Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Techy Tuesday - Hydrogen Cars

In the last week, a couple of car makers have announced they'll be offering hydrogen powered cars, with Hyundai's hydrogen fuel cell (i.e., electric powered) Tucson SUV to be offered in February - about 6 weeks from now.  There's a catch - it will only be offered for lease in the Los Angeles area.
Hyundai said the Tucson Fuel Cell will be capable of refueling in under 10 minutes and will offer instantaneous electric motor torque of 221 lb-ft. The company added that it logged 10 million test miles on its fuel cells since 2000.

Leases of the Tucson Fuel Cell will be limited to California, in part because the Los Angeles area has nine hydrogen refueling stations. Hydrogen refueling stations are extremely scarce around the rest of the country. To make it easier for the car’s lessees, Hyundai said it would provide unlimited free refuels for two years.
To me, this last paragraph underlines the experimental nature of the car and system.  They're only going to lease them, in case they need to recall them all for shredding, and they're going to make the fuel free to help keep tabs on the use of the cars.  I'll bet they require some number of maintenance visits so they can monitor how the systems age in general use. 

This isn't a first, though. I know that GM actually previewed a hydrogen powered SUV in New York City area a few years ago - again because it was one of the few places in the US with hydrogen availability - and was touting this hydrogen fuel cell powered SUV in 2006.

Car and Driver notes:
The Tucson-badged model uses the same in-house-developed fuel-cell stack, lithium-polymer battery, and hydrogen tank capable of carrying 12.3 pounds of the gas as does its Euro-market counterpart. It also delivers the same 134 horsepower and 221 lb-ft of torque by means of the same electric motor.

The Tucson Fuel Cell’s hydrogen tank and lithium-polymer battery gobble underbody space, so there is less room for passengers and cargo when compared to standard U.S.-spec Tucsons. So while overall length actually increases by 0.4 inch, second-row legroom diminishes by 0.6 inch, and cargo capacity drops by 1.9 cubic feet.
Honda has announced its own hydrogen fuel cell car will be hitting dealers in 2015.  While the Hyundai is (forgive me) pedestrian in its appearance, the Honda is more "daring"; a sleek concept car. 
The problem here is obviously the fuel infrastructure.  Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe (well, except maybe for stupidity) but it's also the smallest molecule in the universe.  Hydrogen leaks out of systems very easily.  It's found in natural gas deposits, and can be produced from natural gas, or it can be made by distillation using any source of waste heat.  We just don't have an established system for storing and distributing hydrogen.  Hydrogen powered vehicles don't need a pressurized gas tank, full of gaseous hydrogen, it can be stored as a metal hydride.

I've always been somewhat of a fan of hydrogen for power use, though not a "fan boy" like some of these sites.  Unlike the majority of alternate energy systems, you could run your car on Hydrogen instead of gasoline right now, with minimal changes.  You'd need a different fuel system, and that's the major difference.  The electronic controls, if you have any, would need to be tweaked, and timing advanced, but that's pretty easy.  There's really no particular reason to go for fuel cell based electric cars.  Hydrogen can be burned like any other flammable gas.  The reason for the fuel cell/battery approach is probably to gather good will from the greenies. 


  1. I'm assuming the auto mfgs are using reciprocating internal combustion engines to power generators, so hydrogen is just a fuel choice. Is anything being done along the lines of Peltier modules to produce the electricity? Less weight, eliminate moving parts, but is something like that even feasible?

    It takes more BTUs to produce a gallon of ethanol than the gallon of ethanol contains; what's the conversion rate with hydrogen?

    1. I didn't explain that well at all.

      There is no reciprocating IC engine; these are fuel cells that react hydrogen with oxygen from the air to create water, and release electricity. The electricity charges batteries which run everything.

      They're much like a battery, but rather than being sealed with a fixed amount of chemicals inside that get used up when they react and create electricity, hydrogen and oxygen continually flow through them and react to generate electricity. The hydrogen is replaced by refueling, and the oxygen from air. So replaced by photosynthesis in plants?

    2. Well, no IC engine is a plus, and water isn't much of a pollutant so the Greenies will be happy (probably not - damn little makes them happy). Best I can determine, a gallon of liquid hydrogen contains around 30K BTU. There are several methods of obtaining hydrogen so it's hard to determine the cost for creating it, and with very limited use for it - I'd expect all the various makes of hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars added together would be a pretty small fraction of Camry sales - there aren't going to be any economies of scale for quite a while.

      Interesting prospects, to be sure, but I'm guessing it'll be a BTU loser on a scale that makes ethanol production look like sliced bread, and I have this vague feeling it may turn out to be an automotive version of Solyndra (I can't imagine Obama & Co. aren't involved in this somewhere). But, one has to start someplace, and this is someplace; at least if we have water we'll always have hydrogen.

    3. I think there's a bit of a fuel cell fad going on now. I just read that Toyota is joining the party in 2015, too.

      The technology has been around for quite a while, I remember fuel cells in the Gemini program back in the '60s. It's just that the cost has come down and 50 years of engineering have improved them.

      I'm sure there must be some sort of economic incentives for them to do it, though, like you say. Maybe the EPA removes the rectal probes they have to live with for a few hours.

      (Note to NSA : that was a joke).

  2. The question is: Is this a legitimate alternative that is sustainable and makes sense? The "tell" to know the answer is soooo simple. Does the manufacturer get subsidies or other forms of economic aid from government? The only part of our economy that is growing seems to be the mining of congress for dollars. If this is about getting money from our government then it is likely not about a viable alternative.

  3. Hydrogen is a means of storing energy, not an energy source.

    The advocates never really explain where the energy for cracking the hydrogen will come from.

    And don't get complacent with the greenies because the emission from an open-cycle cell is water. Water vapor is a green house gas and it's far more effective than CO2.

    1. Not sure I get your semantics: all fuels are ways of storing energy. Same thing goes for anything you can burn.

      But, yes, there are explanations for where the energy for releasing hydrogen comes from. It's in those reference links: basically, waste heat from any process, anything from a nuclear reactor to a coal burning boiler, can be used to run the distillation. Or it can be mined in natural gas deposits and separated out. The energy is coming from some other fuel being burned in all of those cases.

      And absolutely right on water as a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, but that whole CO2 warmening thing is bull crap anyway. It's arguable that if you split water to get hydrogen and oxygen, then recombine them back to water, there's no net increase in the amount of water, though.

    2. When it's in liquid form gravity helps keep water out of the atmosphere, at least until it evaporates, which really should be out of the Greenie realm (I haven't heard yet of them demanding lakes, rivers and oceans be equipped with evaporation-prevention covers, but I don't get out much).

      I remember the fuel cells on Gemini and Apollo (can't remember if Mercury used them or relied on batteries - IIRC, the last Mercury missions used very small fuel cells to keep batteries charged). High cost items, though, at that stage - even ameliorated for the distances involved, cost per passenger mile is pretty atrocious for a Saturn V.

      I'll wait to see if automotive fuel cells is just more corporate Greenwashing, another Solyndra-like scam, or can actually survive in the marketplace. There's a big gap between here and there - technology improvements, cost reduction, infrastructure creation, etc., not to mention the foundation issue: what's the real cost of a gallon of H2 installed in the fuel cell of your ToHunDa and how much do those dollars do for you.

      Might be fun projects to work on.