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Just two months ago, we reported that the federal government’s hydrogen car program was going down like the Hindenburg, as the Department of Energy announced that it would slash research funding. At the time, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that after years of research, hydrogen-fueled cars were still years away from commercial viability. “We asked ourselves, ‘Is it likely in the next 10 or 15, 20 years that we will convert to a hydrogen car economy?’ The answer, we felt, was ‘no,’” Chu said in May [CNET].
But the program has proven harder to take down than the flammable zeppelin: Both houses of Congress seem inclined to restore funding. The House of Representatives voted on an energy package on Friday that includes $153 million for hydrogen and fuel cell research, and the parallel bill that will go before the Senate currently includes $190 million for the program.
The newest attempt at a viable hydrogen-powered car is a tiny two-seater that should have early adopters tootling around the United Kingdom next year, according its manufacturer, a startup company named Riversimple. While momentum has recently shifted away from hydrogen cars and back towards electric vehicles, company executives say their Riversimple Urban Car meets the challenges posed by hydrogen fuel cell technology. Its makers claim that by starting from scratch to build a small, efficient car they can make it commercially viable more quickly than the major auto manufacturers experimenting with adapting more conventional cars to hydrogen [New Scientist].
A prototype of the light-weight city car was unveiled today in London. Riversimple executives drove up in the vehicle, which has a top speed of 50 miles an hour and can travel about 200 miles before refueling with liquid hydrogen. The car is packed with novel approaches to car design, but company founder Hugo Spowers says it’s the business model that really sets Riversimple apart. Users willl lease the car for an estimated $315 per month, a price that includes the cost of hydrogen fuel and any repairs. The company asserts that in the leasing model, the vested interest for the manufacturer is in producing long-lasting, fuel-efficient, high-quality products [BBC News]. The company will first try a small pilot program in one (to be determined) city in England, where a gas supply company will partner with Riversimple to build fuel stations.
The dream of hydrogen fuel cell cars has just been put back in the garage. U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced yesterday that his department is cutting all funding for hydrogen car research, saying that it won’t be a feasible technology anytime soon. “We asked ourselves, ‘Is it likely in the next 10 or 15, 20 years that we will covert to a hydrogen car economy?’ The answer, we felt, was ‘no,’” Chu said [CNET]. While innovative new cars are a high priority, Chu declared that his department will focus on efforts that may pay off sooner, like plug-in electric cars.
Cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells have been a staple of clean energy dreams, as they’d produce only a trickle of water as a waste product, instead of sooty exhaust and carbon dioxide gas. The retreat from cars powered by fuel cells counters Mr. Bush’s prediction in 2003 that “the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free.” The Energy Department will continue to pay for research into stationary fuel cells, which Dr. Chu said could be used like batteries on the power grid and do not require compact storage of hydrogen [The New York Times].
The joke about hydrogen-powered cars is that they’re about 10 years away–and always will be. The technology has been held up largely by the high cost of hydrogen fuel cells, but now researchers say they’ve found a way to bring down the cost dramatically by making a key component out of carbon nanotubes instead of platinum. More than half the cost of fuel-cell stacks comes from platinum, according to the Department of Energy. “Fuel cells haven’t been commercialized for larger-scale applications because platinum is too expensive,” says Liming Dai [Technology Review], the lead author of the new study.
Researcher found that tightly packed, vertically aligned carbon nanotubes doped with nitrogen were more effective as catalysts than platinum, which is usually used to help oxygen react within the fuel cell. That is a vital stage of the fuel cell cycle. Rather than burning fuel to create heat to power a turbine, fuel cells turn chemical energy directly into a flow of electricity. Hydrogen gas, for example, is pumped past one electrode (the anode), where it is split into its constituent electrons and protons. The electrons then flow out of the anode, providing electrical power, while the protons diffuse through the cell. Electrons and protons both end up at a second electrode (the cathode), where they combine with oxygen to form water [New Scientist].
That second reaction is very slow, so engineers have developed cathodes made out of materials that act as chemical catalysts and speed up the reaction. Until now, platinum was considered the best catalyst, but now carbon nanotubes with a trace of nitrogen (the critical ingredient) have left the precious metal in the dust.
Look, up in the sky: It’s a biofuel-powered jet! It’s a hydrogen-powered plane! In fact, you can expect to see both of these alternative energy aircraft in the sky in coming years. The aviation industry is rushing to innovate as fuel prices continue to take their toll and as the public questions the impact air travel has on climate change.
In North Dakota, an engineering team working with DARPA has created a soybean and canola oil biofuel for jets that they say is indistinguishable from conventional jet fuel, with a similar density and freezing point. The research team is currently in the process of producing 25 gallons (95 liters) of the bio–jet fuel for ground testing in a jet engine as early as next month. “The thing that needs to happen is a purchase order to come through from the Air Force so we can get [the] investment to build that first plant,” [engineer Chad] Wocken says. “We could get a plant operational in two to five years if there were a commitment to buy the fuel” [Scientific American].
Researchers have come up with a cheap and easy process for storing solar energy, in a finding that could provide one of the final elements for efficient solar power systems: the ability to store excess energy in a battery for use later when the sun isn’t shining.
Researchers are euphoric about their invention, which could mark a great leap forward in solar technology; previous experimental batteries used to store solar energy have been bulky, expensive and inefficient. “This is the nirvana of what we’ve been talking about for years,” said [lead researcher Daniel] Nocera in the press release. “Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon” [Christian Science Monitor].
Cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells could be commercially viable in 15 years, according to a new report, but only if engineers overcome technological hurdles and the government pumps $55 billion into their development. The primary barriers to adoption are high costs and the absence of an infrastructure to distribute hydrogen [CNET], according to the federally funded study.
Several car companies are already leasing their experimental fuel-cell cars, but the report says they won’t be a mass-market hit until 2023 at the earliest. Automakers don’t disclose the costs of the few hundred fuel cell vehicles on the roads — but generally say it costs $1 million to $2 million to produce one in such low volumes. The main expense is the platinum in the fuel stack, which accounts for 57 percent of the fuel stack cost [The Detroit News].