HydroGen1, a fuel-cell vehicle of tomorrow
June 5, 2001 10:31 AM   Subscribe

HydroGen1, a fuel-cell vehicle of tomorrow The prototype's power comes from electric motor supplied with current from a fuel cell that runs on pure hydrogen. The hydrogen supply is stored in liquid form at minus 253 degrees Celsius in a special storage tank called a "Cryo tank," which is similar to a vacuum storage bottle. I'm just imagining the fun they will have at the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety while crash testing this thing.
posted by fluxcreative (19 comments total)
A close friend of mine, an ecology student, swears that these fuel-cell cars are the answer. I hope so.
posted by arielmeadow at 10:33 AM on June 5, 2001

No more fun than when they test highly explosive gasoline powered vehicles.
posted by @homer at 10:48 AM on June 5, 2001

I've read a variety of sources (here and here are two) that show hydrogen to be quite safe in tanks. In addition, there are a variety of storage methods that may make it safer still than a tank full of liquid gasoline.

The major hurdle to using hydrogen as a fuel source is distribution, I believe. And this one's a bugger. Unless we move to distributed generation (make it at home, or at a local station) we've got a major issue on our hands.
posted by daver at 11:10 AM on June 5, 2001

It seems the incar storage isn't that big a problem, pretty safe once you take the right steps. I hear the worst part is the refueling stations themselves. BMW has it going on. I saw something about their refuling station plans, but can't find it.
posted by tomplus2 at 11:33 AM on June 5, 2001

Hydrogen has been exonerated in the Hindenburg disaster, which is what most people point to to illustrate its danger.

The Hindenburg fabric was found to be made of a cotton substrate with an aluminized cellulose acetate butyrate dopant. The observations of the fire listed above, in fact, are consistent with a huge aluminum fire. (The brightness of the space shuttle’s rocket boosters are an example of aluminum-based combustion.) So, it was the extreme flammability of the Hindenburg’s fabric envelope which caused the disaster and not the lifting gas inside.

Yes, hydrogen is highly flammable. Like gasoline, it can be used safely as a fuel if sound engineering is employed.
posted by gimli at 11:33 AM on June 5, 2001

One of the technology for storing the hydrogen is in a cell-like matrix. The cells would be self-sealing, so if there was a breach (accident, i.e.) there wouldn't be much of a leak... certainly easier to clean up than petrolium based spills.

As for fueling - if they used the matrix-based idea, they could basically have fuel modules that you just pull into a service station, and it's like switching out the propane tank for your grill.

And as for fuel distribution... well, if you have water and electricity, you can make hydrogen like *snaps* that. The by-product? Pure oxygen. Which you can sell, too. And actually, now that I think of it, the fuel-cell technology that a lot of companies are working on are twofold: One is water-based, which is a two-step process that creates the hydrogen and oxygen and releases both into the air, -or-, this hydrogen system, whose byproduct (correct me if I'm wrong) is... water! (Disclaimer: I'm not a chemist and I very well could be wrong about the tecnology. All I know is what I've read in car magazines.)
posted by SpecialK at 11:49 AM on June 5, 2001

It's not necessarily the flammability of the hydrogen that I am curious about, but more like the effects that would come about if one of the "cryo tanks" were punctured in an accident. The amount of pressure (or lack thereof) required to maintain a gas at a temperature of -253 degrees Celsius could cause some interesting effects I think if involved in a high-speed collision.
posted by fluxcreative at 11:53 AM on June 5, 2001

SpecialK - unfortunately, you can't make hydrogen *snap* like that. The law of conservation of energy prevents it. It takes more energy to separate water into its individual elements than you would get from burning the hydrogen to run the car. Which really sucks, because otherwise we could just fill up our cars with water and drive off. If the whole point of the fuel cell is to limit pollution, it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to build big pollution-spewing plants which would separate the hydrogen and oxygen.

"The Water Engine" by David Mamet is a really great radio play about a guy who creates a water engine and is subsequently hounded by the car and petroleum companies who want to keep it under wraps.
posted by starvingartist at 12:29 PM on June 5, 2001

SpecialK - yep, certain types of hydrogen fuel cells have only one form of exhaust - water. There are fuel cell vehicles in limited use today. They're not just for cars though. They can be used for all sorts of stuff, like powering a national park restroom!
posted by fleener at 12:45 PM on June 5, 2001

Flux: chilled storage of liquid hydrogen probably really isn't an ideal situation for cars. It's very expensive to chill and condense it, along with very specialized containers. Check out this short summary for more info.

There are a couple other technologies that look promising, Glass Microspheres (similar to the matrix technology mentioned above) and carbon nanotubes (still in research phase) are a couple.

Another very interesting technology that may be even closer to real world use is the Zinc Air battery. The interesting thing about this technology (at least what I've read about it) is that the battery can be 'mechanically recharged' by draining and filling with a new particulate anode (I believe, I'm getting this from the ol' noggin, so I may be off base). This gives the convenience of the 'gas station' instant refueling we have now. Here's a decent link on it.
posted by daver at 2:04 PM on June 5, 2001

Anyone got any good links to fuel cells for residential power generation? I'm actually looking for info on this for a 36- (maybe even 72-)unit condo development.
posted by rodii at 2:04 PM on June 5, 2001

GE's got a start on it...
posted by daver at 2:17 PM on June 5, 2001

rodii: For small-scale generation the first question you are going to get asked is whether or not you just want electricity or if co-gen (tapping the heat from a reformer) is worthwhile. As others have pointed out, there are no hydrogen mines out there waiting to be tapped so you are probably going to be looking at a system which uses natural gas or LPG and strips the hydrogen for the fuel cell. For the range you are looking at companies like GE and UTC are probably the best bets (do a google search for "molten corbonate fuel cells" for a co-gen variety.)

One question which you should ask is whether a fuel cell is the right solution here or if a micro gas turbine system might fit your needs better. The fuel cell will be a bit cleaner but will probably be a bit less efficient.
posted by mccoy at 2:35 PM on June 5, 2001

..And with the micro-gas turbines, you could probably put a slightly larger one in than you need, and you'd probably be able to make a tidy profit selling excess power back to the grid, depending on where you live.

NYC has a deal like that set up.
posted by SpecialK at 2:53 PM on June 5, 2001

Starvingartist mentioned the all important Conservation of Energy, which brings up a question I've had for a while. I thought conservation of energy only applied to closed systems, for example, there is no problem with piping energy in or moving it about, as long as the total in the universe stays the same. A "read my lips, no new energy" kind of thing.

As I understand it, this is why CoE arguments don't apply to oil drilling. You can get more energy out of the oil than it takes to drill for it because you are not working with a closed system. You are not creating energy, merely accessing it.

Why is this different when you strip hydrogen from water? You aren't creating energy, you are taking a resource (water), breaking it down, and using it. I don't see why the amount of energy you can get from combusting the hydrogen should be in any way tied to the amount of energy it takes to separate it.

I could understand the CoE implications if someone was suggesting that you use a fuel cell to combine hydrogen and oxygen into water which is separated into hydrogen and oxygen by the electricity generated and sent to run the fuel cell in a closed loop. Obviously that won't work, but that's not what is being proposed as far as I can tell.
posted by Nothing at 9:33 PM on June 5, 2001

OK, you got me there. My point was really about the waste of energy it would take to make the hydrogen. What we save in pollution from hydrogen-burning cars producing water as a byproduct would in turn be destroyed by the pollution created by plants using tons of electricity to split the water into oxygen and hydrogen for use in our cars. Vicious circle, seems to me.
posted by starvingartist at 6:38 AM on June 6, 2001

Well, the conservation of energy argument applies in a certain way. You cannot get more energy out of a system than is present in the system or added to the system. That is to say, if you take water and separate the hydrogen and oxygen and then collect the energy released when they rejoin, you cannot get more energy than it took to separate the two elements in the first place, because no system can operate with absolute efficiency. By taking the water and splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen, you are "creating the oil" to cite your example. It is like if you had a hydroelectric plant on a river, but you had to carry the water uphill before letting it fall through the plant. You will always use more energy carrying the water than you will gain, because you have the potential energy of the water at the top, minus the energy lost to the friction of the water flowing downhill and making burbling noises and rubbing against itself, and minus the inertia of the turbines that the water would push and the other mechanical losses, and minus the inefficiency of turning that rotation in to useful energy.

So if you could find something that is spitting out hydrogen already, and could then harvest it, you would be all set. The efficiency of the harvesting would not be so critical because there is a lot of energy in free hydrogen.
posted by donkeymon at 10:40 AM on June 6, 2001

There are similar concerns about running cars on LPG (Liquid Propane Gas or Liquid Petroleum Gas).

Many people claim that the 'tanks must be dangerous' or that 'you won't be able to refill it yourself'.. which is a lot of hogwash. My father got his car converted, and regularly fills his own tank at any of the 1000 LPG gas stations in the country.

I think that the safety concerns aren't as big as many people make them sound. (Of course, I guess Firestone were saying the same about their tires once)
posted by wackybrit at 5:04 PM on June 6, 2001

Thanks for the leads, daver, mccoy, k.
posted by rodii at 6:22 PM on June 6, 2001

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