Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Why the Hydrogen Myth is Bait and Switch.

Hydrogen cars are everywhere these days. Autoblog Green has been talking about BMW's Hydrogen 7 car for years while Jay Leno has spoken at length about hydrogen cars on his Green Garage portion on the Popular Mechanics website. Even California governor Arnold Scwartzenneger has converted one of his many HUMMERs into a hydrogen vehicle-- to much fanfare.

I'm hopping into the hydrogen auto conversation now because I just saw a Top Gear (Episode 102, 14 December 2008) episode in which Jeremy Clarkson hammers out the Tesla Roadster's faults while all but giggling with excitement at James May's praise of the Honda FCX/Clarity. Consequently, May heads over to Jay Leno's garage and Leno, an advocate of hydrogen vehicles based on internal combustion engines (ICE), seems to forget that James May's vehicle is a electric motor fuel-cell powered auto; a totally different technology that Jay Leno is...not a fan of (read paragraph 3).

More than a small section of a website or a governor pushing a political stunt, Top Gear is a tour de force when it comes to promoting the auto industry to the average viewer. And while there's a long list of complaints concerning what seems to be blatant eco-unfriendliness of Jeremy Clarkson, the show's main host, this episode adds a level of obfuscation to the hydrogen powered vehicle that needs to be addressed in clear and simple terms. To that end this article will lay out several points concerning hydrogen powered vehicles and their failings...which Top Gear's journalistic integrity seems to have forgotten.

  1. Bait: Hydrogen is the most abundant fuel in the universe.

    • Switch: Hydrogen gas does not appear here on Earth in any easily harnessed gaseous form. Electricity is needed to separate it from whatever compound it's found in (usually water, H2O), so that it can be burned, creating... water. That process takes energy...conventional, dirty energy. In England, where the show is taped, that energy, in the form of electricity, likely comes from a coal-fired powerplant.

  2. Bait: Hydrogen cars run on Hydrogen, a gas found in abundance all over the Universe.

    • Switch: Hydrogen cars run on h2, a liquid, compressed form of Hydrogen, which is a substance that doesn't occur naturally on Earth, so we use conventional, dirty, manufacturing processes to create it, and keep it cool in order to maintain it. At least with gasoline, you pour it in a tank underneath the fill-up station and it sits there without the refridgerator having to be on...eating more dirty energy.

  3. Bait: Hydrogen cars are more energy efficient than gasoline/diesel powered cars.

    • Switch: Well that depends on which type of Hydrogen cars you're talking about. There are two:

    Putting aside the energy it takes to make the Hydrogen available for these vehicles, the Honda fuel cell vehicle would is more efficient than a typical gasoline/diesel fueled car that uses an internal combustion engine. It's even more efficient than a Hybrid like the Toyota Prius (non-plug-in).

    The BMW, Hydrogen fueled internal combustion powered Hydrogen car, however, is less fuel efficient than the average gasoline/diesel cars of today.

    Now to be fair, one of the arguments about Hydrogen is that it's so plentiful that fuel economy matters much less...we're not going to run out of it. But that's Bait-- consult the above to remember what it takes to get the Hydrogen fuel into the car. Unless all of our Hydrogen production moves to solar or algae power very quickly, fuel economy is still going to matter.

    Let's get into WHY one type of Hydrogen fueled car is more efficient than the other, where efficiency is based on the how much of the energy in the fuel is used to propel the car forward on the road, and not much is lost to heat.

    • Hydrogen fuel cell cars are essentially designed like the proposed Chevy Volt, but without the plug-in capability. They are battery electric vehicles that use an electric motor to propel the car down the road. The motor gets its power from batteries and those batteries are, in turn, powered by the hydrogen within the fuel cell. The efficiency of the energy transfer between the hydrogen fuel and the battery system in Honda's FCX/Clarity car is 60%. There's a second step though, where that battery power is transfered to the electric motor to propel the car forward. While we don't have the data of Honda's car specifically, the average efficiency of a brushless DC motor is 85-90% with a high-end electric car like the Tesla Roadster achieving an average of 92% and a 2009 experiment at Tokai University in Japan bringing that battery-to-motor electricity energy transfer up to 96%. The reason for this is that electric motors do not idle. When you brake to a stop in an electric car, no energy is consumed until you press the "gas" pedal again to move on. In fact, some electric motors use the braking in order to put some energy back into the batteries.

      All told, if we're conservative and use the low numbers, we get 55% (60% from fuel to battery, and then -15% from battery to motor) efficiency for the fuel cell vehicle.

    • The Hydrogen 7 car by BMW is far less fuel efficient than its fuel cell counterpart. The car has the spectacular advantage of can run on gasoline at a rate of 16.9 mpg and Hydrogen fuel at a rate of 4.7mpg. The average internal combustion engine has an efficiency of 18-21%. The reasons behind this have to do with the fact that the engine idles when the vehicle is stopped, burning fuel when the vehicle's not in motion, and because the combustion of fuel to propel the vehicle creates heat in addition to motion. The low mileage of the BMW Hydrogen 7's V-12 engine means that the space within the vehicle allocated to hold the fuel is huge compared to normal cars.

  4. Bait: Filling up with Hydrogen is just as practical as filling up with gasoline: you pull up to a station, plug in the hydrogen pump, and then drive wherever you want.

    • Switch: Hydrogen leaks. It's not as dangerous as a gasoline leak because Hydrogen's a gas that just evaporates harmlessly into the air above instead of leaving a puddle of flammable substance in your garage or driveway, but non-the less, leaking presents its own problems. According to Wired, "the double-walled, stainless-steel tank that stores the liquid in high-vacuum conditions with aluminum reflective foil, the liquid hydrogen in the 8-kilogram fuel tank begins to boil after 17 hours if the car remains parked. The tank empties completely after 10 to 12 days." This is a problem if you're paying for Hydrogen...and don't have a pump in your garage or driveway.

Hydrogen isn't all that it's cracked up to be. As noted above, right now we really only have nasty ways to make it, and have to spend a fortune in fossil fuels to keep it in the proper compressed state in order to run our vehicles on it. The fuel cells currently require vast amounts of precious metals like platinum in order to work, making the vehicles prohibitively expensive. When you add the fact that it tends to leak out of the gas tanks of parked cars, forcing the owner to either buy more Hydrogen or get the stuff pumped and or manufactured at home, it's a real hassle at least, and is certainly not at all the silver bullet gearheads like Leno and the Top Gear hosts would have their audiences believe.

The auto industry, along with the oil producers who own vast quantities of their stock, continually harp on straight battery-electric cars as worthless and impractical, despite their out of the box ease of use and practical charging solutions (i.e. at home while you sleep at night) in favour of Hydrogen vehicles that are truly far away from practical production, and that don't offer a real, carbon emissions savings alternative. What's their motivation? Change-- or the lack thereof. Keeping the status quo while promising wonderful technology from the far off future is a way for them to continue to make profits from their product (on the Oil side) and to save vast amounts of money by not retooling (on the Auto Industry side). Strait battery electric vehicles represent a disruptive innovation to the production line that fills the wallets of these companies. Lucky for them, their rhetoric sells since people, on average, don't want to change their lifestyles to cope with a problem they don't yet have direct contact with.

In the battle to curb harmful emissions while maintaining our lifestyles, we have to remember that sadly, these emissions are part of our lifestyles. One cannot change while the other remains the same. Thankfully , there's hope. Innovations in battery-electric cars have lead to new vehicles with more performance, less range limitations and vastly shorter charge-up times. But that's the stuff for a separate blog post.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

BMW's GINA - Beautiful and Lean, and possibly a lower carbon footprint during production.

BMW's introduced a radically different type of concept car at a time when cars need radical change.


I'm not going to go on and on about it-- I'm going to let these images along with BMW's other media provide through visuals and BMW's own commentary the details of this new Bavarian Motor Work. What I will go on to say though is this-- the use of GINA's 'textile skin' rather than the normal metal/plastic autobody shell has meanings that stretch far beyond hte visual cool factor.

Given the energy costs needed to create steel and plastics, the fabric-like shell already significantly diminishes this automobile's carbon footprint. How durable and lasting it is I don't know-- it is after all only a concept car and concerns like these are wheat keep such things from production.

There's also the obvious fuel economy advantage-- no matter what's under the hood, a motor that doesn't have to do the work involved with moving a metal chassy is a motor that moves just as fast as the next one using less fuel, which means less carbon emissions. While I'm not at all a fan of their Hydrogen 7 push, BMW's concept of less is more with this very attractive, carbon friendly (at least in terms of production) roadster is pretty great.

From a social standpoint, it's a new concept as well. The car is, in effect wearing clothes. From their own media, BMW says that it takes about 2 hours to put the skin on the auto, so should it go into production, depending on your budget, the GINA can change it's look as often as you do.

BMW actually has a series of efficiency technologies in their conventional cars that I'd love to see implemented in vehicles with more modest engines where they'd make a huge difference. Unfortunately, in their pursuit of hte ultima driving machines, the Bavarians aren't known for hybrid-like milage rates and as stated before, their Hydrogen 7 project is as close to Green-Gimmicky as you can get. But that's a story for another posting. You can check out BMW's efficiency initiatives and technologies here.

In an age where companies like Boeing are changing their materials to offset gas costs/add fuel efficiency as is Airbus with their "more efficient than a Prius" A380, it's nice to see Europe's top automaker looking down the road for change. Once again it's a concept car, not for production, but the concepts herein should inspire all manufacturers taking a gander to head back to the drawing board in pursuit of new, efficient designs. Let's hope this is the beginning of something real.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Do you always need your SUV?

With the average barrel of oil climbing $10.00 today to a high of $139.00+ and a recent Goldman Sachs report claiming that the US might see $7.00/gallon of gasoline within the next twelve months, you have to wonder if Al Gore's hiding in some basement somewhere, in charge of some organization not unlike CHAOS, forcing the prices up so that America's forced to find new ways to move from place to place.

Such a busying activity would certainly explain why he wasn't present to quell the craziness that leading up to the recent de facto nomination of Barack Obama.

Regardless of such imaginings what's real is that with gas prices at a place where Americans aren't willing to pay, people have begun looking around for something other than the SUV or even the standard sedan to get them from place to place. Here are some tips I've heard thus far that'll keep your carbon footprint smaller and keep your checkbook a little fatter.

(1) Lend the kids the Luxury car or the SUV
The idea here is that the drive to work is longer than the drive to school so take the long trip in the smaller, more fuel efficient car, and let your high-schoolers bling it out during the week from now until the end of school

(2) Coordinate and consolidate trips-- there's no reason to pull out of the driveway twice-- make sure that before you get home you've picked up the dry cleaning, the groceries and take care of any other chores you need to take care of before pulling in for the evening.

(3) Travel light.
You gotta pick-up with some extra gear in it? Get rid of it. Large items like farm or automotive equipment might be handy or even necessary for your business from time to time but that stuff literally weighs tons, and while your suspension can do the work fine, it's gonna need more juice do do it, so lighten the load.

(4) Rent.
Trade in your pick up or SUV and get a smaller car. Rent yourself a larger automobile for long hauls and other activities that need it. Or better yet, empty your truck of all your personable belongings and put an ad on craigslist or your local paper-- let people pay you for your torque.

(5) Seasonal ride.
Some people really need an SUV in the winter. If you live in Co. Or Ut., a hybrid's just not gonna cut it when the champagne powder begins to dump in foot by glorious foot in the late fall and all the way through to the spring. So put that gas-guzzling truck on cinder blocks in the garage during the off season and save yourself a few bucks.

(6) Carpool.
It seems like it's simple but everyone knows it's not. Carpooling's trouble. The coordination's a pain, especially between households but if you can pull it off, more power to you.

(7) If you can, telecommute. If there's no need to leave home, then why spend the $$$ on gasoline.

These suggestions are among the extreme, to be sure, but the make a lot of sense. Take a look at your lifestyle and see if they work for you. Or track down Mr. Gore in his underground lair and sell the gas he's been hoarding.

From Verbose and Loquacious to Quick and Clean

As the world gets smaller through various technologies fueled by globalization, we've got to begin to think on more than just one level. In addition to the $$$ that's to be made in emerging economies such as China, India and various bits of the African continent, we need to take a step back and make sure we're making sure to move forward with not only the monetary spoils of the gentrification of the world's westernizing settings, but with their social and environmental welfare in mind too. In an effort to win the Cold War weird rationalizations and compromises of our ideals during the lead to many failed policies; (some of which haunt us today both politically and militarily) and while we won that conflict, with forms of capitalism running all over the freeing world, we've still got some work to do.

Human development is something I take passionately. It's probably because I'm American and I recognize that traditionally, we're pretty good at it. In the following blog posts, I'm going to be talking about development in a way that I hope bridges the divide between the money grubbers and the tree huggers; between activists and the establishment. I look at places like Zimbabwe struggling to free themselves from tyranny via a peaceful electoral process, despite the Mugabe regime's obvious acts of deceit and cowardice and I think to myself: when they come through, when they vote them out, the people will be looking for the kind of government that supports them rather than exploits them but who knows what's to come next. The new regime will certainly open up trade but when that happens what will we do to ensure that the sort of process that made Mugabe what he is today won't happen again?

There are resources there that the world needs the market to develop. But in order to create a stabilized trading platform, the world's going to have to keep the social situation stable as well, which means unfettered exploitation of the lands are also a no-no. What we need is equilateral development; that is development adhering to the vaunted "triple bottom line."

The idea is that you can develop a city, tract of land, an economy, a business, even your household as if they were built on an equilateral triangle-- each side the same length as the next, each side being just as important as the next, yet each side having a crisp an clear separate meaning and yet all sides working toward your goal of development while allowing you to promote not only capital growth but social and environmental growth as well.

So welcome to Quick and Clean, where I try my best to limit the loquaciousness found in this post and present current perspective and opportunities for us to basically make a killing through equilateral development. Rather than it be quick and dirty, it's quick and clean.

D. De Freitas