Is Hydrogen the Gasoline of the Future?

Nicole Davis in Dearborn, Michigan
for National Geographic News
September 9, 2003
At Ford's Sustainable Mobility Technologies Lab in Dearborn, Michigan, where engineers are at work on the latest buzz-phrase in driving—hydrogen fuel cell cars—Mugeeb Ijaz runs down the vital stats on the Ford Focus above him. Suspended on a hydraulic lift, the underbelly of the popular sedan seems no different from the average car, except for the black metal box fastened to its middle.

In place of the gas tank, explains Ijaz, a supervisor for the fuel cells program at Ford, there is a stack of fuel cells. Instead of gas, this prototype, like dozens of others in development around Detroit, runs on hydrogen. Yet the most salient fact about this Focus is what it doesn't do: While the average car releases roughly six tons (5.4 metric tons) of carbon dioxide into the air each year, a hydrogen-fuel cell car emits zero pollutants.

Hydrogen can be used in an internal combustion engine. But a fuel cell car—essentially an electric car that uses the cells as a catalyst to convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity—emits only heat and water vapor. For the environmentally conscious and those anxious over energy security, such benign byproducts could either be a red herring, or a real breakthrough.

Louis Paspal, an engineer with the automaker for the past 12 years, has seen alternatives like electric vehicles come and go in response to public demand for better fuel economy and emissions. "Hydrogen," he says, "is the one that's going to work."

Dressed in blue coveralls, he stood beside the hydrogen "gas" station, ready to fill up one of Ford's fuel cell cars. Paspal and his colleague, Ron Gillard, first asked onlookers to stand behind a yellow safety bar a few feet from the car (a precautionary measure for now, explained Paspal.) Before filling up, he affixed a plug-like device to the tank for a pressure check. (This step will ultimately be eliminated, Gillard offered, when an electronic sensor automatically reads the tank's pressure. Finally came the nozzle—bearing a close resemblance to a ray gun—that Gillard used to "pump" the odorless, invisible hydrogen. The entire process will be streamlined in time, but the simple act of refueling provides a glimpse of the complicated switch to a new fuel.

Other obstacles include the public's fear of hydrogen, both real and perceived, that need to be assuaged. Even if hydrogen was not the cause for the 1937 Hindenberg disaster (scientists now argue it was due to the explosive paint on the zeppelin's exterior), it sticks out in people's minds as a compelling reason to stay away from the element. Education, Ijaz explained earlier, is just one multi-million-dollar (U.S.) line item in the United States Department of Energy's (DOE) budget for hydrogen car research and development.

Uncertain Outlook

The infrastructure needed to fuel an entire nation of hydrogen-powered cars is another healthy slice of the projected pie chart. While General Motors would like to sell a million hydrogen cars a year by the middle of the next decade, DOE officials expect only to have completed research into implementing the new fuel by 2015. Getting hydrogen cars on the road and hydrogen in filling stations—comparable to the network that now fuels the 200 million gas-powered cars today—would be on the order of 20 to 50 years. That is, if hydrogen turns out to be the means to cleaner-running cars.

Ford shies away from concrete predictions. "Who knows," says Phil Chizek, marketing and sales manager of Ford's fuel cell program. "In ten years this may not be the answer. But the truth is, you have to spend some money on advance development. That's what the space program did," Chizek points out. "Look at how many Apollo missions there were."

But there's a paradox: To tap into this zero-emissions energy source, high emissions fuels like coal and gas continue to be the cheapest, at least in economic terms, and most common means to separate hydrogen from the naturally occurring substances it's found in, such as water and gas.

As it is, fuel for the United States' transportation network, including cars, buses, trucks, trains, and ships, accounts for two-thirds of the country's oil consumption—more than half of which is imported. To conserve energy and the environment—not to mention billions of dollars in capital investment—David Keith asks why we do not place more stringent fuel economy standards on the cars we're driving now.

Keith, associate professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, argued against the rush toward hydrogen-powered cars in a July 18 Science article. Less than two weeks after it was published, the Senate voted down a measure that would increase American automotive fuel economy to 40 miles per gallon (63 kilometers per gallon) from its current average of 20.4 miles per gallon (33 kilometers per gallon), the lowest average in 22 years.

"The key message," says Keith, "is the following: Start with problems, don't start with technological solutions."

Escaping the Grid

The problem that hydrogen may be most fit to solve in the near future has nothing to do with cars. Instead, it could be a viable solution to the nation's overburdened power grid.

While New York City was in the dark during the largest blackout in U.S. history last month, a police station in Central Park kept its electrical power flowing with the fuel-cell stack it uses to operate, even when the power's on. And in Ontario, Canada, Stuart Energy weathered the power outage with the air conditioning running, creating buzz for hydrogen power in the process. The Canadian company makes electrolytic stations, or generators that extract hydrogen from water. Naturally, it had a backup supply of hydrogen power—but never had a real life application for it until the blackout.

CEO Jon Slangerup says he was in a meeting when the lights blinked off, then came back on. He mistook the outage for a power surge, but when his meeting ended an hour later, Slangerup says, "I came out to find…that entire Eastern region was out. And this system we'd built conceptually popped on in eight seconds. We didn't lose any time in our business."

Stuart Energy plans to capitalize on the notion of "distributed generation" that's gained currency since the blackout. The idea loosely entails a dispersed system of individual, small-scale power stations that could operate in conjunction with the grid. In Stuart Energy's model, solar energy panels would fuel the electrolyzing process. The resulting hydrogen would then generate enough electricity to power a home and fuel the cars in the garage.

The initial cost for such a system to individual homeowners would approach U.S. $25,000, an relatively exorbitant sum. But once running, solar-powered hydrogen systems would eliminate home and car owners' monthly electric bill and gas charges.

Not to mention personal contributions to the greenhouse effect. Hydrogen takes energy to produce. But once created, hydrogen can store energy for future use, making it the perfect partner to capture intermittent power generated by wind and solar energy.

Such a future is a long way off, but William Hoagland, former hydrogen program manager for the DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory agrees that weaknesses in the power grid may be the catalyst to kick-start the hydrogen economy. Even if we use fossil fuels for the next century to create it, ultimately, says Hoagland, "A growing hydrogen market can do nothing but help renewable energy."

"Our big problem is not making the fuel cell cars or the hydrogen. It's the infrastructure," he says. "If there were a market today for large amounts of hydrogen, you would see infrastructure problems change. It's a chicken and egg problem."

With the country's energy anxieties heightened, it may seem that stationary fuel cell power will be first to drive the hydrogen market. But cars have a history of predating the systems that support them—namely gas stations and a network of paved roads. One hundred years ago, early automobile owners waited nearly a decade before either appeared to make driving easier and cars cheaper. Once that infrastructure took shape, cars, initially called playthings of the rich, lost their derisive nickname as well.

Editor's note: To mark the centennial of the first cross-U.S. car trip, New York-based freelance writer Nicole Davis and photographer Kristen McClarty drove an ultra low emission vehicle loaned by the Ford Motor Company.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.