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Hydrogen Vehicle Generates Its Own Fuel 662

Posted by michael
from the baby-steps dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Our friends at The Arizona Republic have the scoop: 'The truck is hydrogen-powered and creates its own fuel from solar energy and water, a technical feat that rivals the advanced technology being researched by major auto companies and universities. The four-cylinder engine is tuned to run on hydrogen, which is produced by a hand-built electrolysis system mounted in the bed.' You can also help this project."
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Hydrogen Vehicle Generates Its Own Fuel

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  • by SIGALRM (784769) * on Thursday October 07, 2004 @01:31PM (#10461379) Journal
    Built for less than $10,000, the project has caught the attention of experts in alternative-fuel research
    I find it curious that the commercial fuel/automotive manufacturing sector can't (or maybe won't) make significant, transparent headway in the arena of alternative fuels and vehicles. No conflict of interest, is there? Couldn't be that they already have made advancements, but have kept their R&D under wraps.</sarcasm>

    Recycling fuel is anathema to the petroleum industry--BP commercials ("it's a start") aside.
  • by officepotato (723274) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @01:34PM (#10461419) Homepage
    For someone that lives in a tightly-knit community, and only drives a few miles to work and school each day, this seems like it could really be a "free fuel" solution though. Expecially with the switchable conventional gas system for longer trips.
  • Showing my ignorance (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Dark Paladin (116525) * <jhummel@johAUDENnhummel.net minus poet> on Thursday October 07, 2004 @01:35PM (#10461426) Homepage
    One of the questions I've seen regarding hydrogen is "OK, less pollution - but how are we going to get the hydrogen without using up even more energy?"

    I keep wondering why solar can't provide some of this. Build a series of solar panels, collect water (say from a local river), break down the water into H2+O, let the latter out into the air and keep the former for fuel.

    Is solar not strong enough/inconsistent enough for such an endeavor? Sure, you'd need a large area with a local water supply (again, a river might be nice), and probably a backup generator for when there wasn't enough sunlight, but overall you'd probably have a very efficient and low-pollution system.

    Though perhaps there are engineering issues I'm not aware of. Any energy geeks out there want to help me out?
  • by carlos_benj (140796) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @01:36PM (#10461449) Journal
    Our average day here in the Phoenix area is a little better than the average elsewhere. Still not enough to make this practical for now. If this is the same guy I talked to a few years ago, he's building a hydrogen "refinery" and they're looking into all kinds of ways of generating hydrogen for automotive use.

    He had a hard time getting his truck to pass emissions at first since the exhaust was so much cleaner than the air around the test station. The machine just said he registered "off the scale". Finally got a waiver from the state.
  • by justanyone (308934) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @01:40PM (#10461495) Homepage Journal

    It seems to me the thing we need is a hydrogen to methane (natural gas) converter.

    The widely acknowledged problem with hydrogen is the storage density stinks. The tank is too big and too pressurized for safety, size, and weight concerns.

    This vehicle, and many other applications, would be well suited to having a hydrogen to methane converter. Many existing fleets use natural gas in their ONLY SLIGHTLY MODIFIED internal combustion engines.

    Methane is CH4, a fairly simple molecule; could we come up with a carbon source to use here? Ethane is C2H6, etc.

    Likewise, there are Nitrogen compounds to use. Can someone in chemical engineering comment on the possiblities here of creating more energy-dense storage using some kind of catalyst and raw H or H2 hydrogen?
  • by DunbarTheInept (764) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @01:42PM (#10461526) Homepage
    As to the idea of having a solar-powered 'gas station' for the hydrogen recharging, why bother doing the solar collecting at the gas station? Wouldn't it be a lot more practical to just hook up to the electrical power grid, and then let the power company run a large farm of solar panels. That's pretty much the main reason electricity is such a useful form of energy - you can put the machinery that produces it quite far from the consumer that uses it, and thereby consolodate the energy production into a few places. And if you're concerned about the environment, keep in mind that checking for pollution at a small number of large facilities works better than checking for the sum of all pollution made by each individual's own usage.
  • by SmallFurryCreature (593017) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @01:42PM (#10461528) Journal
    Make the car a not so asshole american version removing at least 2 tons from the weight to be moved. Now put the solar panels on the roof of the house as well as the other equipment saving yet more weight and space plus gaining a lot of area for solar panels.

    So what you got? Free fuel when you park the car at your house. Will enough be generated? Well depending on the money and eviromental cost of the setup it might make a difference not just because of less fuel consumed but also in less fuel consumed getting the fuel to you.

    A few miles isn't that impressive yet but if you can save a few liters of bought fuel per day it might start to add up.

  • by somethinghollow (530478) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @01:46PM (#10461577) Homepage Journal
    It would also make more sense to fabricate a lighter vehicle rather than use an existing (heavy) platform. The lighter the vehicle, the less energy it would take to move it. I was thinking, perhaps, a carbon fiber and aluminum body. But, then the 10 grand figure would increase (but it would probably be worth it as far as bragging rights are concerned).
  • by WormholeFiend (674934) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @01:49PM (#10461611)
    I'd put this system on a blimp, to power the rotors.

    Given the right design, a blimp has a very large surface to put solar panels on, and it can fly above the clouds for optimal sun exposure.

    Now, cue the Hindenberg jokes...
  • by TykeClone (668449) <TykeClone@gmail.com> on Thursday October 07, 2004 @01:51PM (#10461639) Homepage Journal
    No bus. Small town of 600 people and no transportation like that around. Like I said, there are uses for such a commuter vehicle.
  • by DarkBlackFox (643814) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @01:53PM (#10461661)
    The article also mentions if the hydrogen tanks are charged from an external source, it can go as far as a conventional vehicle. The big deal here is it's capable of producing it's own hydrogen/fuel, even if only a little bit at a time. If fuel stations were set up to use larger solar arrays than would fit on a car, or even power from the grid, much more fuel could be produced. If I'm not mistaken, the byproduct of hydrogen combustion is water, so assuming a closed system, it would theoretically have the capability/raw material to run for a good long time. So long as there's a source of electricity (solar, battery, generator on bike pedals), there's the potential to refuel itself. Imagine running out of gas, where all you have to do is wait a bit for the sun to do it's thing, or unpack a stationary bike and pedal for a while until you have enough hydrogen to get on your way. Or how about using an alternator to continuously generate power as the vehicle is moving? It still wouldn't be a whole lot of hydrogen generated, but heck, I don't see mobile oil refineries happening any time soon to generate gasoline on the fly.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 07, 2004 @01:53PM (#10461665)
    My car uses stored solar energy. But instead of using the solar energy that falls on it now, it uses solar energy that shined millions of year ago, and captured on efficient solar panels called "leaves" on "plants". Those "plants" then died and released their stored energy into the ground.

    My car simply takes that stored energy from the ground and uses that very densely stored energy in its gas tank.

    Stored solar energy at its finest!
  • by Eminence (225397) <akbrandt AT gmail DOT com> on Thursday October 07, 2004 @01:54PM (#10461669) Homepage
    This project shows clearly, that right now the main problem is storing the energy. After all, making hydrogen with electricity from solar panels to then turn an internal combustion engine with it has to be inefficient as compared to running directly on electricity. However, you can't squeeze that amount of energy into an accumulator which would be the size of a typical (even hydrogen) fuel tank. So as long as we won't be able to make such accumulators running purely on solar energy would be hard to achieve for a normal-sized family vehicle.

    But hey, there are easier ways to make cars less polluting and everyone less dependent on oil! Take alcohol for example, you can produce it cheaply, even in your own backyard from some potatoes or grain, it is way easier and safer to handle than hydrogen and typical car engine can be easily modified to run on it. Same applies to vegetable oils and diesel engine (which was originally designed for vegetable oil).

  • by cbr2702 (750255) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @02:00PM (#10461735) Homepage
    The energy you get from reacting Hydrogen and Oxygen should be equal to the amount of energy you have to put in to separate water into Hyrdogen and Oxygen (plus inneficiencies).
  • by Sebby (238625) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @02:00PM (#10461740)
    Q: Have You Patented This Idea?

    Answer: NO. First of all, the idea of building a solar-hydrogen internal combustion vehicle is neither new or original. As far as we know, nobody has built one before this since the production rate of hydrogen is so low. Secondly, one of our main goals is to promote this technology, and contribute to this field without putting any restrictions on others.

  • by ackthpt (218170) * on Thursday October 07, 2004 @02:09PM (#10461870) Homepage Journal
    On an average weekend I ride over 100 miles on a bicycle, averaging about 20 mph. The amount of food and water required for these rides is actually very minimal and close to what I normally consume. My metabolism doesn't just store unneeded energy and make me bloated, it's just chucks it (it's called Inefficient Metabolism) so however much you normally eat, if you don't store it, you waste anyway for whatever level of activity you engage in which may be limited to sitting on a chair all weekend fine tuning your drivers, playing d00m 3, or hitting Reload.
  • Re:Not sustainable? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by lpangelrob2 (721920) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @02:13PM (#10461909) Journal
    We may be able to use existing hybrid/electric engines to get more out of our 1-2 gallons. A Prius rates 60/55, while a Civic Hybrid rate 48/47 (city MPG/highway MPG). So if we're talking 100% effeciency in getting those watts into our engine, you can go 47 to 110 miles in an hour. Not optimal for highway driving for sure, but then consider my normal day.

    I drive 8 miles to work in the morning, and 8 miles home in the afternoon. I might go 5 miles out of my way to go to church. If I schedule my grocery shopping, that's only 2 miles down the road. Suburbanite living sounds like a fine application for such a vehicle.

    I'll probably stick with my 27 MPG CR-V for as long as I can have it for longer days, but the above consists of about 75% of my miles during a given week.

  • by Cheeko (165493) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @02:13PM (#10461912) Homepage Journal
    And its not those pesky automakers you have to worry about, a car sold is a car sold to them, whatever technology they have to put in it. Its the oil companies this guy would really have to watch out for. If he can mature the technology, GM or Ford would likely pay a nice sum for the rights to it, so that they can break into a market that the Japanese companies currently have a lock on. The Prius is in gigantic demand, and I'm sure the American companies wouldn't mind getting a piece of tha action.
  • Re:Not sustainable? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Control Group (105494) * on Thursday October 07, 2004 @02:14PM (#10461923) Homepage
    True, but that's because I'm trying to recognize the fact that for an alternative-energy vehicle to gain mass adoption, it has to perform at least as well as current gasoline-engine vehicles.

    One of the advantages of current cars is that it can be run essentially indefinitely, only stopping once every ~5 hours, and then only for ~5 minutes.

    The other problem is that the most common and significant period of "down time" for the car is when it's parked overnight, which is also exactly when parking it doesn't help at all.

    No matter how rationally compelling a system such as this would be for the common driving habits of almost everyone (drive to work, park the car for ~9 hours, drive home, park the car for ~12 hours), very few people will buy a car that they can't just get in and drive to a different state (never mind that they haven't done that with their gasoline-engine cars in two decades).

    So yes, your point is well-taken. But I think that's how you have to look at alternative-energy cars, if you seriously want them adopted into the marketplace.

    OTOH, perhaps I'm overly pessimistic.

    (In either case, though, you're right insofar as I should have stated that assumption. Sorry about that)

  • Transition strategy? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Shambhu (198415) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @02:17PM (#10461964)
    The project is cool overall, but the thing that interested me the most was the dashboard switch. How hard is it to make an IC engine that can run off of two different fuels without sacrificing much efficiency? The reason I ask is, people often say that a large problem for the adoption of hydrogen fuel cars is the chicken or the egg problem of popularity and infrastructure. I'm not saying there aren't other problems, but you hear that one a lot.

    If we started out with switchable IC engines, then people could buy the cars as long as there was some chance of using hydrogen part of the time - regular gas would always be available for backup. I bet the state of California would be interested in conceding some CAFE (do they still use that?) points to manufacturers who came out with such vehicles.

  • by jubei (89485) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @02:21PM (#10462021)
    Regarding cold weather and snow, I doubt this truck would work well. First, they generate hydrogen from water, which could easily freeze. Second, it is solar powered, and sunlight is much reduced in the winter.

    If it is too dangerous to bike, it is probably too dangerous to drive also. Bikes can be fitted with studded tires that dig into the ice.

    Also, if it is only a few miles a day, walking is an adequate substitute, in any temperature.

    The best practical use I can see for this is hauling large amounts of goods short distances.
  • X Prize? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Quixote (154172) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @02:32PM (#10462175) Homepage Journal
    I think it's about time some foundation (i.e. someone other than unemployed old me) came up with an "X Prize" for these sorts of endeavors. For example:
    - the first gasoline engine to give 100mpg (sustained) in normal driving conditions (heck, even a highway) for a medium-sized sedan.
    - First electric car that can take 4 adults 300miles on 4 hours of charge
    etc.

    Some good-old competition combined with good-old American ingenuity should do wonders for these projects.

  • by termigan (118387) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @02:36PM (#10462223)
    Unfortunately sunshine is also hard to come by for those four months, so this truck will be stuck in the driveway because of an empty hydrogen tank, since this assumes there is no hydrogen infrastructure.
  • Diesel-Electric? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by 32bitwonder (684603) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @02:41PM (#10462289) Homepage
    Why not use Diesel-Electric as an alternative? By this I don't mean a hybrid solution as is currently being used by Honda & Toyota, but rather a miniaturized version of a diesel-electric locomotive. This being a small common-rail diesel engine connected directly to a generator. The transmission would be replaced with by an electric motor which would use electricity generated on demand to drive the wheels. This would solve the fuel storage issue present with hydrogen, replaced by diesel (more efficient than gasoline). The electricity would be generated on demand which wouldn't require bulky batteries or complex circuitry of current hybrid systems.

    So what are the barriers preventing a setup like this from working? Is it simply more efficient to drive the wheels directly from the engine? Would the generator/electric motor add too much weight to the vehicle in order to achieve similar performance levels?

  • by caldaan (583572) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @02:47PM (#10462355)
    The step of creating hydrogen still requires electricty. Hydrogen isn't a natural resource on this planet, it must be created, and it is created via electricity. Electricity is normally created via combustion of fossil fuels, typically in plants that are not as environmentally efficient as combustion engines in cars. As a result the use of hydrogen in a car is a pipe dream, the efficiency of the conversion of electrical to chemical to mechanical energy is horrible. Electrical straight to mechanical is much more efficient. What we need is electric cars, not a car that relies on combustion of any fuel. This is nothing but a solar powered car with chemical battery.
  • by sl3xd (111641) * on Thursday October 07, 2004 @03:21PM (#10462751) Journal
    You don't seem to get the point: You can't electrolyze that much hydrogen from the sun; or more accurately, from the amount you would be able to get from the surface area of the vehicle. It would require the vehicle, sitting in the sun for DAYS to be able to generate enough hydrogen to go a few miles to work.

    Hydrogen powered cars aren't that new of an idea, really -- it's simply a case of the percieved 'safety' of having hydrogen in a vehicle. Most people remember something about the Hindenberg exploding, and know it was filled with hydrogen. Nevermind the blimp was coated with aluminum oxide -- one of the oxidizers in the Shuttle's Rocket Boosters, and a key ingredient for Thermite. So there is this irrational 'fear' of hydrogen when compared to gasoline. That irrational fear is one of the largest hurdles to hydrogen powered cars. The other is getting the hydrogen (solar power->hydrogen is much less cost effective than wind turbine->hydrogen.)

    A far more practical idea is to have a regular fuel tank holding Hydrogen, and then have your home covered with solar cells to convert water to hydrogen (and oxygen). Even BETTER is to have gas stations that provide Hydrogen, and use electrical sources like wind to provide energy for electolysis. (This is the idea that most engineers are following. Photovoltaic->Hydrogen generation is simply too inefficient, and MUCH more expensive.)

    The electrolyzing equipment (as well as photovoltaics, etc.) adds unnecessary weight, bulk, and complexity to the vehicle, greatly reducing the efficiency and reliability of the vehicle.

    It's sorta like the Unix mantra: Lots of little tools that are very good at their single job -- not a huge app that combines them all. You don't want to put unnecessary equipment on the car -- putting the fuel generating source ON the vehicle makes about as much sense as putting a machine shop inside the vehicle. Sure, you can make replacement parts 'on the spot', but it sure is a waste when you're driving.

    Believe it or not, this is also true when driving the vehicle with electrolyzing equipment onboard -- the amount of H2 it generates at any given moment is inconsequential to the amount burned. It's certainly not enough to extend the operating time by more than a few seconds on the average daily commute.
  • Re:Well... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 07, 2004 @04:33PM (#10463693)
    it still uses water. That's as scarce as gas in Arizona.

    Indeed! And bizarrely enough the morons in Tucson squander quite a bit of their ground water on golf courses. The last projection I saw said they had about 20 years of ground water left at current utilization.

    But they'll have golf courses and pecan orchards, dammit!
  • by gstoddart (321705) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @05:24PM (#10464258) Homepage

    Nah, it's not that bad. People in northern climes ride year round too. Good sites for ideas include icebike and bikewinter. Also I wrote up some suggestions on riding in winter.



    Most definitely. I live in Ottawa Canada, which is recognized as the second coldest national capital [greatestcities.com]. Believe me, in the deepest darkest coldest parts of winter there are die-hards still commuting to work with studded tires and good storm gear.

    Never underestimate what the die-hard group of cyclists will do. Once in the middle of a blizzard I rolled down my window at a stop light and expressed my awe to a rider I'd seen every single day for months -- this man was out in -20C weather with fresh snow falling, and he was completely unphased by it.

  • by JayBat (617968) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @05:25PM (#10464269)
    A healthy stomach/intestine can easily absorb 15,000 calories a day

    Yes, Tour de France riders run at this sort of level.

    If your stomach/intestine didn't absorb all the calories in your food,

    Hmmm, no. Humans are quite capable of passing un-needed calories through undigested. Not as high a percentage as McDonald's-snarfing Americans might like, but...

  • by mcrbids (148650) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @05:51PM (#10464519) Journal
    Hydrogen is hard to keep, not very energy dense, easily explosive, etc.

    We'd do much better exploring biodiesel [unh.edu] than trying to pursue solar/hydrogen as a fuel system.

    From the article:
    There are many problems with using hydrogen as a fuel. The first, and most obvious, is that hydrogen gas is extremely explosive. To store hydrogen at high pressures for as a transportation fuel, it is essential to have tanks that are constructed of rust-proof materials, so that as they age they won't rust and spring leaks. Hydrogen has to be stored at very high pressures to try to make up for its low energy density. Diesel fuel has an energy density of 1,058 kBtu/cu.ft. Biodiesel has an energy density of 950 kBtu/cu.ft, and hydrogen stored at 3,626 psi (250 times atmospheric pressure) only has an energy density of 68 kBtu/cu.ft.4 So, highly pressurized to 250 atmospheres, hydrogen's volumetric energy density is only 7.2% of that of biodiesel.
    And that's not including the subject of efficiency. Solar/hydrogen is extremely inefficient.
    A common dream from the environmentalist community is having a solar panel on the roof of a home to electrolyze water, producing hydrogen for a fuel cell vehicle. It's a nice dream, but not particularly realistic. As a real world example, consider Honda's facility in California that requires an 8 kW solar array to produce enough hydrogen to drive one small hydrogen vehicle roughly 7,500 miles per year. Such an array could power several homes in California, but is only enough for powering one small car half the normal driving range in the US. For an average family with two vehicles that drive an average distance of 15,000 miles per year, an array of 32 kW would be needed - considerably more with larger vehicles. A 32 kW array would cost on the order of $160,000, and could not be installed just on the rooftop of a single home - it would likely require the south-facing rooftops of at least 4-8 houses to power the vehicles from one home (and that's if you live in sunny California...
    It's a neat project - I'll grant that easily. However, the end result is that at this time, it's just not feasible.

    However, biodiesel is competetive (or close to competetive) with diesel at today's prices. It requires NO modification to your car (assuming your car runs diesel, of course) and can be mixed freely with diesel.

    So, there's no penalty for using biodiesel. That's where the money should be put!
  • by Dyolf Knip (165446) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @06:38PM (#10465024) Homepage
    Minor nitpick. Aluminum Oxide is an output from the thermite combustion reaction. The inputs are iron oxide and aluminum. The outputs are aluminum oxide and iron and a whole whole mess of energy.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 07, 2004 @07:14PM (#10465382)
    Hydrogen powered cars aren't that new of an idea, really -- it's simply a case of the percieved 'safety' of having hydrogen in a vehicle.

    Personally, I'd be more worried about having a lot of concentrated oxygen left over from splitting the water apart. Many things are kept from becoming explosive because they don't have enough oxygen nearby to continue the reaction.
  • by cnaumann (466328) on Thursday October 07, 2004 @10:03PM (#10466541)
    Auminum oxide is not used in thermite nor in the space shuttle booster. Thermite is Iron Oxide (Fe2o3) and Aluminum powder. The Shuttle Booster uses Ammonium Perchlorate as an oxidizer and Aluminum for fuel.

    People are not afriad of hydrogen because of the Hindenberg any more than they are afraid of gasoline because of the world trade center. Hydrogen is not used as a motor fuel because it is expensive to make and difficult to store. My fears of a hydrogen powered car have to do with storing a gas at 10,000 psi. Even an inert gas would be dangerous at the kind of pressures required to get hydrogen to a useful energy density.

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