Beyond The Hydrogen-fuel Cars

Bob Jones
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Wednesday - March 26, 2008
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There’s an Internet site for an Easy Water Car that claims:

This is a Do-It-Yourself, very affordable (under $200) technology. Water is supplemental to gasoline - I boosted fuel economy by 107 percent in my Toyota Corolla to 61.13 MPG. In other words, now more than half the energy comes from water!

Then I remembered that when I was 15 I designed a water-to-hydrogen engine for cars and sent my plan to what was then the U.S. Office of Transportation. I got a reply. “Good, workable engineering, but today’s car engines run on cheap gasoline, so why would automakers want to change?”

Well, today gasoline ain’t cheap (or clean) and carmakers have developed some experimental hydrogen-fueled vehicles, and some states have experimented with hydrogen fueling stations. But don’t try to drive cross-country in a hydrogen car.

What happened and why have we come up so short-sighted since the 2005 Energy Bill touted hydrogen fuel with President Bush’s blessing? We’re supposed to have a fuel-cell decision by 2015.

Some say there are too few tax incentives. Others that the Bush-Congress timetable is good politics but lousy science and ignores the tough realities of fuel cell development and hydrogen production, storage, distribution and consumption. Peter Hoffmann, who publishes the Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Letter, tells me this:

“All major carmakers are betting for their survival on hydrogen and/or fuel cells which run on hydrogen. OK, they’re also developing plug-in hybrids and diesels, but that’s presumably only for the short or intermediate term. We need a clean chemical fuel for much of the machinery that runs civilization. You can’t fly big airplanes on batteries, and neither can you run container ships.”

The idea is to have one of two types of hydrogen cars. Combustion, where the hydrogen is burned in engines almost the same as in gasoline cars. Or fuel-cell conversion, where the hydrogen is reacted with oxygen to produce water and electricity, the latter used to power an electric traction motor.

Where do we get this fuel? Could be from large hydrogen plants. Could be as a byproduct of ethanol production.

But if you know anything about fuel distribution, how would we ever get hydrogen filling stations while we maintain gas stations for the unconverted cars? California tried but has gone down in the number of hydrogen fueling stations.

Biofuels get lots of hype but evidence is growing that producing them may add more carbon to the atmosphere than they eliminate. They’re driving up corn prices, and biodiesel residue is polluting groundwater.

Maybe solar powered home hydrogen filler-uppers? Technology Review says a car like the BMW Hydrogen 7 would probably produce far more carbon dioxide emissions than gasoline-powered cars.

Changing this calculation would take multiple breakthroughs, which study after study has predicted will take decades, if they arrive at all.

Honda, Toyota, Chevy and Ford are putting experimental hydrogen cars on the road - Toyota managed to get 436 miles out of one tank full. It’s still a long way between filling stations.

Electric’s nice but to get miles you’d need a battery the size of the car. Hydrogen’s intriguing. Maybe the DOT should check its archives and take another look at my 57-year-old plan for a car engine that runs on water.

three star

Are you one who says “let’s just live with global warming rather than go to the expense of reducing carbon emissions?”

I’m not, but UH tropical agriculture professor Skip Bittenbender is and refers us to Bjorn Lomborg’s book Cool It. The thesis is yes, global warming is occurring due to human-caused elevation of carbon dioxide, but major carbon emissions reduction is too costly for the limited, long term impact it would have. Lomborg, a Danish university statistician, says global warming will not melt the glaciers, won’t incinerate the planet, but will raise sea level about one foot. You buy that?


three star

Honolulu auto sales are struggling, but mopeds are flying out the door of the Mopeds Direct dealership in Kapahulu, and the main reason is the rise in gasoline prices. Buyers are the kind or age of people you wouldn’t expect to ride motor bikes.

I’m one. Just purchased a 2008 CPI Oliver City. High seat visibility and fat tires for our rutted and potholed roads. At least 50 miles to a gallon of regular.

All those riders without helmets dismay me. The cheap transport price and cheap gas bills won’t be meaningful if they get a $100,000 hospital bill for skull injury when they take a spill.


three star

One really big fault with the City rail transit plan: It doesn’t go airport-to-Waikiki.

Residents and tourists deserve that routing. It would cost $2, not the $35-$50 charged by taxis.

MidWeek’s Bob Jones will be a guest discussing hydrogen fuel and other energy issues Wednesday, March 26, 5-6 p.m., with host Jay Fidell on ThinkTech Hawaii on Hawaii Public Radio station KIPO-FM, 89.3.

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