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The Race to Harness Hydrogen's Potential

The goal is a zero-emission car for the masses; how to get there is the auto makers' guess.

July 04, 2001|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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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.

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