum -- radically improved efficiency -- and bigger systemic changes around production (fabbers, near-100% recyclable materials, and eventually nanofactories) and urban/neourban communities (more walkable, better transit, less of a need for daily car use) and we have a pretty good first approximation of the Bright Green future.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 30 Jun 05

This is my favorite quote of the day: "We don't need an Apollo project for hydrogen cars; we need a Homestead Act."

I'd never thought of the underlying metaphors here before, but I think you're absolutely right.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 30 Jun 05



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