Saturday, 22 January 2005

Hydrogen roundup

Lately I’ve been daydreaming a bit about the possibilities of replacing oil with hydrogen for fuel. A check of the news brings me back down to earth:

High-volume hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars are at least 25 years away, says Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.‘s top fuel cell expert.

Even General Motors, which had been pushing for fuel cell vehicles by decade end, seems to be backing off from its goal of mass production of fuel cell vehicles by 2010.

It’s a tad disappointing, but we’ve been surprised in the past. Hydrogen cars, as with everything from ink pens to the original cars, may start out as a luxury item in a few years and morph into a mass-market product a few years later. Here’s the POV of the GM tech guy:
“The Sequel is a real car and it’s doable in a manufacturing sense, but it’s still 10 times more costly than we would need it to be for volume production; we need to get down to about $50 per kW. By 2010 I really do believe that we will have a validated power system that will be down to $50 per KW. That’s what my boss has instructed me to do.

“I’m feeling confident because we’ve started to validate our feelings about the project. The fuel-cell vehicle has a tenth as many moving parts as an internal combustion car and engineers will tell you that moving parts are expensive to test and make.

He also adds this hopebul tidbit:
“Hydrogen infrastructure is not as big a deal as people seem to think it is. If you have hydrogen supplied at, say, 12,000 gas stations, which is about 10 per cent of all US gas stations, then 70 per cent of the population of the US would be within two miles of a hydrogen pump.

“That’s hydrogen available in the 100 largest cities and a station every 25 miles on the freeway. The cost would be $12 billion, which is half the cost of the Alaskan pipeline. Now why wouldn’t a US government want to do that?

We won’t replace $1.2 trillion worth of infrastructure (gas stations) overnight, but we can do it over a couple of decades. However, I don’t see why the government needs to be funding it, as he suggests at the end there. It seems the energy companies could handle that themselves.

In the more immediate future, we should have fuel-cell batteries within a few years:

THE day of the battery may finally be over as manufacturers usher in the age of the fuel-cell. To prove the point, an engineer from the Japanese electronics company Hitachi yesterday showed the world the pack that will power tomorrow’s mobile phone, laptop computer and personal organiser.

From his pocket he produced a miniature fuel cell consisting of a plastic canister of liquid gas slightly smaller than a cigarette lighter and plugged it into a metallic box slightly larger than a packet of cigarettes.

The cell, which will be on sale in about 18 months, will run all three machines for the length of a short-haul flight.

Of course, there will be a transition time—and regular batteries will remain useful for a lot of applications—but it’s good to see that some progress is being made.