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From Water to Water

From Water to Water

. . . for water thou art, and unto water shalt thou return.”

Taking a little poetic license here with the wording of Genesis 3:19 to illustrate the intrinsic nature of hydrogen technology.

We’ll get to how that works, but first a little background, about me, and about hydrogen and its use in electricity-producing devices known as fuel cells.

I covered the space program as a science writer back in the 1980s, including daily interaction with NASA’s Space Shuttle program. That’s when I first started getting really interested in hydrogen as a potential fuel source for the future, including replacing fossil fuels for use in our cars, trucks, buses, and possibly even aircraft. At the time, I considered various possible fuel sources, and the one that made the greatest sense to me was hydrogen, the most abundant element in the Universe. Not to burn hydrogen as we burn gasoline or diesel, or as the Space Shuttle burned it for lift-off, but rather as a source to produce electrical energy through a fuel cell that would then drive electric motors.

NASA has been putting fuel cells aboard spacecraft since the early 1960s, and they are what generate electricity aboard many spacecraft, including the Space Shuttle when it was operational. Fuel cell technology is actually a very old one, the principle first demonstrated in 1801 – yes, 1801, that’s not a typo – by Humphry Davy. Sir William Grove, who came to be known as the “Father of the Fuel Cell,” then invented the first fuel cell, which he called an “electric battery,” in 1839. Two researchers, Charles Langer and Ludwig Mond, were the ones, in 1889, to coin the term “fuel cell,” as they attempted to produce a device that would convert coal or carbon to electricity. What is considered the first successful fuel cell, using hydrogen and oxygen with alkaline electrolytes and nickel electrodes, was developed by Francis Bacon in 1932.

It wasn’t until 1959 that Bacon was able to produce the first practical fuel cell, one that could be put to use driving equipment. Also during the 1950s, General Electric invented the proton-exchange membrane fuel cell, and in the subsequent decade NASA started putting fuel cells aboard spacecraft. The technology since then has continued to develop, evolve, and gain in efficiency, which puts us where we are today.

My conclusion 30 years ago that hydrogen, used to generate electricity through fuel cells, would be the wave of future automotive technology was not the first bit of technical or scientific prognostication I had come up with. Ever since I was a kid I saw concept after concept that I first postulated subsequently adopted by manufacturers and appear on cars as well as on ships. It’s taken nearly three decades, and it probably will take another decade to be fully realized, but I finally am seeing my conclusion about hydrogen and fuel cells coming into reality. I don’t suppose I am the only one who saw this development, but I feel increasingly vindicated that it was an accurate prediction.

Now, getting back to the water-to-water thing. If you remember anything about your early schooling, beyond perhaps your first teacher’s name or the name of your best friend, it is the formula for water: H2O. The “O,” of course, stands for oxygen, the third most abundant element in the Universe. And the “H” stands for hydrogen. Two atoms of hydrogen, combined with one atom of oxygen, give us that liquid, water, essential to life as we know it.

Now here’s the really neat thing about hydrogen. It can be produced by separating it from oxygen in water, yielding both key elements to produce energy in a fuel cell – hydrogen and oxygen – and then when they are rejoined at the end of the process, voila, you get back water, and only water. It starts as water and ends as water. Water-to-water. Neat, huh?

Compared with a standard internal combustion engine burning gasoline or diesel, which produces poisonous carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and other nasty stuff, it’s kind of a no-brainer. But what about pure electric cars with motors powered by batteries, you ask? Aren’t they even cleaner, producing no pollution? Well, that’s only if you look at the motors themselves. But where does the electricity needed to charge the batteries to drive the motors come from? Right. Power plants which, depending on the plant, might burn fuel oil, coal, nuclear fuel, or natural gas (the latter perhaps being the cleanest source of mass power production, save for hydroelectric plants which have their own issues associated with them).

Former Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly once waxed eloquent about how all the nation’s cars should be electric and how much cleaner that would make the environment. I pointed out to him something called the Law of Conservation of Energy, which means it would take the same amount of energy to move all those cars regardless the source of the energy, and if the source of the electricity was central power plants, as it would be, there still would be a significant amount of pollution associated with all those electric cars. Alas, O’Reilly, clearly not a physicist, chose to ignore my message.

There are other problems with electric vehicles, too, including significant environmental issues with both the manufacture of the big batteries used in cars – building an electric car produces more greenhouse gases than does building a conventional car – and their disposal when they’ve reached the end of their useful life. And while the best pure-electric vehicle today might go over 300 miles on a charge, most still are limited to a range of 100 – 200 miles. Not very far, especially when it can then take anywhere from 30 minutes for a quick charge up to around 80 percent of battery capacity to as long as 12 hours to re-charge the batteries. If you’re not in much of a hurry or not going very far, an electric car might meet your need. Otherwise, not so much.

There is another huge problem with electric cars that was highlighted in recent months by the three major hurricanes to hit U.S. shores this year: Harvey, Irma, and Maria. When power is knocked out for large swaths of territory for hours, days, weeks, and, in some cases, months, an electric vehicle becomes a very large paper weight. Lacking a source of power to recharge its batteries, an electric vehicle isn’t going anywhere once its batteries are depleted. While there usually are conventional fuel shortages around big storms, people can fill their tanks ahead of time and often there are limited sources for gasoline and diesel available before, during, and after big storms. A conventionally powered vehicle might keep going while an electric one might not.

Looking now at hydrogen cars, the cars being produced and sold that are called “hydrogen-powered” actually employ fuel cells to drive the electric motors that drive the cars. While lagging far behind electric and hybrid-electric cars in terms of sheer numbers on the roads, the biggest problem retarding their more widespread use is a chicken-and-egg conundrum centered around the availability of hydrogen fuel stations. With low numbers of hydrogen vehicles there is low incentive to provide hydrogen fuel stations, and the low number of hydrogen fuel stations deters more widespread marketing and purchasing of hydrogen vehicles. But there might be changes on the way as, I would argue, there should be.

It’s estimated that by the end of this year there will be just 50 hydrogen filling stations in the U.S., most of them in California. There also are fleet stations and those used for research vehicles, but there is a huge gap in the number of places where one can fill up a hydrogen vehicle. Consider, however, that it only takes 3 – 5 minutes to refuel a hydrogen car, comparable to filling up a gasoline or diesel car, versus the hours needed to charge an electric vehicle, and the fact that hydrogen cars have ranges in excess of 300 miles and acceleration often equivalent to a conventional car.

Besides the paucity of places to fill up, the other problem with hydrogen is how to generate it in clean and economical ways. While it’s the most abundant element, it loves to join with oxygen to make water and other atoms to form other substances, and breaking it free to run it through a fuel cell is both a technical and an economic challenge. While there is enough oxygen in the air to use in a fuel cell, it’s a more difficult proposition with hydrogen.

There are all sorts of ways used to generate hydrogen, ranging from throwing iron filings into vats of sulfuric acid, to cracking hydrocarbon molecules in natural gas to, a more recent proposal, using geothermal heat at great ocean depths to generate large quantities of hydrogen. While the first method produces toxic waste, the second produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and the third is still under development, there is a simple, tried-and-true method, alluded to at the outset of this piece, that starts and ends with water.

That method uses electrolysis to separate water into its constituent atoms, and then after passing them through a fuel cell, reunites them as water at the end of the process. In fact, it’s relatively simple to construct a hydrogen generator of this sort – I’ve done it myself with readily available materials costing somewhere around $100 – and there are commercially available hydrogen generators for prices equivalent, or less, than making one’s own, and there even is a portable hydrogen reactor and fuel cell available for $105.99.

The basic problem with generating hydrogen through electrolysis is that it uses electricity to produce the hydrogen to be used in a fuel cell to, you guessed it, make electricity. But it’s not hard to envisage using solar or wind energy to provide the electricity used in the electrolysis. In fact, I think it doesn’t take a huge amount of imagination to picture each household with a hydrogen vehicle generating its own hydrogen. And maybe it’s a bit of a stretch today, but why can’t we see each hydrogen vehicle with its own on-board hydrogen generator, powered with rooftop solar panels, producing its own fuel from water that then returns to water and is recycled back through the hydrogen generator and, employing a little hyperbole, becomes its own perpetual motion machine?

We’ve heard of the supposed possibility of running cars on water, but with hydrogen cars this is a possibility, and it’s all based on science, not science fiction or a scam, if the technical issues can be worked out.

Elon Musk, who has put all his eggs in the electric car basket with Tesla Motors and the Tesla Gigafactory battery-production facilities, calls hydrogen technology “incredibly dumb.” He thinks it’s inefficient. But the major automobile manufacturers against which Musk and Tesla are pitted might disagree, and there are no fewer than eight hydrogen cars either currently available or under development for the marketplace in the next few years. These include the Toyota Mirai and Honda Clarity, two hydrogen cars already on the market, and hydrogen cars planned for release in the next few years by Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, and Nissan. A small Welsh startup, Riversimple, is making its subcompact hydrogen car available in the UK this year, Ford expects to have its hydrogen car out this year, and startup truck maker Nikola Moto Company unveiled a prototype hydrogen truck late last year that it expects to offer by 2020, with a range of between 800 and 1,200 miles. Nikola also plans to open 364 hydrogen filling stations by 2019.

Meanwhile, the French firm Alstom ran its first hydrogen fuel cell train, the Coradia iLint, in Germany in March, reaching 80 kph, and 140 kph in tests run in the Czech Republic, and orders for the train are already pouring in. Its sole emissions are steam and water.

“It’s so clean you can breathe it in,” says Stefan Schrank, Alstom’s project manager of the train’s emissions. And it is 60 percent less noisy than a diesel-powered train.

Whether the various plans for hydrogen cars and other vehicles reach fruition remains to be seen. It’s still not clear whether hydrogen is the fuel of the future and always will be – as Charles de Gaulle once said of Brazil, which he called “the country of the future, and always will be” – or if it becomes the primary fuel to replace fossil fuels. The question may be decided in the next 10 – 15 years, or even sooner. It was my pick 30 years ago, and so far I’m still betting on it.

Water-to-water, baby. I think that’s a winning formula.

2 Replies to “From Water to Water”

  1. The title of this post made me think of David Bowies song « Ashes to Ashes » but of course, in this case it’s mostly about the use of the main components of water.

    I recall being wowed at the futurisic De Lorean car in the movie « Back to the Futur 2» when the upgraded car featured a mini-recycling plant on it and by feeding it the trash, this provided fuel to the car. A quirky utopia – miniturising an atom-plant that would breakdown the main chemical and atomic particles in the trash and convert them into energy for the car battery.
    Of course, it would seem so much more easier to just be able to « top up the tank » with a simple glass of water and for now, depending where you live and if you are fortunate to live in a country that has an abondance of water, then this would be a practical solution.
    But I have also read some articles that talked about how in the future water might be the next thing people will make war about. Would this be due to shifting weather patterns and causing drastic droughts in areas that were usually well provided with water? I’m guessing that this mostly refers to « fresh water » and not the 75% of oceans and seas that cover the globe.
    And the way I see it, even if someone found a way to power the cars with the air that surrounds us, I’m still pretty sure the industrial conglomerate would find a way to get us to pay for it. The ideal car would be one that doesn’t require us needing to recharge it or fill up the tank.
    We’re not there yet and seeing how long it is taking people to switch over from fossil fuel to electric cars (the latter still being a minority in the percentage of car sales), I dare not imagine how long we’ll have to wait for a hydrogen fueled car to get on the market – not to mention its cost (at first – just like the electric or hybrid cars were and still are more expensive than diesel cars). Yes, I put a bet on us having to wait at least 30 years or more before we get there – the only thing that could suddenly push things forward faster would be a sudden massive drop in fossil petrol production and the wells drying up earlier than the scientists had calculated. But as they seem to keep of finding new spots in the world that hold untapped huge volumes of petrol in places yet to be prospected, I’m guessing that fossil fuel still has some good years ahead of it still…

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Gem.

    Well, I’d say Bowie also was drawing on the words of Genesis, as I was in formulating the title to this posting.

    To respond to some of the things you say here, technologies to convert garbage to energy have been around a long time, even, I suspect, at the time of Back to Future2.

    You raise an interesting point about the scarcity of water and how widespread use of hydrogen from water could lead to conflict. In fact, conflicts in some parts of the world, notably the Middle East, already have water resources as an underlying issue and have for decades. However, continued reliance on fossil fuels leads to environmental degradation, a major problem for many countries, and replacing them with hydrogen can vastly improve those conditions. In addition to increased use of desalination to provide much needed water, I don’t think it’s a huge technical leap to be able to capture and recycle the water produced by a fuel cell, creating essentially a closed or nearly closed system. The cost and potential future scarcity of fossil fuels are real concerns, and while water certainly is critical to life, we’ve barely begun to tap its potential supply.

    You also say, “I dare not imagine how long we’ll have to wait for a hydrogen fueled car to get on the market.” But as I say in the piece, several hydrogen cars already are on the market, including the Toyota Mirai and the Honda Clarity, both of which garner excellent reviews and have all the refinement of traditional vehicles, at costs that consumers can sustain. Additionally, both Ford and the small Welsh firm Riversimple are planning hydrogen car releases this year, with the other major manufacturers mentioned in the piece already developing and testing hydrogen cars, with commercial releases planned in the next few years. Note also that the French company Alstom already has a hydrogen-powered train on the tracks and on the market, with orders pouring in. The problem isn’t getting manufacturers interested, but rather the scarcity of hydrogen filling stations. In time this will be addressed, but my suggestion to build cars with their own built-in hydrogen generators could represent a huge leap forward in fostering widespread marketing and use of the cars.

    If I had to prognosticate how things will go, I’d say we’re going to see a growing mix of various types of vehicles on the roads in the coming decade or more. Actually, we already have a mix of gasoline-, diesel-, flex fuel-, hybrid-, pure electric-, and hydrogen-powered cars on the road. We’re going to see the balance of that mix continue, over time, to shift away from fossil fuels and more toward the other alternatives out there. I’m not prepared to say that electric cars will not be a major part of that mix, but I think there are lots of good reasons to expect that hydrogen cars will greatly outnumber them once more and more models are rolled out, as hydrogen filling stations become more available, and as the true costs of electric vehicles, environmental and otherwise, become more widely known. Like I say, my bet is still on hydrogen/fuel cell cars in the long run.

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