• Apr 23rd 2010 at 2:45PM
  • 418

In Translogic Episode 1.3, we heard Stephen Ellis, Honda's Fuel Cell Marketing Manager, talk about how hydrogen can be produced using renewable energy. The way he described it, the FCX Clarity sounds like the perfect green car, one with no environmental impact. But to really understand the situation facing any fuel cell-powered car, it helps to understand a bit more about hydrogen. First of all, hydrogen shouldn't be thought of as a fuel, like oil, gas and other petroleum products. Scientists like to refer to hydrogen as an "energy carrier," which makes a tank of hydrogen seem a lot more like a battery than a tank of gas. Hydrogen doesn't exist in any natural state; it has to be "manufactured," so to speak, by separating it from any number of molecular compounds. In this case, Honda is talking about obtaining hydrogen from water, as "H2O" is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

At the station where we filled up the FCX Clarity, Ellis said they use electrolysis to produce the hydrogen. This is a process where electricity is used to create a chemical reaction that splits water molecules into separate hydrogen and oxygen atoms. If this electricity comes from sources like wind or solar power, the resultant hydrogen is "green." The FCX Clarity's onboard fuel cell then converts the hydrogen into electricity to power the vehicle without emitting anything more than water vapor.

But if the electricity used to produce the hydrogen comes from power plants that burn fossil fuels like petroleum and coal -- which is where 69 percent of the electricity produced in the US comes from, according to the U.S. Energy Administration -- the FCX Clarity hasn't really eliminated fossil fuel consumption as much as it's just pushed it up the energy chain. There are also serious questions about the efficiency of burning fossil fuels to generate electricity to produce hydrogen, which is then converted back into electricity in the car.

But rather than heading down that rabbit hole, let's consider a more immediate complication to Honda's perfect scenario: Hydrogen isn't usually produced via electrolysis. According to a Department of Energy report, 80 percent of commercial hydrogen is produced by steam methane reforming, largely because this is the least expensive method. Water electrolysis is only a niche market. Steam methane reforming works by splitting hydrogen atoms from natural gas, which has the unfortunate downside of producing, uh oh, carbon dioxide as a waste material. Remember, the EPA is now officially considering CO2 and other greenhouse gasses as pollutants.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      Nobody seems to be mentioning that hydrogen can be burned in any internal combustion engine much like propane or natural gas. A group of my college classmates did this in 1979 with a Chrysler slant six engine and a modified carburator. This type of conversion while using nuke or wind /solar to perform the electrolysis would have an immediate positive impact on CO2 emmissions. Maybe it wouldn't replace gasoline but it could help.
      • 5 Years Ago
      A few months ago I was talking to a gentleman about fuels other than oil based fuel. He was very much in favor of petroleum and acted as if there was nothing that could take its place.When I mentioned that oil is a limited resource and I said that we will eventually run out and need an alternative, he got angry. Later in our conversation I found out that he was a chemist who worked for Valero. I have found that the people who critisize wind,nuke,solar or hydrogen power are afraid to see the oil industry fail, because they have too much invested in it.
      Oil has been the standard for energy in the U.S. for so long.It just took a while for it to replace sails,horses and manual labor. Just as we fought against progress back then, someone will still fight to stop it now. Big industry will always prevail whether they sell us oil or something else, but in a society so dependent on energy we need options.
      "GREEN POWER" should be the slogan for the Y2K generation because we love our technology, but we can't keep poisoning ourselves.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Not one mention to the fact that this gas is extreamly explosive and it will take tanks and a system capable of handling thousands of PSI. Fuel cells like electric have been around for a very long time. Ford had prototype Crown Vics that had fuel cells.Batteries in the electric cars and the systems in the Hydo cars is the main hold back. We are on the right track we just need new tech. Batteries that last more than 40 miles in a real car with a heater and AC.The solution is in the future not now. Can you all imagine California drivers plugging in their cars it would shut down the entire grid. And the potential for a major explosion using Hydrogen is a very real thing. Keep working you'll get it. Until then switch to NG its cleaner and we have enough for 100 years or more. I think in a century the scientist can come up with a new fuel. If not we go back to walking.
      • 5 Years Ago
      It is time for the end of the oil game, hydrogen is the fuel of the future. Hydrogen fuel cells:
      • 5 Years Ago
      Probably the most overlooked and misunderstood way to produce electricity is geothermal--mainly because most people--including 99% of "experts" assume it can only be done around places like Yellowstone. But if you will recall your 3rd grade science you learned that the interior of the Earth is molten lava. A couple of miles down it's hot enough for water to boil. Anywhere we happen to be all the power we could ever want is right under our feet and all we have to do is dig for it.

      Consider this proposal from the 1920s: dig two shafts side by side 3-5 miles deep with a cavern between them. (Since it will be some 400 degrees down there this will have to be done with robotic equipment that may need to be brought up every half hour to cool off.) Every hundred feet in the downshaft put a hydro-electric plant. (This is an over-looked part of geothermal. The water pouring down is like Niagara Falls and the hundred power plants you could install in the downshaft would generate a tremendous amount of electricity.) It would come to a raging boil in the cavern, but its way being blocked by the torrent of water cascading down the downshaft it will come steaming up the upshaft producing more electricity with the steam turbines placed there (ordinaryily the only part of geothermal anybody bothers to consider).

      Digging the shafts would be expenssive, but the amount of electricity produced would be mind-boggling. There would be no pollution, no radioactive waste, and it will last as long as the Earth does. If the Romans had built these things we'd still be using them today.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Well your half right. Geothermal is a great way to make power, but your idea of a hydro electric plant every 100 feet on the way down will not work. When the water boils it creates pressure. This pressure will more than cancel out any down force from the water you pour down the hole. Just like any standard boiler you must feed the water into it with a pressure higher than that generated by the steam produced. You can make plenty of energy though from the steam produced by the geothermal heat. It also only requires one hole that can be drilled just like a standard water or oil well. The feed tube providing the water to be vaporized can be run down the tube. Also you don't need to go down miles. There are places like Hawaii's "volcano national park" on the big island where you could do it almost at the surface.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Water vapor is merely water in a somewhat gaseous form. Why not simply return it to it's liquid form and return it to the ground, where it comes from?
      • 5 Years Ago
      Hydrogen needs electricity to be produced - thats absolutely right.
      Electric / battery powered cars need electricity connected / plugged in to be recharged ........ no one I know wants a car that will only take you 200 miserable miles and need to be recharged for 10 to 12 hours ..... sooo it looks to me like a lose lose situation and necular power is the way to generate electricity. The only green .... will be as in money being sucked out of the consumer and transferred to the powerful .... green is absolute b.s.
      • 5 Years Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      There is deposit on the sea floor bed that needs to be used, If these methane deposits are not used some day they will kill us.
      We drill for oil then why not vac for methane in to a storage ship.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I remember seeing a video last year that originated in tampa fl...a man had perfected a water powered vehicle...the video was from a local tv station...wish I could upload that video here for all to see....
      • 5 Years Ago
      Tim.1 You are so right aboutefficent cars being available in other countries...The problem is they won't stand muster for government eated safty tests...Example: Smart for Two car in europe is available with a 800 and something CC diesel engine with incredible milage ratings... But to sell it here so much safety was added they had to double the horsepower with a gas engine... Back in the early 60's a VW bug with 36 to 40 HP weighed in at 1100 to 1200 pounds and was fast enough to get you a speeding ticket.
      Ford is building a car in europe right now with a diesel that does better than 60 mpg all day long but won't import it to the USA... To go back in time again the Chevy Geo Metro with a 1000CC suzuki motor was good for 60+ mpg on the highway but wouldnt pass a safty test today...

      About as green as I have got, I bought a motorcycle for those times when I don't need a vehicle.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Even if the hydrogen is produced by hydrolysis powered by solar energy, it still isn't pollution free. First, the energy ultimately becomes heat that can pollute in excess, or if concentrated (the air conditioning in Vegas raises the temperature of the town above that of the surrounding desert). Second, the combustion of hydrogen in air results in water vapor. In the right conditions, the vapor can become fog, shielding sunlight, and other effects yet unappreciated. Our energy gluttony is the real problem, and regardless of what we might wish, there is no such thing as a free lunch.
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