Hydrogen Cars May Hit Showrooms by 2005

Janet Ginsburg
for National Geographic Today
January 29, 2003 (Originally published on October 16, 2001)
Viewers of National Geographic Today in the United States can watch an update on hydrogen-car technology in tonight's broadcast, which follows yesterday's announcement by President Bush that he proposes U.S. $1.2 billion in funding for this research over the next few years.

In the clean, "green" future envisioned by energy expert Amory Lovins,
cars not only get 99 miles per gallon emissions-free, but they may also
play a key role in providing electricity to a power-hungry world.

The solution, according to Lovins, is a "hypercar"—a
lightweight vehicle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, with enough style
and space to compete with luxury sport utility vehicles (SUVs). Lovins
is with the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank in Colorado, and
chairman of its corporate spin-off venture Hypercar, Inc.,.

Some of the giant car companies are also designing hydrogen-powered cars. Hypercar Inc. hopes to have its first model ready to roll off the production line by 2005.

Today, an estimated 210 million vehicles are stuck in traffic on America's roadways. Collectively they spew nearly a billion and a half tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year. According to a recent EPA report, the latest conventional models average a little more than 20 miles per gallon—the worst showing since 1980.

While some blame America's love affair with the fuel-hungry SUVs, Lovins says the problem comes down to design.

A decade ago, Lovins was asked to address a National Academy of Sciences meeting about how to build cars with greater fuel efficiency. The general thinking was that fuel efficiency could be increased by only 10 percent because otherwise the car would become too expensive, says Lovins.

He was unconvinced of that assertion, however, and set up an informal team to rethink the automobile from the tires up. "I'm not a car guy, which actually was a bit of an advantage because I didn't know too much about how it ought to be done," said Lovins.

The result is a car that is as much as eight times as efficient as most standard models.

Lightweight Parts, Heavy Results

How did the Lovins team do it? They began by "light-weighting" the car.

They started with the body, which is made from a composite of carbon fibers set in a plastic matrix. It's a stronger version of the material used in skis and tennis rackets—and, per pound, five times as strong as steel.

Although carbon composites are a lot more expensive than steel, a smaller quantity is needed. Even more important, Lovins pointed out, "it's cheaper to manufacture."

While the Hypercar weighs less than 2,000 pounds (907 kilograms), it is still tough enough to meet federal safety standards, based on a computer-simulated 30-miles-per-hour fixed barrier crash. In a cyber smash-up with a Ford Explorer—a vehicle twice the weight—all the damage to the Hypercar occurred in the front end.

There are other, less obvious, ways to lightweight. Special low-rolling resistance tires developed with Michelin, not only cut down on friction—which can use up to a third of a car's fuel energy—but are also designed to run flat. If a tire blows, the car can still be driven for another 100 miles, more than enough to get to a gas station. The need to carry a spare is eliminated, further reducing weight.

Soon the savings in weight starts to snowball. A lighter car requires a smaller engine to power it, less braking to stop it, and less suspension to hold it up. And because the Hypercar runs on an electricity-producing fuel cell rather than an internal combustion engine, certain parts, including the starter, alternator, clutch, and transmission, are eliminated.

"The car gets radically simplified. And then it costs less to make," said Lovins.

David Cole, president of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said it's important to be cautious about expectations. "The potential on paper looks awfully good," he said. "But getting it into production—things don't necessarily turn out as you might expect."

"If you think of this as a ten-step program, the first step is showing technical feasibility," said Cole. "They still need to do this. Then it's nine more steps to commercial feasibility."

"Brains," Not Bulk

Brains replace bulk in a Hypercar. "Think of it like a computer with wheels, not a car with chips," Lovins explained.

The car can diagnose, upgrade, and, to a certain extent, fix itself. It can also be programmed for a variety of new features, such as recording everything that happened at the time of a crash, like an airplane's "black box."

Two years ago, Hypercar,Inc., was spun off from the Rocky Mountain Institute. The nine-person start-up team, based in Basalt, Colorado, intends to "create the DNA of the next generation of vehicles," according to Hypercar's Michael Brylawksi.

To do that, they're trying to sell not only the Hypercar itself, but also the ideas that make it run so efficiently—the "intellectual property." By working with automakers and suppliers, the company hopes to get the technologies on the road faster.

While none of its fuel-efficient, smart features are unique to Hypercar, what's special is how they're combined and optimized.

For example, at least half a dozen automakers, including Ford, Daimler-Chrysler, and BMW, are developing fuel cell-powered cars. But because those vehicles are still fairly heavy, they need fuel cells, which are about three times bigger and heavier—and three times more expensive—as that used by the Hypercar.

Cole thinks the Hypercar is "a huge step" in the right direction. "My guess is where they [Hypercar Inc.] would make the most contribution is in a few of the ideas," said Cole. "The real role of the Hypercar is unleashing the imagination—that's one of the real values of it."

Double Duty

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome with fuel cell-powered cars is setting up a distribution network to supply the hydrogen gas that runs them.

A fuel cell works by combining hydrogen with oxygen from the air in a chemical process to generate electricity. The only by-products are heat and pure water. Hydrogen can be extracted from natural gas, using a device called a reformer, or through a process called "electrolysis," which splits water into hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

While there are only a handful of hydrogen gas stations in the world, Lovins has a plan for making it easy to fill up. "Many people assume that before you can sell the first hydrogen car, you have to put in $100 billion worth of hydrogen generating and delivery stations and pipelines," said Lovins. "That's not correct."

He says the first Hypercars should be leased to people who work in buildings where fuel cells have already been installed. The Hypercars could tap into the buildings' supply of hydrogen to refuel. But they could also be hooked up to the grid.

As "portable power plants on wheels," the cars' fuel cells could be put to work during the day when they're parked, generating—and selling—electricity.

"It doesn't take many people wanting to be paid to park, rather than the other way around…to put the coal and nuclear people out of business," said Lovins. And of course, using fuel cells would dramatically decrease the need for oil.

Cole disagrees with Lovins' conclusions, arguing that the hydrogen infrastructure would take billions of dollars to establish. But he does support the direction of the project. "I say, 'More power to them.' My only reservation is to be careful about generating unrealistic expectations," he said.

"It does get people to think out of the box," said Cole. "You don't want to clamp down on these people who are dreaming at the edge."

Eventually, the Hypercar could change ideas about what people come to expect from automobiles. Fittingly, the first model to come off the drawing boards is called the Revolution.

Watch continued television coverage of this event on National Geographic Today, only on the National Geographic Channel, at 7 p.m. ET/PT in the United States. Click here to request it.

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