Sympathetic Stupid

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Petrol - Dead Like The Dodo?

Thanks to, an hydrogen-car related tech breakthrough [IsraCast] which just might foreshadow a plausible pathway to a no-petrol future.

Hydrogen fuel cells still look fairly unusable for a few reasons. Infrastructure: how do we get the hydrogen in enough places so you can actually fill your tank? Storage: this can go boom quite easily, so how do we store it? Production: yeah, there's hydrogen everywhere, but how much power are we willing to spend to get it into a usable form? (As I was reminded last night, hydrogen is an energy store, not an energy source.) Cost: are we willing to pay through the nose for a fuel cell car?

Engineuity would like us to think they have some answers, especially to the problems of storage and infrastructure. The basic premise is that hydrogen is produced on board the vehicle. Bingo, the problem of storing large amounts of hydrogen is avoided! This production is done, as I understand, using pure metals such as magnesium or aluminium, and heated water. The waste from this process is metal oxide which can be collected and recycled.

To this point, it sounds magnificent. And the engine barely needs to be modified - it's only the fuel system that changes, as the car is really powered by steam (and hydrogen). What I don't understand, though, is how this reservoir of water is heated, in order to react with the metal, or more specifically where the power comes from to do this. In fact, the way they describe the process (water "heated to very high temperatures"), it's hard to see how this differs from a steam engine! Yes, it will be zero emissions, but aren't water problems likely to be a significant restriction on future society? And doesn't this rely heavily on water infrastructure? And it will also require some form of 'metal infrastructure' in order to allow the car to be refuelled (required about as often as current cars).

The idea sounds wonderful, but I don't quite see what they're getting at. In fact, the more I consider it, the more this has the taste of pure PR, especially in the phrase "seeking investors that will allow it to develop a full scale prototype". I'd like to believe, but I think more proof is required.

The Engineer-Poet has posted on this [@ The Ergosphere] with much more scientific rigour than I ever could.