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Source: California Aggie Opinion Piece by Arne Frantzell, Aggie Science Writer
Posted: May 5, 2004
The Hydrogen Network
For those worrying about global warming and America's dependency on fossil fuels, a palliative may come in the form of a fuel cell vehicle powered by the universe's lightest element - hydrogen.
Despite bad press regarding the use of hydrogen in bomb devices and implications linking it to the Hindenburg disaster, hydrogen remains one of the cleanest energy carriers available and a viable candidate for renewable fuel production, according to Emily Winston, a graduate student of transportation technology and policy.
UC Davis employees of the Hydrogen Pathways Research Program in the Institute of Transportation Studies are examining the transition to a hydrogen economy. This could potentially solve problems with greenhouse gas and petroleum dependency, said Anthony Eggert, research manager of Hydrogen Pathways, because a hydrogen car's exhaust is simply water vapor.
ITS' efforts were bolstered last week by a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, part of a $350 million program dedicated to the future of the hydrogen economy. When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger refilled his fuel cell vehicle on campus on Apr. 20, he used UCD's own hydrogen filling station - the first publicly accessible one in California - and inaugurated the Hydrogen Highways initiative, a plan to build similar filling stations across the state.
Because it is the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen can be culled from several sources. In practice, researchers prepare it by reforming natural gas from traditional fuels like gasoline, methane and ethanol, or by the electrolysis of water, Winston said.
Hydrogen vehicles may succeed where electric cars failed. Before electric vehicle technology's inception, its creators expected Moore's Law, which states that the data density of integrated circuits approximately doubles every 18 months, to apply to battery life as well.
"People thought that technology would come, but it hasn't," Winston said.
Researchers turned to other alternatives after batteries remained bulky and recharging times took up to eight hours.
"With fuel cells, automakers believe they can offer [the] advantages of electric cars with none of the disadvantages," Eggert said.
Unlike their battery counterparts, fuel cells - by virtue of their external fuel supply - are designed for continual replenishment.
To help the general public adapt to a future transition toward fuel cell technology, market researchers at ITS continually conduct outreach using two fuel cell Toyota SUVs in demonstrations for automakers and policymakers as well as K-12 and college students.
"It's a really effective educational tool," Eggert said.
ITS also launched a North American hydrogen filling station competition. Proposals were judged on economic and environmental feasibility and marketability. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham announced at last week's National Hydrogen Conference in Los Angeles that UCD graduate student Jonathan Weinert was among the top five finalists, Eggert said.
The technology does have its issues. Fuel cells are susceptible to impacts and low temperatures. Presently, hydrogen tanks are too large to transport and economically unfeasible for consumers.
"You don't want to tug a balloon full of hydrogen alongside your car," Winston said.
Current hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have a refilling time of two to two and a half minutes and a range of around 200 miles. For the vehicles to be eligible for consumers, automakers want a range of at least 300 miles.
"The hydrogen storage issue is the thorniest one," Eggert said.
Vehicle oil companies are so far disinclined to build hydrogen filling stations if there are no vehicles ready to fill. Accordingly, automakers are similarly reluctant to produce hydrogen vehicles if there are no filling stations to fuel them, Winston added.
"It's a chicken and an egg problem, so UCD is paving the way," Winston said.
Despite lingering problems, ITS scientists feel that the technological and economical challenges can be solved over time. With the exception of the hydrogen storage issue, "there are no real showstoppers," according to Eggert.
Indeed, one of many such challenges is being overcome. At the National Hydrogen Conference, Honda representatives announced their success of restarting fuel cell vehicles in temperatures of -10 degrees Celsius.
Moreover, following a breakthrough in 1998, Anastasios Melis, a professor of plant and microbial science at UC Berkeley, is spearheading an alternative method of obtaining hydrogen that involves algae.
"By relying on self-replicating organisms to produce energy, the original source of energy becomes sunlight," Melis said.
What makes unicellular algae different from other members of the kingdom Plantae is its ability to code for the hydrogenase enzyme, thus creating hydrogen during photosynthesis, albeit in small quantities. Melis' team directs the algae's production preferences away from sugar and toward hydrogen, made in gaseous form.
In theory, one acre of surface area of the green algae is capable of producing 40,000 cubic feet of gaseous hydrogen per day, according to Melis.
"It's a basic question of biology," Melis said.
If the public's reception of test vehicles is anything to go by, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will become a popular commodity once made readily available.
"The first question people ask is `When can I buy one?'" Eggert said.
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