March 1, 2003
A Hydrogen-Fueled SUV Will Set You Free
By Harry Braun
There are many people who want to eliminate the use of internal combustion (IC) engines and large vehicles like SUVs because they require excessive amounts of gasoline that pollutes the atmosphere and is manufactured from rapidly diminishing oil reserves. However, it is not the IC engine or the size of the vehicle that is the problem - but the fuel. If the IC engines are optimized to burn hydrogen fuel, which is non-toxic, non-polluting and inexhaustible, the environmental and supply problems are fundamentally eliminated. While fuel cells may someday replace the IC engines, they are at present still much too expensive and very much in the research and development stage. Indeed, if the current generation of proton exchange membrane fuel cells that use platinum catalysts were to replace IC engines, the worldwide platinum production would have to be increased by a factor of 30. Unlike oil, hydrogen is inexhaustible if it is made from water with renewable energy sources, thus it is not necessary to "conserve" hydrogen. As such, consumers do not need to drive small vehicles with small fuel efficient engines. Indeed, given that the hydrogen fuel tanks will be larger than gasoline tanks, in the coming Hydrogen Age, bigger is better.
The Universal Fuel
Hydrogen is the only "universal fuel" that can power virtually any existing engine or appliance, including SUVs, hybrid vehicles, trucks, aircraft, ships, spacecraft, or a Coleman stove or laptop computer on a mountain-top. Hydrogen-fueled IC engines have been shown to be about 25% more energy efficient than their gasoline-fueled counterparts, which form carbon deposits and organic acids that contaminate the engine oil and thereby increase wear and corrosion of the bearing surfaces. Since hydrogen-fueled engines produce no carbon deposits or acids, they will be clean machines that will require less maintenance and have a significantly longer operating life.
Engineers in Germany and England first began investigating the use of hydrogen as an automotive fuel in the early 1900s, and by the 1930's, literally thousands of hydrogen-fueled vehicles were in operation. One of the principal engineers that made this possible was Rudolf Erren, a German engineer who developed a fuel injection system that allowed the hydrogen to be fed directly into the cylinder, thereby eliminating the carburetor, which was poorly suited to inject a gaseous fuel. The remaining engine components were unchanged, thus the conversion cost was relatively small, and the vehicles were able to operate on either hydrogen or other hydrocarbon fuels while in operation with the flip of a switch from inside the vehicle. All major engines in use at the time were modified, including those manufactured by MAN, Daimler-Benz and Beardmore.
In World War II, the Allies even captured hydrogen-powered German submarines that used hydrogen to power both their "trackless" diesel engines and torpedoes. Conventional fuels leave tracks, which are a trail of exhaust bubbles, but when only hydrogen and oxygen were combusted in the engine, the resulting water vapor condensed into the seawater, thus no bubbles were formed that would drift to the surface for a giveaway trail. During surface operation, the submarine's diesel engines also powered an electrolyzer, which separated water into hydrogen and oxygen. These gases were then stored under pressure until needed when the submarine was diving or running submerged. The hydrogen-fueled submarine eliminated the need for large heavy batteries and electric motors needed for underwater operation. The weight and space savings allowed the submarines range to be extended by 15,000 miles and because the hull was strengthened, the vessel was able to dive deeper and faster.
A self-service liquid hydrogen pump was used by Los Alamos National Laboratory investigators in 1981 to refuel a modified 1979 Buick. After using this system for over a year, the Los Alamos investigators, headed up by Walter Stewart, concluded in their final report that "liquid hydrogen storage and refueling of a vehicle can be accomplished over an extended period of time without any major difficulty." BMW investigators came to a similar conclusion in Germany, and began to modify a number of their test vehicles to operate on liquid hydrogen fuel. American engineer Roger Billings started modifying vehicles to operate on hydrogen when he was in high school in the 1960s. He eventually modified a wide-range of vehicles, starting with a lawnmower and a Model A Ford. In the 1970's, Billings modified a Cadillac Seville and Jacobson tractor as part of a Hydrogen Home demonstration project that had all of the home's appliances using hydrogen, including a portable Coleman camping stove.
Fig. 1: A Self-Service Liquid Pump Fig. 2: A Hydrogen Home and Fig. 3: A Hydrogen-Fueled
Refueling a 1979 Modified Buick Vehicles Coleman Stove
While all of the major automobile manufacturers, including General Motors, Ford, DamilerChrysler, Toyota and Honda, are all now developing hydrogen fueled cars, BMW started its hydrogen fuel research program in the 1970s, and focused on using liquid hydrogen storage systems that most closely resemble gasoline from a perspective of weight and volume on board a vehicle. The current BMW V-12 engine is able to operate on gasoline or hydrogen with the flip of a switch from inside the vehicle. BMW engineers point out that if liquid hydrogen fuel storage systems are used, drivers will not have to give up vehicle size, performance or range. The only noticeable difference in the car is that it has two fuel caps, one for gasoline and one for liquid hydrogen. The BMW hydrogen-fueled fleet of cars have a slogan painted on the cars: Powered by BMW with Sun and Water.
Fig. 4: The Evolution of BMW's Liquid Fig. 5: BMW's Hydrogen-Fueled Hydrogen-Fueled Vehicles V-12 Engine
Hydrogen Aircraft Applications
The B-57 bomber pictured above was the first U.S. aircraft to be modified to use liquid hydrogen fuel. The modification was undertaken by NASA in 1956.
One of the first proposals to use liquid hydrogen fuel for aircraft was detailed in 1938 by Igor Sikorski, who later founded Sikorski Aircraft. Because liquid hydrogen has the highest energy content per weight of fuel, the fuel flight efficiency would roughly double, thus the effective range of an aircraft could be doubled. The U.S. Air Force began investigating the use of liquid hydrogen as an aircraft fuel in 1943, with investigators at Ohio State University. Ongoing studies by the U.S. Air Force and Lockheed in the 1960s and 1970s concluded that in addition to hydrogen's favorable fuel efficiency and safety characteristics, hydrogen-fueled aircraft would also minimize pollution and be lighter; quieter; require smaller wing areas and shorter runways. In order to accommodate the larger fuel tanks, the Lockheed engineers elected to place the liquid storage tanks in the fuselage of the aircraft, (see below) which would also make the plane virtually impossible to hijack from the passenger compartments.
A cutaway of a liquid hydrogen-fueled commercial aircraft design by Lockheed Aircraft Corporation.
A question that often comes up for hydrogen advocates is: "Don't you remember the Hindenburg?"
Indeed, according to the accident report, the Hindenburg did not explode, but rather caught fire, and as the fire spread, the airship fell slowly enough for two-thirds of the passengers aboard the Hindenburg (62 people) to survive the accident. Of the 35 people who died, 33 of them jumped from the Hindenburg and they died from the fall. Two people were burned to death, but it was not from the hydrogen - but the large tanks of diesel fuel that was used to power the Hindenburg's Diesel engines. In fact, in spite of the vast quantities of hydrogen that was used as a lifting gas for the Hindenburg, no one in the accident was seriously injured or burned to death from hydrogen, which rapidly dissipated up and away from the passengers. This is in contrast to conventional hydrocarbon fuels like gasoline or diesel fuel, where the hydrogen is chemically bonded to relatively heavy carbon atoms, which causes the fuel stick to people like glue and literally burn their skin off. Thus the real lesson from the Hindenburg is how safe hydrogen is if an accident is going to occur.
It is also rarely mentioned that prior to its fatal crash in 1937, the Hindenburg had successfully completed ten round trips between the United States and Europe, and its sister ship, the Graf Zeppelin, had made regular scheduled transatlantic crossings from 1928 through 1939 with no mishaps. Indeed, of the 161 rigid airships that were built and flown between1897 and 1940 (nearly all of which used hydrogen as a lifting gas), only 20 were destroyed by fires. In addition, of the 20, seventeen were lost in military incidents that in many cases resulted from hostile enemy fire during World War I. That is an excellent safety record for the technology of the day.
Because liquid hydrogen has the greatest energy per weight of fuel, the U.S. Army and Air Force began investigating using liquid hydrogen and oxygen as a rocket fuel in 1943 in cooperation with investigators at Ohio State University. As a result of this effort, liquid hydrogen was eventually used to fuel the second and third stages of all of the Apollo moon rockets as well as the current fleet of Space Shuttles, whose three main rocket motors are fueled at launch by the large primary orange fuel storage tank that contains the liquid hydrogen and oxygen. It is worth noting that when the Challenger exploded, it was not due to the hydrogen that caused the mishap, but the failure of the O-rings in one of the two solid rocket boosters. Paul M. Ordin, a research analyst working for NASA, reviewed 96 accidents or incidents involving hydrogen. NASA had transported more than 16 million gallons of liquid hydrogen for the Apollo-Saturn program alone, and while most mishaps were of a highly specialized nature, there were five serious highway accidents that involved extensive damage to the liquid hydrogen truck transport vehicles. These accidents were such that if conventional gasoline or aviation kerosene had been involved, a spectacular explosion and blaze would have occurred and burned for hours, causing considerable collateral damage. But due to the physical characteristics hydrogen, none of the accidents resulted in either an explosion or fire.
Hydrogen Production Options
Because hydrogen can be made with water and any source of electricity, it is possible to refuel the vehicle at home, as well as the local service station, which will then eliminate the need for the gasoline component of the system. Thus the most important consideration is how the vast new quantities of electricity that will be needed is going to be generated. The Bush administration is focusing on developing the "dirty" or "toxic" hydrogen options, which include making hydrogen form fossil fuels, extending the life of existing nuclear plants and building a new generation of coal and nuclear plants. Such policies will not solve the more fundamental energy supply problems and the related environmental impact would be devastating. The Phoenix Project (phoenixproject.net), by contrast, is a plan to have the U.S. shift from oil to hydrogen with wartime-speed by mass-producing wind systems for large-scale hydrogen production and modifying every existing automotive vehicle to use hydrogen fuel. Millions of Americans would be employed in the process as urban air pollution, oil spills, strip-mining, and the need for oil wars and the production of any new radioactive wastes will finally be ended. This is not a new idea. In 1923, J.B.S. Haldane, a brilliant Scottish scientist delivered a lecture at Cambridge University in which he stated that hydrogen, derived from wind power via electrolysis, liquefied and stored, would be the ideal fuel of the future. Some 80-years later, Haldane's insightful vision of the future is still the best technology path that has been identified to achieve sustainable prosperity without pollution.
About Harry Braun
Harry Braun is Chairman of the Hydrogen Political Action Committee (h2pac.org), which seeks to have the Congress hold the Hydrogen Hearings that will be necessary prerequisite for passing Fair Accounting Act legislation. Harry has worked as an energy and environmental analyst for the past 30 years. He is Chairman & CEO of Sustainable Partners LLC, a systems integration firm that is involved in a number of renewable energy projects. Harry received a Bachelors degree from Arizona State University in 1971. His postgraduate research has focused on energy technologies and resources, as well as the on-going developments in molecular biology, protein engineering and nanotechnology. Harry is an Advisory Board Member of the International Association for Hydrogen Energy (iahe.org), and is author of The Phoenix Project: Shifting from Oil to Hydrogen (phoenixproject.net).