The Race to Harness Hydrogen's Potential


The auto industry is engaged in a hydrogen war whose stakes are nothing less than supremacy in marketing the fuel that makes possible a zero-emission automotive power source that eliminates pollution--and pumps huge profits into corporate coffers.

First, though, someone has to develop an affordable, consumer-friendly system that, unlike the personal computer industry's competing Microsoft and Macintosh operating systems, is standardized for universal use.

So far, with most major auto makers promising to field small fleets of fuel-cell test cars by mid-decade, a map of the attack on hydrogen looks less like a nice, smooth flowchart than a diagram of chaos theory.

There are two major schools of thought on what the ultimate zero-emission automotive power plant ought to be, and at least three different approaches to getting there.

BMW of Germany stands alone in the belief that the future lies in turning the venerable internal-combustion engine into a clean machine (see accompanying story). The rest of the auto industry is scrambling to replace internal combustion altogether by perfecting an on-board fuel-cell system that would produce electricity to power an electric drive system.

Hydrogen is what makes a fuel cell work its electrochemical magic of converting hydrogen and oxygen to electricity and steam.

Most of the plans center on refining hydrogen from a hydrocarbon-based fuel, such as methanol or gasoline, as an interim step while developing a strategy for delivering pure hydrogen directly to fuel-cell-powered vehicles.

But several big auto companies are bypassing this interim fuel step--because the approaches all create some pollutants--in hopes the fuel industry will sense enough demand for hydrogen to go out and install a nationwide retail system.

"It is still like a game of musical chairs, and we're all walking around looking at options," said Joe Irvin, a spokesman for the California Fuel Cell Partnership in West Sacramento.


Automotive fuel cells run on hydrogen that is either produced on board the vehicle or stored (in liquid, gaseous or solid form) just as gasoline is stored in tanks in traditional vehicles. There are dozens of fuel-cell systems in use today in prototype vehicles ranging from small two-passenger cars to buses for public transit systems.

The beauty of such systems, from the auto industry's point of view, is that fuel-cell vehicles can achieve the range of conventional gasoline-powered vehicles and eliminate tailpipe emissions. They do away with the need for bulky, costly storage batteries that must be recharged--a limitation that, along with corporate reluctance to market them broadly, has helped keep battery-powered EVs from catching on.

There is still a lot of work to do on fuel cells to get them ready for automotive use. They need to be smaller, to ramp up to operating temperature faster, and to operate reliably and at full efficiency in a broad range of climates.

But the cells have been around since the late 1800s, and the technology itself isn't the problem.

The biggest stumbling block to commercial production is getting the energy that fuels the cell. There is general agreement that someday there will be a system for distributing hydrogen as if it were gasoline: a global network of hydrogen filling stations--drive in, fill the tank, drive away.

But in the U.S. alone, the cost of developing a hydrogen refinery, pipeline and retailing system has been estimated at $400 billion.

There are a number of alternative and less expensive methods being considered. At least one firm is developing a home hydrogen maker that would distill the fuel from tap water.

But delivery of pure hydrogen in quantities sufficient to make it as easy to get and use as gasoline still is 20 or more years away, said Thad Malesh, director of the alternative technologies power group at J.D. Power & Associates in Agoura Hills.

Thus, the hydrogen war: the race to be first with a reliable interim system to produce and distribute hydrogen.

It can be distilled from several hydrocarbon-based fuels, including natural gas, gasoline, diesel oil and methanol. In each case the fuel is fed into a reformer, a sort of miniature refinery installed in the vehicle, which pulls its components apart and frees up the hydrogen.

So far, there is no agreement on the single best fuel to use to produce hydrogen. The players are divided into four main camps:

* German-American auto maker DaimlerChrysler is promoting development of methanol reformers, largely because it is the fuel that is easiest to convert.

* Ford Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co. of Japan each have developed prototype fuel-cell vehicles using methanol reformers, but in the last year they have focused their efforts on direct hydrogen and no longer are taking sides in the debate.

* General Motors Corp.--joined recently by Japanese giants Toyota and Nissan, Renault of France and Hyundai of South Korea--says that reforming gasoline is the best way to go.

* BMW is alone in its support of altering the internal-combustion engine to burn liquid hydrogen instead of gasoline.


As one of its tasks, the 2-year-old Fuel Cell Partnership has been studying fuel commercialization issues and expects to issue a final report late this summer, spokesman Irvin said.

It should be an interesting report, because the 20 members of the nonprofit consortium generally belong to one or another of the differing fuel camps.

"Within the partnership, though, we are dedicated to trying all approaches and evaluating them equally," Irvin said. He does acknowledge a bit of discomfort when he reads news reports in which the partnership chairman, DaimlerChrysler executive Ferdinand Panik, speaking as a DaimlerChrysler representative, said he favors his company's preferred fuel, methanol.

Still, DaimlerChrysler isn't wedded to that strategy, said Christian Mohrdieck, senior manager for fuel-cell systems at the company's U.S. headquarters in Michigan. "We'd like to be fuel-neutral. It could depend on the region or the country. It could be different by continents, in the way diesel is popular in Europe today."

Malesh, the J.D. Power consultant, said he believes that the posturing is dying down and that GM's push for gasoline reformer technology probably will prevail.

And there does need to be a standard, he said.

"Given the enormous cost of developing fuel cells," he said, "no one can afford to lose because of selecting the wrong fuel."

Gasoline is a bridging strategy, not a final one, said Byron McCormick, co-director of GM's Global Alternative Propulsion Center. "We picked it because we don't want to have to create a new infrastructure that we have every intention of making obsolete as quickly as possible."

GM's goal, McCormick said, "is not to be first to market but to be the first to sell 1 million of these vehicles. And they cannot be subsidized; they have to be mass-market sales of vehicles that appeal to customers."

It's a tall order, and GM's insistence on using gasoline has won little support from the environmental movement.

"We think that the gasoline fuel cell is a case of running a 21st century technology on a 20th century fuel," said Jason Mark, clean vehicle program director for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Although backers of the process say using gasoline as an interim fuel will promote development of the pure hydrogen fuel cell, Mark argues that it also promotes continued dependence on petroleum and could derail development of other hydrogen fuel sources.

"And it is not clear that a gasoline fuel cell will offer any environmental improvement over technologies that already are developed, like the hybrid systems," he said, referring to the pioneering Honda Insight and Toyota Prius gasoline-electric vehicles.


A lot remains unknown about potential emissions from gasoline reformer technology, Irvin of the fuel-cell consortium agrees.

"But the way we view it in the partnership," he said, "is that the emissions are less than the cleanest internal-combustion engine."

For its part, GM argues that a fuel-cell vehicle running on hydrogen from a gasoline reformer system is far cleaner than a traditional gasoline-burning vehicle and that methanol, because it is far more toxic than gasoline, offers another set of problems.

It is better, GM's McCormick said, to get fuel-cell cars rolling with interim fuels than to simply postpone real-world use and the improvements that would come from it until the day a pure hydrogen delivery system is in place.

Times staff writer Terril Yue Jones in Detroit contributed to this report.


The Hunt For Hydrogen

As the auto industry races to develop electric vehicles powered by non-polluting fuel cells, the best source for fuel needed to power the cells is still undecided. There are three competing camps:

Methanol: A hydrocarbon that can be produced from natural gas or renewable biological sources such as wood chips. Technology exists to refine hydrogen from methanol, but the fuel is highly toxic and a distribution system is needed.

Gasoline: The infrastructure for refining and distributing it already exists; development of workable system for refining hydrogen is still ongoing.

Hydrogen: The ultimate goal as it eliminates the need for interim fuels that pollute. But a global refining, distribution and retailing system is needed.

Graphics reporting by JOHN O'DELL / Los Angeles Times

Fuel Cells

Fuel cells are among the possible sources of power for he electric car of the future. Car companies are spending billions of dollars on development. Fuel cells use a chemical reaction to produce electricity from hydrogen, which can be stored in tanks in the vehicle or distilled from interim fuels such as gasoline or methanol.

1. An interim fuel is introduced to vaporizer tank and converted to gases under high heat.

2. Gases are oxidized, or combined with air, to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

3. Steam and air are introduced, along with a catalyst, to convert carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

4. Hydrogen is introduced into fuel cell, where it combines with air and is forced through a membrane coated with a platinum catalyst. (When the primary fuel is hydrogen, steps one through three are eliminated.) The reaction creates electric current to power the motor that turns the vehicle's wheels.

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