Major car manufacturers gear up to market hydrogen automobiles

Nathan Hall

Ever since the Hindenburg dirigible exploded in a ball of flames in 1937, the notion of traveling via hydrogen has stalled – until now.

President George W. Bush’s recent State of the Union address promised $1.7 billion over the next 16 years for alternative energy research, earmarking a large portion for hydro fuel cell-powered vehicles and other automobile alternatives.

University scientists familiar with the concept say safety and viability issues were answered years ago. They say the concern now is largely political, not logistical.

“Scientists realize that we’re going to have to change our ways in the next 50 years,” said University chemical engineer Gregg Deluga. “I think the ideal solution is an integrated system implementing hydrogen, wind, solar and even internal combustion like coal.”

Deluga, who said hydrogen is less flammable than gasoline, teamed up with materials science professor Lanny Schmidt and other University scientists to develop a car that employs solar power to produce a cleaner-burning fuel with water exhaust emissions.

“There was a lot of interest in the 1950s with the space program wanting to use methanol and hydrogen, but by the late 1960s, lack of interest led to decreased funding,” said University chemical engineering professor Bill Smyrl.

“After that, the focus shifted to large power plants, who wanted an alternative to furnace combustion,” Smyrl said. “There’s obviously been a recent resurgence now in the desire for electric vehicles.”

Additionally, Smyrl said, the probability of hydrogen fuel cell capsules replacing cell phone, pager and laptop batteries is very high.

Bush hailed the Freedom Fuel Initiative in his speech as “the greatest environmental progress of this century.” All major car manufacturers have already introduced their offerings, such as Daimler-Chrysler’s Natrium minivan, Nissan’s FCV Xterra, Honda’s FCX, Ford’s Focus, Toyota’s FCHV sport utility vehicles, and GM’s Hy-wire.

The Toyota model can travel roughly 200 miles before having to “fill up” at a high-pressure storage tank.

“I would not agree that the technology is here today,” said Jeff Serfass, president of the Washington, D.C.,-based National Hydrogen Association. “The issue we are faced with here is putting cost-competitive and reliable vehicles on the road, and we’re nowhere near that yet.”

“I think the real question is where the hydrogen is going to come from,” said Lola Schoenrich, a renewable energy advocate for the nonprofit Minnesota Project. “If you really follow the money, Bush’s vision is having nuclear power generate the majority of the hydrogen.”

Bush’s 2004 budget request allocates $386 million for nuclear energy and $147 million for wind, solar and geothermal combined. Sixty-three million dollars is allocated for “reprocessing technologies,” subsidies for nuclear plants for hydrogen conversion. The budget sets aside $127 million for opening new reactors.

“More and more corporations are getting warmed up to the idea,” said Jerri Hruska, an Eagan resident with a doctorate in alternative energy from Union Institute in Cincinnati. “It’s very exciting right now to see it becoming a much more established principle.”

“One recruiter referred to this as a farm club,” said Pat Starr, a University mechanical engineering professor and “adviser/coach” of the Solar Vehicle Project.

The SVP is a noncredit course in which student volunteers create a solar car and then race it for two years.

Starr said solar vehicles’ design limitations prevent them from ever cracking the consumer market.

Nevertheless, Starr said the class, funded solely by corporate donations, is “a valuable form of on-the-job training” for engineering students.

“This is primarily an educational experience, but a lot of the applications are crucial to advancing technology,” said Travis Lee, a senior mechanical engineering student and co-manager of the current SVP team. “We’re using and learning things that no one else on Earth is using. These things can be used in non-solar ways.”

Deluga said the silent hydrogen automobiles, both commercial and domestic, have been introduced in places such as Japan, California, Vancouver and Iceland.

“It’s a shame,” Deluga said, that Minnesota does not yet have any.

“These cars are twice as efficient and increase miles per gallon four to 10 times in some cases,” Deluga said. “However, consumer demand is low because they cost twice as much as a regular car. You can only reduce cost through increased sales. Ö It has to make fiscal sense, so you need to prove that (petroleum) is less efficient. Efficiency saves money.”

Former President Bill Clinton allotted over $1.5 billion during his administration to the Partnership for a New Generation Vehicle Program, predecessor to the current federal hydrogen fuel research program, FreedomCAR.

“This is exciting stuff,” said Deluga. “This isn’t just tinkering in the basement; this is about literally trying to change the world.”

Nathan Hall welcomes comments at n [email protected]