Thursday, January 31, 2013

Hydrogen vehicles? Really?

It's pretty hard to ignore the efforts of three of the world's biggest automakers—Renault-Nissan, Ford and Daimler—when they announce they're going to throw resources into another effort to make fuel cells work in cars.  But personally, I don't see it.  I spent part of my youth playing with hydrogen (long story) and came to conclusion that this was dangerously impractical stuff.  For example, because the hydrogen molecules are so tiny, just sealing the stuff into a container is damn near impossible.  And while in theory it is possible to separate hydrogen from oxygen in water, this process requires more energy than you get back when you recombine them in either an internal combustion engine or a fuel cell.  And while supposedly it is possible to make a fuel cell work without using platinum, I haven't heard of it (although I am not privy to leading edge research in the matter).  And then there is the problem of no installed refueling infrastructure and even if there were some, it would probably be at least as inconvenient as it is for folks trying to power their cars with natural gas.

Even so, I am glad someone with money is willing to try to make fuel cells work one more time.  Some day, they may even produce a fuel cell reliable enough to power city busses and urban delivery vehicles and that would be an accomplishment all by itself.

Automaker Trio Hopes to Bring Hydrogen Back From the Brink


Three titans of the automotive industry – Renault-Nissan, Ford and Daimler (which is parent to 22 car brands, including Mercedes-Benz) – are collaborating on the development of hydrogen fuel-cell technology. Their goal is to have hydrogen-electric cars in people’s driveways in the next five years.

We’ve heard this before, but this time it could be different. Really. Seriously. We swear.

While hydrogen fuel-cell technology has been promised, and in some cases even deployed, in various forms during the last century, it has never taken off. Despite the abundance of hydrogen in the world, combined with the technology’s potential to provide a clean alternative to fossil fuels, too many hurdles – including cost, reliability and the lack of a distribution and fueling infrastructure – have stifled its development and widespread adoption.

The automotive ménage à trois aims to eliminate those issues by pooling their engineering talent, scale and power over suppliers to create a common fuel cell stack. Each automaker will throw the same amount of funding into the project to create a vehicle the consortium claims will be “affordable” and designed for the “mass market.” The cars could be available as early as 2017. Each vehicle will use the same core components, but will be built on platforms unique to each automaker, allowing for different body styles, interior configurations and branding.

“We are convinced that fuel cell vehicles will play a central role for zero-emission mobility in the future,” says Thomas Weber, board member of Daimler AG group research. “Thanks to the high commitment of all three partners we can put fuel cell e-mobility on a broader basis. This means with this cooperation we will make this technology available for many customers around the globe.”

The automakers partnering on this new fuel-cell vehicle bring together more than 60 years of hydrogen development and more than six million miles of testing. They hope that kind of experience will encourage automotive suppliers and policy makers to begin taking hydrogen vehicles seriously. But the obstacles are numerous and overwhelming.

Hydrogen is the fuel of the future — and always will be,” is the line we’ve heard for years. And this is hardly the first time an automaker has claimed to solve the puzzle. Toyota has promised to have a fuel-cell vehicle on the road by 2015. General Motors has been pimping the technology for awhile. But it’s always been hampered by the development of infrastructure, even if there are big-rigs and even airplanes using hydrogen. Still, there is a skyrocketing number of patents that deal with the technology, so it’s not like the technology has been abandoned.

But it all comes back to fueling. Daimler, Ford and Nissan-Renault’s efforts (not to mention BMW) to bring a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle to market are for naught if there’s no place to top up the tank. And until private entities or government institutions step up to create an infrastructure, we can have all the hydrogen fuel-cells we want, but they won’t have anything to run on.


No comments:

Post a Comment