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Science Technology

Hydrogen Fuel Cells Hit the Road 530

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the tough-finding-a-fueling-station dept.
caffeined writes "Well, it looks like Honda is doing a real test of their fuel-cell car. A family in California is renting the car for $500/mo. Honda is charging them so that they take it seriously - an executive explained that if it were free they might not get the kind of feedback they want. If someone is paying for something and they're not happy - then you're going to hear about it. This is apparently the first fuel-cell car on the road anywhere in the world, according to Honda."
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Hydrogen Fuel Cells Hit the Road

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  • by CSIP (31272) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @01:08PM (#13933792) Homepage
    There have been a few fuel cell cars on the road in Vancouver, BC [theautochannel.com] for a few months already.
  • Re:Nice (Score:3, Informative)

    by Gravedigger3 (888675) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @01:08PM (#13933802)
    California isn't just a small strip of sunny beach on the west coast. I live in the valley and it is raining outside right now. It gets well below freezing in the winter and I often have to scrape the ice off of my windshield before work. It can get even worse if you head up into the Sierra Nevadas.

  • by eln (21727) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @01:15PM (#13933882) Homepage
    If the fuel tank were to rupture and explode, it would actually be less dangerous than your current gas tank rupturing and exploding. Plus, the tanks are designed not only to resist puncturing, but to keep hydrogen gas from entering the passenger compartment in the event of a rupture. Numerous real-world tests have been conducted that show these hydrogen cars will perform at least as well as gasoline cars in a high-speed collision.

    The Hindenburg went up so fast because the canvas was treated with substances that also happen to be used in rocket fuel. Even so, the passenger compartment itself was unharmed and the passengers survived.
  • by ceoyoyo (59147) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @01:16PM (#13933885)
    Nothing will explode a la Hindenburg unless it's painted with rocket fuel a la Hindenburg. Pure hydrogen doesn't explode very well (just like gasoline) because you have to get enough oxygen to it fast enough. Hindenburg had the benefit of being painted with a nice solid rocket oxidizer that releases oxygen when it gets hot.
  • BC Transit (Score:4, Informative)

    by Beardo the Bearded (321478) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @01:16PM (#13933886)
    There have been fuel-cell busses running in Vancouver for a few years, too.

    Must have something to do with Ballard...
  • by AKAImBatman (238306) * <akaimbatman AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @01:16PM (#13933889) Homepage Journal
    Charge them $500 a month to have the car blow up upon impact and kill the whole family.

    Now there's a line of hyperbole if I've ever heard it. I imagine that they've done crash tests on this car to determine the exact dangers of this happening. At the very least, I've seen the early crash tests done to decide if hydrogen was feasible or not. The result of the tests was that *if* the hydrogen were to ignite, its direction (up) would be safe as long as the passengers weren't sitting on it. It actually ended up being *safer* than gasoline, as the gasoline cars continued burning long past the initial ignition.
  • Low temp operation (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @01:23PM (#13933960)
    I think they've already dealt with that. [autoweek.com]
  • Re:Nice (Score:5, Informative)

    by The_Rook (136658) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @01:33PM (#13934066)
    more to the point, the air cooled volkswagon beetle engine was designed for cooler european climates. when people began driving them across the hot dry deserts of north america, the flammable bits on the engines (rubber, grime, etc.) would catch fire.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @01:35PM (#13934083)
    Er,

    For hydrogen to explode, it needs oxygen.

    If the tank ruptures, the gas as light as it is would expand throughout the air very very quickly.

    This isn't like lighting a balloon filled with hydrogen with a candle and watching the brief poof of flame.

    This is like having a candle five feet away from a balloon filled with hydrogen and popping the balloon. That is, if there is a fire involved in the collission.

    How often do collisions result in fire? I did a little bit of research into this, but the best I could find was that "crashes with fires are relatively rare" (http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/rules/regrev/evalua te/807675.html [dot.gov]).

    To explore this a little further:

    What causes a fire in an automotive accident? Faulty gas tanks and fuel lines. This results in leakage. The vapors (which are MUCH heavier than hydrogen) then get sparked by something. This ignites the vapors, leading back to the fuel tank which then catches fire. I've witnessed car fires before (a few months ago, a car in the parking lot of my apartment complex caught fire). The fire burned for 10 minutes before fire response arrived. In that time, the fire spread from one car to the two cars on either side. It took fire response about five minutes to put the fires out. During this 15 minute time period, the materials that were burning included the interior of the car, under the hood, and the tires. The only violent explosions that occurred were the tires exploding.

    I'm theorizing the reason the gas tanks didn't ignite is that gasoline requires a very oxygen rich environment. Gasoline requires a 1.4% - 7.6% concentration in air for it to be explosive. Any less than this and it will merely ignite; any more than this and there isn't enough oxygen for it to explode. It will simply ignite. The pre-existing fire probably used up most of the oxygen near the fuel lines. There was probably a phenomenon similar to what you see with an oil well - a jet of flame from the fuel line. Hollywood car explosions just don't happen.

    Now, on to hydrogen.

    Hydrogen, being much lighter than air (as opposed to natural gas or gasoline vapors), dissipates very quickly in air. At concentrations of less than 10%, it would require the same ammount of energy to ignite as would natural gas. The main point here, is that hydrogen dissipates so quickly that the concentration would very quickly reach less than 4% (the lower limit of explosivity). The likelyhood of explosions is much less likely than with even gasoline because of this.

    Hydrogen Fuel Cells do not use any sparking or arcing componants. Similarly, the engine is a simple electronic engine. If something shorted, it could spark - but there is no combustion inherent in a fuel cell car. This limits the chances of even igniting the hydrogen in the case of a leak.

    Fuel cells are also equipped with automatic shutoffs in case a leak is detected. This can't help if the storage tank itself is ruptured, but that would be difficult (Normal air tanks for scuba divers are very difficult to rupture, and tanks used to transport flamable liquid are even more difficult to rupture).

    The myth of the exploding hydrogen car can be linked to two things: the hindenberg and the hydrogen bomb.

    The hindenberg burned, rather than exploded. The color of the flame was wrong for hydrogen to be the propellant. It's very likely that it was the flamable fabric covering the zeppelin that ignited, not a leaking hydrogen tank.

    A hydrogen bomb requires special isotopes of H2, and very high temperatures. Neither of which would be found in a car fire or a hydrogen fuel cell car.

    For more on hydrogen fuel cell safety: http://sanewsletters.com/FCIR/fcirfctpart1.pdf [sanewsletters.com]

    In the meantime, stop propogating myth and FUD.
  • by MoaDweeb (858263) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @01:44PM (#13934175)
    Currently sourced hydrogen does not come from electricity. It comes from hydrocarbons, it CAN come from elctricity/ water but it is much easier to extract hydrogen from oil, natural gas etc. Then again shifting the pollution off the rods and back towards the generating plants could make it easier to control in countries that give a s**t about the enviroment. You could always look at power stations that do not run on fossil fuels.
  • by Clod9 (665325) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @01:48PM (#13934214) Journal
    The slashdot article summary ("apparently the first fuel-cell car on the road anywhere in the world") is just wrong.

    An article on the Honda site [honda.com] says "In December 2002, the city of Los Angeles began leasing the first of five Honda FCXs, which are now used in normal, everyday activities by city officials." ... "While the 2005 Honda FCX is our second-generation fuel cell vehicle (FCV), it is the first to be powered by a Honda designed and manufactured fuel cell stack."

    So this is a meaningful trial and a significant step but it is far from the "first fuel-cell car on the road".

  • by world_domination (907878) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @01:49PM (#13934237)
    [quote]This is apparently the first fuel-cell car on the road anywhere in the world, according to Honda.[/quote] A hydrogen powered bus is rolling down the streets in Amsterdam, since 2004.
  • by hamburger lady (218108) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @01:51PM (#13934254)
    here's a pic of a fuel-cell car after a nasty road accident which killed 4 people.

    http://www.visforvoltage.com/forums/uploads/post-4 0-1128519068.jpg [visforvoltage.com]

    notice the hydrogen bottle. notice it's still whole.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @01:55PM (#13934290)
    The Honda FCX has been leased and used in LA for 2-3 years now as a city vehicle. This is the first that a regular driver has had one for daily use.
    so, Honda's still first :)
  • by apederso (619173) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @01:58PM (#13934328)
    I beg to differ on the subject of the cause of the Hindenburg disaster. If you read the Wiki Article [wikipedia.org] on the subject or look at any number of other [colorado.edu] scientific articles [sas.org] you can see that all though it is possible that the skin of the airship was involved it was the flamable properties of the hydrogen gas that caused the fire to burn as quickly as it did.

    You are correct however about the death toll on the passengers. From the Wiki:
    Contrary to popular belief, most of the crew and passengers survived. Of a total of 36 passengers and 61 crew, 13 passengers and 22 crew died. Also killed was one member of the ground crew, Navy Linesman Allen Hagaman. Most deaths did not arise from the fire, but were suffered by those who leapt from the burning ship. (The lighter-than-air fire burned overhead.) Those passengers who rode the ship on its gentle descent to the ground escaped unharmed.
  • by krouskop (905215) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @02:01PM (#13934355)
  • by boogybren (886343) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @02:04PM (#13934382) Homepage
    BMW has had them on the road for at least 6 years with the 750hL.

    See the Milestones section of http://www.bmw.com/com/en/index_highend.html [bmw.com]
  • by Rei (128717) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @02:06PM (#13934397) Homepage
    Well, before anyone beats me to it:

    Hydrogen Is Not An Alternative Fuel Source.

    Hydrogen is an energy storage mechanism, not an energy source (unless you're talking about fusion ;) ).

    What is it that hydrogen brings to the automobile that makes people want it so much (apart from hype)? A few things.

    One, hydrogen vehicles are electric vehicles; thus, regenerative braking and other efficiency issues become much simpler. Two, the fuel is easy to come by (if gasoline were to dissapear, we'd have to use ethanol**) and can be made disjoint from the petroleum industry (relying on grid power), although inefficient by most means of production (for example, generating electricity, then performing electrolysis). Three, the efficiencies of using hydrogen are very high - 70-80% or so; if you produce your hydrogen efficiently (say, from nuclear power thermolysis), you have an overall extremely efficient fuel cycle.

    ** - To preemptively head off this tinder box before it ignites, ethanol is A) not a net negative energy balance, and B) even if it was, it wouldn't matter. As for (A), only Pimentol (and those he works with) claim this, and his numbers are extremely questionable (relying on archaic conversion efficiency numbers, making unreasonable assumptions about fertilizer and irrigation, etc - I can get into this more if need be). Essentially everyone else who has studied the issue comes up with a very positive energy balance. As for (B), even if it was negative, that's irrelevant. The Nazis turned coal to oil extremely inefficiently, burning far more coal to power it than they produced oil's worth of energy, and yet it drove the Nazi war machine. Most ethanol production today uses natural gas, but that's just because it's currently cheap. If it wasn't, they could use coal heat, nuclear heat, any waste power plant heat - they could even burn ag waste. You're turning something that you can't put into your gas tank into something that you can.
  • Re:What's so funny? (Score:2, Informative)

    by ifwm (687373) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @02:07PM (#13934410) Journal
    http://www.autoweek.com/article.cms?articleId=1020 55 [autoweek.com]

    Please let those who aren't ignorant discuss this.

    The worst part is, I got that link from the post directly above yours, and it preceded your post by 20 minutes.

     
  • Re:Nice (Score:1, Informative)

    by bhive01 (832162) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @02:09PM (#13934434)
    Actually, isn't -40 the point at which Celsius and Fahrenheit intersect?
  • by Rei (128717) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @02:17PM (#13934501) Homepage
    Air cars have god-awful energy densities, and explode like there's no tomorrow if not properly maintained or improperly filled.
  • Re:Sign me up! (Score:3, Informative)

    by Colonel Angus (752172) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @02:26PM (#13934567)
    From Wikipedia [wikipedia.org]:

    Environmental benefits in comparison to petroleum based fuels include:

    * Biodiesel reduces emissions of carbon monoxide (CO) by approximately 50% and carbon dioxide by 78.45% on a net lifecycle basis because the carbon in biodiesel emissions is recycled from carbon that was already in the atmosphere, rather than being new carbon from petroleum that was sequestered in the earth's crust. (Sheehan, 1998)

    * Biodiesel contains fewer aromatic hydrocarbons: benzofluoranthene: 56% reduction; Benzopyrenes: 71% reduction.

    * It also eliminates sulfur emissions (SO2), because biodiesel doesn't include sulfur.

    * Biodiesel reduces by as much as 65% the emission of particulates (small particles of solid combustion products).

    * Biodiesel does produce more NOx emissions than petrodiesel, but these emissions can be reduced through the use of catalytic converters. Petrodiesel vehicles have generally not included catalytic converters because the sulfur content in that fuel destroys the devices, but biodiesel does not contain sulfur. The increase in NOx emmisions may also be due to the higher cetane rating of biodiesel. Properly designed and tuned engines may eliminate this increase.

    * It has a higher cetane rating than petrodiesel, and therefore ignites more rapidly when injected into the engine.

    "So, biodiesel=good--a step in the right direction--but, we still need to structure our lives and society so that we drive less (way less) and rely less on burning feul (however sexy)"

    And that, I wholly agree with.
  • by Rei (128717) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @02:26PM (#13934572) Homepage
    Completely false, and I would recommend that you handle hydrogen some time or read guidelines for handling it. Hydrogen is an extremely flammable substance, partly because it mixes with air so readily. Gasoline explosions are incredibly hard to get to occur at STP; it takes an incredibly fine mist and well balanced ratio; otherwise, you just get a conflagration. With gasoline, the risk is that the fuel doesn't dissipate and burns for long periods of time with great intensity. With hydrogen (and propane for that matter), the fuel dissipates relatively rapidly**, but while it is dissipating is far more likely to explode. Hydrogen's explosive properties are what make it the prime fuel used in Deflagration to Detonation Transition [aardvark.co.nz]-based engines ("Pulse Detonation"). The injection system is also much easier, as it doesn't need to mist it.

    ** The rate depends on the size of the leak. Pinhole hydrogen leaks can spontaneously ignite, and burn for a long time. Also, propane can be trapped in bowl-shaped areas, while hydrogen gets trapped under overhangs and inside buildings.
  • by bedroll (806612) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @02:28PM (#13934594) Journal
    You can buy a ford focus with the option fuel cell option already. Rumor has it that ford is read to introduce a fuel cell Ford f150 truck sometime in a few years.

    Ugh. You are confusing a gasoline fuel cell with a [fuelsafe.com]hydrogen fuel cell [wikipedia.org]. You'll find they are very different things.

    GMC is the only one who refuses to go along with fuel cells.

    That is blatantly false. For one thing, GMC is a division of GM. For another, if you actually researched you'd find that GM is footing the largest part of the hydrogen fuel cell research. Honda is busy putting cars out and getting PR, GM is busy investing money in figuring out how to deliver hydrogen to the world efficiently.

    Also it should be mentioned that the oil industry owns stock in these American automobile companies so they have a financial incentive to create gas guzzlers.

    I don't know about this first-hand, but given the track record of your post I wouldn't take only your word for it.

  • by jsrodrigues (212119) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @02:30PM (#13934615)
    http://world.honda.com/FuelCell/ [honda.com]

    Also, an article on this story at Honda's website: http://world.honda.com/news/2005/4050629.html [honda.com]
  • by Rei (128717) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @02:35PM (#13934653) Homepage
    The hindenburg was painted in cellulose acetate (relatively fire resistant - it took Bain a bloody jacob's ladder, at the right angle at that, to ignite it, and it burned itself out (the very reason why there is so much Hindeburg skin left in the hands of collectors), not cellulose nitrate (somewhat explosive, and occasionally used as a rocket fuel). Its coating isn't thermite, either (the ratio is backwards, and the layers were separated, not mixed as required by thermine, plus coated in a binder). Even if it was painted in rocket fuel, that wouldn't be an explanation either - rocket fuels combust relatively slowly.

    Stop and think for a minute here: Hindenburg, like most derrigables at the time, had been struck by lightning several times in the past, and had large holes burned in the skin by it. If the skin was so flammable, why didn't it (and other craft) catch on the first bolt, instead of only when it (and others that burned) were venting hydrogen? Only when the hydrogen was mixed in stochiometric ratios did it (and others go up).

    I could easily go on here. The fact that completely differently constructed WWI blimps (with different materials in the skin) burned in exactly the same fashion (the outer skin acts like a glow lamp to the inner hydrogen, which slowly burns from sucked-in oxygen). The fact that the combustion can be visibly seen in the pictures burning along cell lines [altfrankfurt.com], despite the fact that the skin was continuous across cells. Etc. I suggest you read up on the subject - the Addison Bain Incendiary Paint theory has been widely debunked.
  • by bluGill (862) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @02:38PM (#13934672)

    Getting more out of ethanol than the fuels you used is easy: just use 1990s production techniques or better.

    That means on the farm you have things like diesel tractors that get better use of the fuel, hybrid crops that yield nearly twice as much. Precision fertializer application so you don't waste it where the ground is fertil.

    At the plant you use a dry milling process, your total return is about 167% of the energy input. Or you wet milling, but use all the other results from wet milling, and call ethanol a by-product that would otherwise be waste, so you don't count all the costs (though this is a bogus argument - but even without it you are looking at about a 110% payback of energy)

    In the lab 250% payback has been done, but not all of this is ready for production use.

  • Cart Before Horse (Score:4, Informative)

    by Nom du Keyboard (633989) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @02:41PM (#13934704)
    Until you have a clean, renewable source of hydrogen you haven't solved any problem at all by building a hydrogen fuelled car. You've only moved the pollution source, and likely lost energy in the conversion and transportation.
  • Re:Nice but (Score:3, Informative)

    by Eccles (932) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @02:45PM (#13934738) Journal
    Biodiesel has a big flaw: the efficiency of the production method.

    1) Plants aren't that efficient at turning sunlight into energy. They don't really need to be for their purposes, and they ignore certain wavelengths (such as green) altogether.

    2) Once you have the plant, you need to turn it into diesel. Again, this is highly inefficient.

    3) Once you have diesel, you must turn it into energy. Combustion engines are less efficient than fuel cells or power plant turbines.

    Consider how much land we use for farming. Then consider how much more energy our cars use than we do.
  • by SysKoll (48967) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @02:54PM (#13934818)
    This is good news. About 60% of the petroleum used in the US goes into transportation, with gasoline owning the lion's share. This while the oil market remains tense and the refinery capacity close to 100% utilization.

    So if even a small fraction of US cars convert to another energy source, this would considerably lower the strain on the gasoline supply chain and probably lower the oil price -- at least until OPEP tightens the supply.

    Naturally, you need that other energy source. If all you do is generate H2 from oil (or natural gas), then you accomplish nothing. You need nuclear power plants. They are not cheap (at almost $2 per watt, they are more expensive than natural gas plant), but they are considerably cheaper than solar arrays ($5/Watt), and they operate 24 hours a day whereas solar plants don't (a solar plant would need triple generating capacity and energy storage to be able to supply electricity at night -- generate 3x the energy during the day, store it, release 1x the energy at night, roughly).

    More nuclear power plants would allow emerging countries to bootstrap their economy faster. Costly oil is really harming them right now. Mundane things like irrigation programs require pumps that run on electricity, which itself comes from oil. Expensive oil means no pumps, no irrigation, no crop.

    So next time you meet a well-fed person opposing nuclear power, remind him/her that because of this attitude, millions of people are starving and rotting in abject poverty.

  • by hador_nyc (903322) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @03:30PM (#13935140) Homepage
    Also it should be mentioned that the oil industry owns stock in these American automobile companies so they have a financial incentive to create gas guzzlers. I don't know about this first-hand, but given the track record of your post I wouldn't take only your word for it.

    For the record, as I do work in the financial industry, and checked this out, while some oil companies own some of the stock, the are NOT major holders of ford or gm.
  • Re:Nice (Score:2, Informative)

    by dammy (131759) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @04:09PM (#13935465)
    According to Honda http://world.honda.com/Tokyo2005/fcx/index02.html [honda.com] their fuel stack operates down to -20C.

    Dammy
  • Re:Nice (Score:3, Informative)

    by budgenator (254554) on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @05:03PM (#13935933) Journal
    There are places in the United States where it gets seriously cold in the winter, the car batteries sit on top of a heating pad and are trickle charged constantly or they just will not be able to turn the engine over, the engines have either block heaters, or synthetic engine oil because normal mineral oils turn to jelly overnight. The parking meters have electrical outlets so drivers can plug in their cars while shopping. There are some places that are insanely cold where you start your engine in the fall and only shut it off in spring.
  • Re:Nice (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 02, 2005 @05:44PM (#13936354)
    >more to the point, the air cooled volkswagon beetle engine was designed for cooler european
    >climates. when people began driving them across the hot dry deserts of north america, the
    >flammable bits on the engines (rubber, grime, etc.) would catch fire.

    Well IIAM (I Am A Mechanic) and actually the reason they would overheat is because VW's had an air dam that would close in cooler weather blocking the flow of air across the heads of the engine, to help bring the engine up to operating temperature, which would open up when warm. Eventually, these would eventually get stuck open or closed because nobody ever maintained or lubricated those things (You were supposed to have the valves on the engine adjusted every once in a while as well, nobody EVER did that.. most of the time nobody even changed the oil like they were supposed to).

    In a cooler climate, the car might not get hot enough to overheat if that damper wasn't open all the way, but drive across a desert and any air restriction will make that bugger overheat. That's why you would always see them off on the side of the road in the summertime, overheated.

    Really, it was very very hard to kill an old VW beetle... When you consider how people neglected them and beat the hell out of them, it's pretty amazing how durable they were.

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