One of the best hands-on examples of far-sighted thinking is provided perhaps by the folks who are frequently denigrated as dragging their heels when it comes to innovations -- the car-makers. With billions of dollars in future sales and their very survival at stake, almost all the major ones believe hydrogen is the long-term key to reducing the global warming threat by avoiding putting CO2 into the atmosphere in the first place.
Manufacturers such as GM, BMW, Daimler, Chrysler, Honda and Toyota are starting to place fleets of around 100 hydrogen cars each -- both fuel cell and with internal-combustion engines - into the hands of ordinary drivers in the U.S., Europe and Asia (including China) to gain operational data, market experience -- and as public relations/public education exercises. Honda executives made what to date are the most emphatically positive statements during June launch ceremonies of the world's first dedicated fuel cell car plant in Japan:
"Basically, we can mass produce these now," Kazuaki Umezu, head of Honda's New Model Center, was quoted in the June 17 New York Times as saying. "We're waiting for the infrastructure to catch up." Added his boss, Honda president Takeo Fukui, "this is a must-have technology for the future of the earth [...] Honda will work hard to mainstream fuel cell cars."
Still, it's a way to go. En route, the manufacturers will have to pass through a financial "Valley of Death," as GM's fuel-cell chief, Byron McCormick, put it to a DOE advisory committee in January 2007. The current batch of vehicles cost around $1 million each. But that's already history, and costs are coming down. Carmakers plan to produce around 500 vehicles in the 2010 to 2012 "pilot commercialization phase" at about $250,000 each, McCormick said. The "early commercialization phase" starting around 2013 is expected to see each manufacturer produce perhaps 10,000 vehicles costing around $50,000 in the first year, and then dropping to, hopefully, much lower numbers by 2015.
Fuel and fuel-cell costs, and a lack of fueling infrastructure, are still problematical but solvable with strong political will and close industry-government cooperation. Efforts to figure out these and other problems -- onboard hydrogen storage, for instance -- still need a lot of work. One survey last year found that more than 160 hydrogen stations were likely to be up and running by the end of that year worldwide. A German web database, HyWeb, says the total number of stations existing, planned, or already shut down is now about 300. GM's research vice president Larry Burns has said the U.S. would need about 12,000 fueling stations to meet 70 % of the country's hydrogen fueling needs -- a fairly small number considering there are an estimated 170,000 regular gas stations in the U.S.
As to fuel costs, GM said a couple of years ago that even at $5 per kilogram of hydrogen (a kg of hydrogen has about the same energy content as a gallon of gas), fuel cell cars potentially could provide transport at about 10 cents/mile, assuming the fuel cell has about 2.5 times the efficiency of a gasoline engine with comparable power. And fuel cell production costs, computed on the basis of producing 500,000 units annually, are now estimated by DOE to be about $94/kW -- a lot less than the baseline $275 estimate of 2002, but still far above the 2015 target of $30 -- very roughly the ballpark cost of today's internal-combustion engines.
The Revolution Has Started
The good news is that the revolution has started, with budding, albeit still very expensive,
examples sprouting Johnny Appleseed-style all over the globe. A few random examples:
-- The next three Olympic Games in Beijing this year, Vancouver in 2010, and London in 2012 will feature hydrogen-powered vehicles, including buses, probably some VIP cars, with both fuel cell and internal combustion engines, to help force hydrogen into the transport system;
-- A Caterpillar diesel mine loader is being converted to fuel cell power by Vehicle Projects, of Denver, CO. Vehicle Power is also converting a 123-ton diesel-electric railyard switching locomotive to fuel cells;
-- A Caterpillar farm tractor has been modified by a student team at the University of North Dakota to run partially on hydrogen. Adding hydrogen to the fuel stream cleans up the diesel fuel, reduces emissions and improves power and torque;
-- Japan's Railway Technical Research Institute is testing a 33-on suburban railway train powered by a 125 kW Nuvera PEM fuel cell;
-- A fuel cell-powered tricycle, called a Cargobike, is being tried out by the German phone company Telekom as service vehicle for its technicians in Berlin. It can carry up to about 300 pounds of tools and equipment up to 156 miles on about 90 grams of hydrogen as fuel for its small 250 W PEM fuel cell. Best of all, you can ride it on bicycle paths around the city, bypassing any traffic jams - and you don't need a drivers license.
-- A solar hydrogen generator that may be truly revolutionary has been developed by a small Massachusetts startup company, Nanoptek. Essentially the device splits water into hydrogen and oxygen with the help of titanium oxide, a phenomenon first discovered by a couple of Japanese scientists in the 1070s. But normal titanium oxide can use only the ultraviolet part of the solar spectrum for that, and that isn't very efficient. Nanoptek now has applied advanced nanotechnology to "strain" the titanium oxide with the result that it now accepts also visible light to break up water molecules, making the whole process much more efficient and economical. Nanoptek hasn't divulged any details such as efficiencies and solar conversion rates, but it expects its technology will eventually produce hydrogen fuel that will be cost-competitive with gasoline.
-- An automated high-volume fuel cell assembly line has been developed by a California fuel cell developer, Altergy Systems in Folsom, for small hydrogen fuel cells for telecommunication and utility companies and governments -- the world's first. Altergy says automation and volume cuts the cost of the units in about half;
-- In New Jersey, inventor and long-time hydrogen developer Mike Strizki is now showing visitors his house in Hopewell converted to grid-independent solar hydrogen operation (including hydrogen for his fuel cell car), the subject of a long article in the New York Times magazine in May 2007. It's pricey: the conversion cost about $500,000, but his next project in the Cayman Islands is expected to cost less than half of that. His third client appears to be actor Johnny Depp who wants to convert his Caribbean island home to Strizki's system, and Strizki says several others are in the pipeline. Other solar hydrogen houses have been built or converted on Long Island; near Wiscasset, ME; on Stuart Island, WA; in Indonesia, and, decades ago, in Freiburg, Germany, and Switzerland;
-- In Iceland, the New Frontier of the coming global hydrogen economy, Hertz is already offering hydrogen-fueled converted Priuses as rental cars for tourists. Both Iceland and Norway have ordered dozens of them from California's Quantum Fuel Systems Technologies Worldwide for fleet operations and testing, along with hydrogen cars -- both fuel-cell and internal-combustion engines - from Daimler and Mazda;
-- One truly exciting idea with a whiff of "disruptive technology" is the concept of a high-speed liquid hydrogen-powered cargo catamaran freighter presented at the 2006 World Hydrogen Energy Conference in Lyons, France by a young Dutch naval engineer, Ivo Veldhuis. His "H2Oceanjet" would be 175 meters (575 feet) long, would be powered by four huge liquid hydrogen-fueled turbines that would drive equally huge waterjets at speeds of up to 64 knots (73 miles/hour) - more than twice the speed of current container ships. It would cover the 4,838 nautical miles ( 5,567 miles) from Yokohoma to Long Beach, CA in about 76 hours.
-- Hydrogen and fuel cells are even taking to the air: In Europe, two teams, one in Turin, Italy, sponsored by the European Union, and another organized by Boeing and headquartered in
Madrid, Spain, are converting a very light Czech two-seater and an Austrian motorglider, respectively, to hybrid fuel cell/battery electric engines, with the fuel cells for both coming from a British company, Intelligent Energy. (Russian airplane manufacturer Tupolev flew one of its big three-engined TU 154 jetliners partially on liquid hydrogen in the late 1980s, and both Lockheed and Airbus made plans, never realized, for experimental liquid hydrogen-fueled passenger and transport jets). Looking to the far future, the European Union is currently helping fund a European Space Agency study of a liquid hydrogen-fueled hypersonic transport plane quaintly named LAPCAT (for Long-Term Advanced Propulsion Concepts and Technologies) that could whisk 300 passengers in about 2-4 hours from Brussels to Sydney, Australia;
-- And finally, a Motorola cell phone prototype powered with a tiny hydrogen fuel cell developed by a Canadian startup, Angstrom Power, Inc., was shown in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Angstrom says the fuel cell should roughly double the phone's run time, and refueling with hydrogen should take about 10 minutes.
The revolution has started, but it needs a much bigger push, and more convincing of many people, to really succeed. Hydrogen isn't the only weapon in the fight against global heating, but it's an essential element.
Peter Hoffmann is editor and publisher of "The Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Letter," www.hfcletter.com