Hydrogenpowered Vehicles

In terms of reducing automobile pollution, each generation of new pollution control technology, since the days of the catalytic converter, has been pioneered by California. A recent plan for a California Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) is spurring the development of new technologies, including hydrogen-powered automobiles. To run these, hydrogen fuel can be derived from fossil fuels (which defeats their purpose somewhat), biomass, or electrolysis of water. The most popular feedstock for producing hydrogen is natural gas. Using renewable alternatives, such as photovoltaics or wind to produce hydrogen, runs at three times the cost of other techniques. If the electricity for electrolysis comes from coal-fired plants, the CO2 emissions are even greater than those from natural gas, unless the carbon can be sequestered. All things being equal, hydrogen produced from the electrical grid would produce a net increase in global warming for the next 20 years. Coal gasification can also be used to produce hydrogen.

Given that the economics to produce hydrogen dictate the selection of a fossil fuel feedstock, it makes a big difference how the carbon dioxide is produced. An internal combustion engine produces 248 kg. of carbon dioxide for each 600 mi. (966 km.) driven. Table 1 reflects the reduction in kilograms possible by using alternate forms of transportation:

Table l

Propulsion type

CO2 emissions

Reduced kg CO2/600 mi.

(internal combustion engine)


(coal-fired electricity)



(onboard gas reformer)



(onboard methanol reformer)



(natural gas-derived hydrogen from a fuel station)



(refinery-supplied hydrogen)



Hydrogen is used in fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs), which are a potential replacement for ICEs. Hydrogen is converted to electricity, without high temperature reactions and is done so very efficiently. Only water vapor is produced, a byproduct that is less harmful to warming global temperatures than carbon dioxide, methane, or chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Every major car manufacturer has a FCV prototype, and many have FCVs on the roads in places like California, Washington D.C., Japan, and parts of Europe.

It is expected that FCVs will appear when the following issues are resolved: high cost of fuel cells, overcoming poor fuel cell durability, improving onboard fuel storage to ensure comparable or better driving range, meeting and exceeding safety standards and demonstrating such, and ensuring there is an infrastructure to produce and distribute the hydrogen to large numbers of the driving public.

BMW's Hydrogen 7 or H-7 is a bifuel vehicle using an internal combustion engine that is propelled by either gasoline or hydrogen. It is a transitional vehicle that could be introduced to bridge the gap between the scarcity of hydrogen fueling stations today and their expected abundance by 2030.

investment and choices

Chemical battery breakthroughs are needed to improve energy storage capacity and length of storage times, which are critical for hybrid vehicles to make the transition to PHEVs. Superior battery performance is also needed as electric vehicles begin to reappear after a more than 100-year absence. Continued investment in a hydrogen infrastructure that weans humanity from fossil fuel sources is a worthy long-term goal that can pay big dividends for the patient investor.

Furthermore, simply increasing fuel economy on existing vehicles can save millions of gallons of oil each year in the short term. This can be done without future hydrogen vehicles or all-electric vehicles making any contribution. Market pressure is making these types of investments happen faster than government regulations.

General Motors lost its position of market dominance by ignoring customer demands for gas-electric hybrids or evolving its early generation electric vehicle. No government bailouts are expected for American automakers, and there is little hope that continued lobbying for lenient mileage standards would be successful.

sEE ALso: Alternative Energy, Ethanol; Alternative Energy, Overview; Carbon Emissions; Energy; Energy Efficiency; Technology; Transportation.

BIBLIoGRAPHY. Judy Anderson and Curtis D. Anderson, Electric and Hybrid Cars: A History (McFarland, 2005); Jack Doyle, Taken for a Ride: Detroit's Big Three and the Politics of Pollution (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2000); Paul McCaffrey, ed., Global Climate Change (H.W. Wilson Company, 2006); Jim Motavalli, Forward Drive: The Race to Build "Clean" Cars for the Future (Sierra Club, 2000).

Robert Karl Koslowsicy Independent Scholar

Hybrid Cars The Whole Truth Revealed

Hybrid Cars The Whole Truth Revealed

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