November 2, 2005

H OR 11:

Taking the Future for a Drive (DANNY HAKIM, 11/02/05, NY Times)

You would never guess that Jon Spallino drives what is probably the most expensive car in this city known for automotive excess. Or that he is the world's most technologically advanced commuter.

"When the cars pull up to me, the Porsches and the Bentleys and all that, I just sort of say, well, that's nice, but for what this costs I could buy 10 of those," said Mr. Spallino, while driving up Interstate 405, the freeway from his office in Irvine toward his home in Redondo Beach.

He was at the wheel of his silver Honda FCX, a car worth about $1 million that looks like a cross between a compact - say, a Volkswagen Golf - and a cinder block. The FCX is powered by hydrogen fuel cells, the futuristic technology that many automakers see as an eventual solution to the world's energy woes, though its real potential is a subject of vigorous debate inside and outside the auto industry. [...]

Fuel cells have been around since the 1800's; they were used to provide internal power for the Apollo spacecraft, as well as drinkable water for the astronauts. Cars powered by fuel cells are electric cars that do not rely on batteries, but instead generate their own electricity. Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen from the air in a chemical reaction, with water vapor as their only emission, at least from the tailpipe.

If that sounds utopian, many think fuel cells are ill-suited to power cars.

"We're either talking several decades or never," said Joseph J. Romm, an assistant energy secretary during the Clinton administration, referring to the likelihood of fuel cells' supplanting internal combustion engines in cars. Though Mr. Romm pushed for financing of hydrogen research in the mid-1990's, he has since become deeply skeptical of its prospects, to the point that last year he published a book titled "The Hype About Hydrogen."

General Motors is most bullish on the technology.

"We're going to prove to ourselves and the world that a fuel cell propulsion system can go head to head with the internal combustion engine," said Lawrence D. Burns, G.M.'s vice president in charge of research and development.

He said that by 2010, G.M. will have designed a fuel cell car that can go as far on a full tank and is as durable as a gasoline car. Some financial analysts are skeptical that G.M. will have even staved off bankruptcy by then.

Honda comes down somewhere between Mr. Romm and Mr. Burns.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 2, 2005 6:45 PM
Comments

Water vapor being the most powerful of the greenhouse gases.

Posted by: David Cohen at November 2, 2005 7:16 PM

David:

I'm not sure water vapor in the lower atmosphere is a problem, but what about all the coal being burned to produce the hydrogen in the first place?

If it's just a ruse for nuclear I'm for it, but 'hydrogen is the fuel of the future' is a rather silly.

Posted by: Mike Earl at November 2, 2005 9:26 PM

If it's all the same to you, I'd rather drive:

Jay Leno's Tank Car

Posted by: Rick T. at November 2, 2005 9:54 PM

AAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGH!

Cars powered by fuel cells are electric cars that do not rely on batteries, but instead generate their own electricity.
Fuel cells are batteries!

What is a battery? A device which by means of an internal chemical reaction, produces electricity.

What is a fuel cell? A device which by means of an internal chemical reaction, produces electricity.

Perhaps it's just my lack of nuance, but I don't see the difference here.

Every car that relies on batteries generates its own electricity, regardless of whether they're lead-acid, lithium hydride, nickel cadmium or O-H fuel cells. What do these reporters think standard batteries are, little bottles of compressed electricity? Sadly, that's likely the case.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at November 2, 2005 10:10 PM

little bottles of compressed electricity

Well, duh. It's just like TV, you see: you have little compressed people who come through the cable to deliver your news and entertainment. Very simple once you think about it.

Posted by: joe shropshire at November 2, 2005 10:33 PM

aog i know you know better than what you are posting. batteries are very heavy and quite toxic (nasty heavy metals and acids). fuel cells are light and contain far less heavy metal content. the word you are looking for here is "catalyst". it's very true that the hydrogen fuel has to be produced, and nuclear power plants would be iadeal for that. let's leave the semantic quibbling to the leftists of the world.

Posted by: albert feinstein at November 2, 2005 11:52 PM

Fuel cells are only light if you don't have to store the hydrogen in a high pressure tank.

Hydrogen is a crock. It is a desparately inefficent way to store and tranfer energy. There is no way that it will displace hydrocarbons or electricity.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at November 3, 2005 12:36 AM

There may come a time when society cares more about pollution than it does about the cost of transportation, and then using fuel cells will be a superior choice to burning hydrocarbons.

Electric cars would have a polluting effect similar to fuel cell powered vehicles, but fuel cell cars can be quickly refueled, whereas electric vehicles can take many hours to recharge.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at November 3, 2005 4:14 AM

There may come a time when society cares more about pollution than it does about the cost of transportation, and then using fuel cells will be a superior choice to burning hydrocarbons.

Electric cars would have a polluting effect similar to fuel cell powered vehicles, but fuel cell cars can be quickly refueled, whereas electric vehicles can take many hours to recharge.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at November 3, 2005 4:14 AM

Mr. feinstein;

I disagree. I think the effort to avoid the word "battery" with reference to fuel cells is a deliberate NewSpeak effort to disguise the fact that fuel cells are electrical storage rather than generation. The point of this is to conceal the fact that fuel cells have no effect on overall energy consumption. The overall thrust of the cited article is precisely this, that somehow (magically) fuel cell cars don't require energy input like battery powered cars do.

Even your point, concerning the environmental impact of the various battery technologies, would hardly be undermined by accurately labeling fuel cells as batteries. In fact, such accuracy would make that point easier to show.

I will admit that my reaction is excessive but this just drives me bonkers, not to mention that it's a good marker for a much deeper misunderstanding of reality.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at November 3, 2005 10:50 AM

Why hydrogen is a crock:
The case for nuke cars—it's called 'hydrogen.' by Patrick Bedard, Car & Driver Magazine, October 2005:

In 2000, gasoline consumption averaged 8.47 million barrels per day. ... So the gasoline energy used by motor vehicles in the year 2000 worked out to 16 quads.

... If you get power out when you let hydrogen and oxygen get married in a fuel cell, then you must put power into the process of divorcing them.

The industrial divorcing of water molecules is known as electrolysis. ... To make the chemistry work, you must put in 39.4 kilowatt-hours of energy for each kilogram of hydrogen you expect to liberate. Unfortunately, the electrolysis process is only 70 percent efficient. So the total energy input must be 56.3 kilowatt-hours per kilogram of hydrogen.

This energy to be added must come from somewhere. The U.S. has an excellent supply of coal. Coal-fired powerplants are about 40 percent efficient, so 140.8 kilowatt-hours of coal energy are required to net the 56.3 kilowatt-hours of electricity to produce our one kilogram of hydrogen. ...

In a perfect world, the fuel cell in our car would produce 33.4 kilowatt-hours of useful energy from each kilogram of hydrogen, and 6.0 kilowatt-hours would go to water vapor, giving you back your net investment of 39.4 kilowatt-hours at the electrolysis plant. But the world is not perfect, and the best fuel cells are only about 70 percent efficient. So the energy yield is 23.3 kilowatt-hours.

One more loss must be reckoned with. ... Hydrogen gas (at atmospheric pressure and room temperature) containing the same energy as a gallon of gasoline takes up 3107 gallons of space. To make a useful auto fuel, Anthrop says it must be compressed to at least 4000 psi (Honda uses 5000 psi in the FCX; GM is trying for 10,000). The energy required to do that further trims the yield to 17.4 kilowatt-hours. ... So far, the numbers say this: Starting with 140.8 kilowatt-hours of energy from coal gives you 17.4 kilowatt-hours of electrical power from the fuel cell to propel the car, or an energy efficiency of 12 percent.

Anthrop goes on to estimate the fuel-cell power needed for the 2.526 billion miles driven in the U.S. in 2000. According to Southern California Edison, the electricity needed per mile for passenger cars is at least 0.46 kilowatt-hour. For the whole U.S. vehicle fleet, that works out to 1.16 trillion kilowatt-hours. You'll need 32 quads of coal, which is twice the energy actually consumed in 2000 with gasoline.


Posted by: Robert Schwartz at November 3, 2005 11:34 AM

Isn't the point that energy can be stored in other ways than putting gas in a tank?

Posted by: oj at November 3, 2005 2:15 PM

No, the point is which way of storing energy is the least expensive. Right now the answer is petroleum.

Posted by: joe shropshire at November 3, 2005 3:16 PM

that's what they said about the hydrogen powered light bulb, but i showed them.

seriously, i think we can afford (as a society) to take some chances on unproven technology to see where it leads.

the real holy grail is to hydrolyze water without using electicity, which i believe is possible now (using a precious metal catalyst) but not cost effective.

Posted by: thomas edison at November 3, 2005 4:51 PM

joe:

We've got plenty of money.

Posted by: oj at November 3, 2005 4:54 PM
« LE PEN MIGHTIER: | Main | THEN GEORGE W EXPLAINED TO GEORGE F...: »