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John Wayne's Holster: Hydrogen Cars – Betting on a Three-legged Horse?
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Friday, August 18, 2006

Hydrogen Cars – Betting on a Three-legged Horse?

General Motors Hydrogen-Fueled Sequel

Many automakers are currently testing some version of a hydrogen fuel cell automobile, mostly due to funding support from President Bush’s $1.2 billion hydrogen initiative which he announced in his 2003 State of the Union address. General Motors recently announced that it has a “drivable version” of its Hydrogen-Fueled concept car – The Sequel.

The hydrogen fuel cell technology is attractive to consumers and the environmentally conscious due to its sustainability and its near zero level of hydrocarbon emissions (it emits water vapor). But hydrogen fuel cells are not without their problems – the major ones being their “high cost, relatively short range (approx. 300 miles) and a lack of fueling stations”.

There is also competition from ethanol – the so-called E85 fuel. E85 fuel is 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. While not as clean as the hydrogen fuel cells, it does reduce emissions by about 80%. E85 also has a lot of other advantages in its favor that make it the more likely choice as the fuel source to eliminate our dependence on addiction to oil.

The major advantage is that the conversion from gasoline to E85 can be done much easier than the conversion to a completely different fuel source. Switching to hydrogen cars would require a total revamping of production and distribution systems, major renovations of every gas station in the country, and the design and production of new cars. We are talking about a multi-trillion dollar impact on the economy!

Switching to E85 would not be nearly as painful. Most of today’s gas stations will be able to handle E85 with minimal retrofitting. And auto makers can tweak their current car designs to adapt them to E85 at a cost that will add only $200.00 to the car’s retail price. And like hydrogen fuel cells, ethanol is sustainable.

But its production is not without problems. This is the one hurdle that the E85 proponents must overcome.

Most of the fuel ethanol currently produced comes from corn or sugar cane. This has raised some ethical concerns as it is cutting into a food resource. According to Fortune Magazine, “the grain required to fill a 25-gallon…gas tank with ethanol…could feed one person for a year. If today's entire U.S. grain harvest were converted into fuel for cars, it would still satisfy less than one-sixth of U.S. demand.”.

That’s a lot of potential food that could go a long way in feeding a hungry world! And it doesn't come close to meeting demand or curbing our consumption of oil.

Moreover, because lots of corn and sugar cane have been used for ethanol production, it has decreased the amount available for food. This in turn has caused the commodity prices of those crops to rise. For the poor, rising commodity prices could translate into malnutrition or starvation.

Fortunately, there is some good news. Ethanol can now be made from a variety of sources, such as prairie swithcgrass, corn husks and tillers, wood chips, and even manure.

There is also another problem with E85. “Big Oil” is not that interested in it. And they more or less run the gas stations. So if they don’t market and distribute it, there will not be many places for consumers to conveniently obtain it.

Like nature, the marketplace abhors a vacuum. If there is money to be made, someone will step up to the plate. And that “someone” might just be Wal-Mart. And if the price of oil continues to rise, that will certainly compel consumers to look for more affordable alternatives.

Alternatives like ethanol!


At 8:17 PM, Anonymous Roy said...

While I am no scientist and it seems the jury is still out on the effects of carbon dioxide emmissions, it seems that we should air on the side of caution. We need to start on something ethanol, hydrogen, something. By the way, what ever happened to nuclear energy. I thought that nuclear energy was clean and abundant.

At 10:11 PM, Anonymous Al said...

What I hear is that it takes 1.3 calories of fossil fuel to create 1 calory worth of ethanol.

How does that help?

At 12:07 AM, Anonymous Joe Verica said...

Hey Roy & Al

Thanks for your comments.

I am not sure about the safety of emissions from E85, but I would venture to say it is safer than straight gasoline. I will have to check on that.

Another thing I will have to check on is the energy input for ethanol production. I have not seen any stats, but I take your numbers in good faith. I have heard some of my colleague in AgEngineering talk about the inefficiency of ethanol production, but I think it won't be long before this changes. There is a LOT of research being done in this area and there is simply too much money to be made.


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