Shortcut for Hydrogen Cars: Gasoline

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have managed to strip hydrogen atoms from water and hydrocarbon molecules (both gasoline and diesel fuel) to produce hydrogen gas. And they can do it quickly, thus leaping a hurdle that could make hydrogen power far more appealing.

"We've shown the feasibility of this approach," says Larry Pederson, project leader at the lab.

On-board conversion of fossil fuels to hydrogen is seen as the best way to bridge the gap, but up until now there has been a real obstacle. All of the possible techniques require time for the conversion to begin, because all depend on the production of heat to start the process.

So if you actually built your backyard dream machine, you might have to sit in it for about 15 minutes before it warmed up enough to begin producing hydrogen. That could be a showstopper.

But Pederson and his team have developed a new gadget, called a "steam reformer," that launches the conversion process within 12 seconds. So by the time you get your seatbelt on, and your radio tuned to the right station, you're ready to roll.

"The target [set by the Department of Energy] had been 60 seconds," Pederson says. Exceeding that goal by a considerable margin is a technological triumph, but no one is claiming victory yet. Before they can do that, they have to scale it up to provide enough hydrogen to power a 50 kilowatt fuel cell.

"That would run a small compact car," Pederson says. For your SUV, he adds, it's "probably going to be double that."

Fossil Fuel Dependant

What all of this shows, however, is that even in our effort to break away from fossil fuels, we still rely on fossil fuels.

"We're using something like 12 million barrels [of oil] a day for transportation needs," Pederson says, and he doesn't see us breaking away from that anytime soon. Some modes of transportation will probably depend on fossil fuels for many decades.

"I don't think anybody's going to be flying a plane real soon" powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, Pederson says.

But he sees hydrogen making inroads in the not too distant future, especially as auxiliary power units. Our cars are demanding more and more electricity to run our gizmos, and using an alternator to generate that electricity is a very inefficient process, he argues.

Converting part of the vehicle's fuel to hydrogen to power a small fuel cell could produce large amounts of electricity and greater fuel economy, he adds. Diesel trucks that now idle all night to keep their refrigerators running could use fuel cells instead, thus reducing the waste considerably.

So there are many ways that hydrogen is likely to play an increasingly important role in the years ahead. But it will take a few miracles to reach the goal set by President Bush in his State of the Union address last year.

He said "the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution free." That's if all this can be moved from the laboratory to the showroom within the next two decades.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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