Wednesday, February 06, 2013

There's A Hydrogen Powered Car In Your Future-- If You Live Long Enough


The History Channel has been ultra-parsimonious with online clips from their series The Men Who Built America and there are so many bit and pieces I wish I could share here-- like how Rockefeller, Carnegie and J.P. Morgan sat down in 1896 and decided populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan was too dangerous to their financial empires and they would have to underwrite stealing the election for corporate whore William McKinley. Another few scenes I have searched and searched for on YouTube-- in vain-- show how ruthless Oil Baron John D. Rockefeller, when confronted with the rise of a new energy source-- electricity-- tried every trick in the book to discredit it, undermine it, and destroy the industry in its crib.

I drive a 2009 Toyota Prius. I love it for the fuel efficiency-- I fill up once a month-- and because it's quiet and does everything I want a car to do. But I always feel kind of funny driving a car that isn't made in America. Lee Rogers, the guy who ran against Buck McKeon last year, has been trying to talk me into getting a Chevy Volt, a fully-electric car, which is what he drives. He even did a guest post about the Volt for us last April. And my friend Daisy-- plus a neighbor down the street who has one-- have been trying to persuade me that the way to go is the new Tesla sedan. It does zero to sixty as fast as a BMW M5... but its effective range is 265 miles per gallon.

The financial (and other) incentives in states like California make it a no-brainer to buy an electric car and I'm on the verge of trading in the Prius and picking between the Volt and the Tesla. The question raised yesterday by Reuters got my attention though. They're asking if electric cars are heading towards another dead end. Actually, the article isn't asking; it's asserting. They claim hydogen-powered cars will overtake electric cars. No one is mentioning John D. Rockefeller but the conventional wisdom is that "consumers continue to show little interest in electric vehicles, which dominated U.S. streets in the first decade of the 20th century before being displaced by gasoline-powered cars... [due to] high cost, short driving range and lack of charging stations."
The public's lack of appetite for battery-powered cars persuaded the Obama administration last week to back away from its aggressive goal to put 1 million electric cars on U.S. roads by 2015.

The tepid response to EVs also pushed Nissan's high-profile chief executive, Carlos Ghosn, perhaps the industry's most outspoken proponent of battery cars, to announce in December a major strategic shift toward more mainstream gasoline-electric hybrids, which overcome many of the shortcomings of pure EVs.

The move was widely seen as a tacit acknowledgement by Ghosn that his all-or-nothing, multibillion-dollar bet on EVs is falling far short of his ambition to sell hundreds of thousands of battery-powered Nissan Leafs.

Instead, Nissan plans to follow rival Toyota Motor Co, the world's largest purveyor of hybrids, which now is poised to leapfrog pure EVs altogether to pursue what might be the next big green-tech breakthrough: pollution- and petroleum-free fuel-cell cars that convert hydrogen to electricity.

Vice Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada, the "father of the Prius" who helped put hybrids on the map, said he believes fuel-cell vehicles hold far more promise than battery electric cars. "Because of its shortcomings-- driving range, cost and recharging time-- the electric vehicle is not a viable replacement for most conventional cars," said Uchiyamada. "We need something entirely new."

In the race to identify the Next Big Thing in automotive technology, the stakes are enormous.

For example, Nissan, with French partner Renault, has committed $5 billion for development and manufacture of EVs and batteries-- a risky bet that could take years to pay off-- while Toyota has spent an estimated $10 billion or more over the past 16 years to develop, build and market an ever-expanding range of hybrids, led by the popular and now profitable Prius.

While neither Nissan nor Toyota is likely to pull the plug on electric cars, it is clear from their recent moves that both companies are looking beyond EVs to meet future transportation needs.

Both automakers began advanced green-car engineering programs in the mid-1990s, with Toyota introducing the first-generation Prius hybrid and Nissan unveiling the battery-powered Altra in late 1997.

Toyota brought the Prius to the United States in 2000, but it took Nissan another 10 years to follow the low-volume Altra and other modest electric-car projects such as the Hypermini with the handsomely funded 2010 launch of the Leaf.

With Uchiyamada overseeing continuous refinement of the Prius, Toyota took a 10-year lead in the green-car derby. Along the way, though, Toyota effectively subsidized billions of dollars in development, manufacturing and marketing costs through the first two generations of the Prius, according to former Toyota executives.

While it took the Toyota hybrid six years to catch fire with U.S. consumers, the latest sales data points to the widening chasm between the two companies' radically different approaches to electrification.

In the past year, Toyota has broadened its hybrid portfolio to 12 models, including four versions of the Prius, now in its third generation. Toyota in 2012 sold 327,413 hybrids in the United States and 1.2 million globally. Worldwide sales of its hybrids now approach 5 million.

The Prius accounts for more than half of those sales, making it the most successful green car in history and one of the few exceptions to the public's yawning indifference to green vehicles and technology. The Leaf, on the other hand, has been the rule rather than the exception.

Nissan unveiled the Leaf two years ago and to date has sold just under 50,000 worldwide. It sold 9,819 last year in the United States, well under its target of 20,000.

As part of a year-end sales push, Nissan slapped incentives of almost $6,000 on the Leaf, and in January slashed the starting price by more than $6,000, to $29,650. Some Nissan dealers in Los Angeles are advertising Leaf lease rates as low as $199 a month with $1,999 down, according to industry research firm TrueCar.

"When new technologies are launched, sales do not grow as quickly as everyone expects," said Mitsuhiko Yamashita, Nissan executive vice president and head of research and development. But "with EV technologies continuously improving and with prices falling, there is a possibility that sales could explode."

That isn't likely to happen anytime soon.

Nissan may be mildly encouraged that the Leaf is the best-selling pure EV in the United States. But total EV sales last year were only 14,687, representing 0.1 percent of total U.S. sales of 14.5 million. In comparison, hybrid sales in 2012 climbed to 473,083, or roughly 3.3 percent of the market. And of every three hybrids sold last year in the United States, two were a Toyota or a Lexus.

Fueled by government subsidies and tax incentives, hybrid sales in Japan have rocketed to 40 percent of the industry total, with the Prius a top seller. Hybrids, however, have been far less popular with consumers in such major markets as Europe and China.

The outlook for pure electric vehicles is even more cloudy.

At the moment, Ghosn's heady 2009 prediction that electric vehicles would capture 10 percent of the global market by 2020-- 6 million battery-powered cars a year or more-- doesn't seem remotely within reach.

Yet the gradual tightening of global fuel-efficiency standards from 2020 on is forcing automakers to assess their options, including the application of advanced technology.

Says Nissan's Yamashita: "It is not possible to meet (future) regulations unless vehicles are electrified."

The harsh reality of the market and the public's underwhelming demand for EVs, however, illuminate Nissan's recent decision to shift more of its green-tech investment into hybrids.

In December the company announced it plans to introduce 15 new hybrids globally by early 2017.

At the time, Ghosn said, "We are going to continue to heavily promote electric cars, but at the same time, we are business people, we are pragmatic people. We will also develop and deliver hybrids because there are markets and consumers that require hybrids."

Last September, Toyota publicly walked away from plans to build several thousand electric cars, scaling back projected volume to a mere 100 battery-powered minicars.

Both Japanese automakers, meanwhile, have forged new alliances to develop hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars, Toyota with BMW and, in a deal announced last week, Nissan with Daimler AG and Ford Motor Co.

In the meantime, despite massive investments in battery technology and vehicles, even the most ardent EV adherents seem a bit ambivalent about the future of battery cars.

"We don't regret it yet," says Nissan's Yamashita of the company's multibillion-dollar gamble on EVs. "We might in a few years. No, we probably won't."
Meanwhile, a report out of the U.K. predicts that they expect to have 1.6 million hydrogen-powered cars on British roads by 2030. Daimler, Ford and Nissan are all working to develop a common fuel cell system that could lead to affordable fuel cell cars by 2017. Car companies have been working on this though, for 60 years, before oil man George W. Bush screwed the whole innovation thing up, causing U.S. automakers to cede their early lead in hybrids to the great financial benefit to Toyota.
In a hydrogen fuel cell car, hydrogen gets drawn through a catalytic membrane: an electron gets stripped from the hydrogen to power the car. The waste product-- water-- goes out the tailpipe. The crucial component is a thin membrane laced with expensive elements that helps conduct the chemical reaction. The fuel cell stack, in theory, can weigh less than batteries. Filling fuel cell cars-- assuming a refueling station is nearby-- takes minutes, not the hours needed for a typical EV.

Like all electrics, fuel cells cars are also efficient. Internal combustion engines are often 15 percent efficient. That heat coming off your car engine? It’s waste heat, fuel you bought but didn’t use productively. Fuel cells can be 50 percent plus efficient.

When you think of all of those factors, you ultimately come to the conclusion that fuel cells are still in play because, well, it’s a cool idea. Harnessing energy through chemical reaction has been a dream since Sir William Grove invented the first fuel cell in 1839. (Note: some automakers like BMW have developed hydrogen cars that run on combustion, but we’re talking about hydrogen fuel cells here.) Fuel cells are arguably akin to nuclear power and geothermal. They really represent a whole new way of harvesting energy. With combustion, we’re really burning plant matter that baked for eons.

Are there challenges? You bet. Chemical companies today create hydrogen by cracking methane, a process that results in a tremendous amount of greenhouse gases. Hydrogen is a notoriously challenging gas to deliver down pipelines. Catalytic membranes get fouled and fail.

“The present hydrogen fuel cells are losers… Losers,” Nobel Laureate Burton Richter told me in 2009. “They have to go back to the R&D lab.”

The cost of hydrogen fuel cell cars also remains astronomical. I drove a GM prototype in L.A. once. I asked how much it cost while driving down Sunset Boulevard. “About a million,” the GM spokesperson said.

But how do they drive? Easily the best car I have ever driven was an F-Cell Mercedes.

The road is hard, but fuel cells represent one of the few avenues where innovation can open the door to astounding changes. And at a minimum, it gives engineers something to shoot for.
OK, now I better pick between the Tesla and the Volt.

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At 9:39 PM, Blogger Lucilyn labajo said...

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At 5:24 AM, Blogger Ronnie campbell said...

I heard so many things about hydrogen cars and it will be one of the best option for us in future for fuel savings.

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At 12:32 PM, Blogger John said...

I'd suggest the fuel cell use, as opposed to combustion reaction, of hydrogen are essentially the same chemistry, oxidation, with atmospheric O2.

Perhaps the fuel cell is more efficient.

You've hit on the "no free lunch" issue: the production of the hydrogen fuel (H2) essentially cancels any energy efficiency and "clean" fuel considerations of its use in the "hydrogen car."

As Einstein said: "The significant problems we face can not be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."

That is, we will not successfully consume our way out of our existential problem of slow but sure suicide by obsessive, heroic consumption.

John Puma

At 10:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Personally, I'm waiting for that Mr. Fusion to power my DeLorean.


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