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Selwyn Johnston



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Hydrogen - Fuel of the 21st Century


National Hydrogen Association of Australia

    Shell Hydrogen


Ford - Hydrogen Cars

GM Holden - Hydrogen Fuel Cars (search site - hydrogen fuel cars)          

Toyota - Hydrogen Cars

      Impact of Petrol Pricing Select Committee - Submission (see Hydrogen)

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Hydrogen is considered an ideal energy carrier in the near future. 

It can be produced from water by using a variety of energy sources, such as solar, nuclear and fossils, and it can be converted into useful energy forms efficiently and without detrimental environmental effects. 

The only by-product is water or water vapour (if air is used for flame combustion of hydrogen, small amounts of NOx are produced). 

When solar energy, in its direct and/or indirect forms, is used to produce hydrogen from water, both the primary and secondary forms of energy become renewable and environmentally compatible, resulting with an ideal, clean and permanent energy system… the Solar Hydrogen Energy System. 

Hydrogen can be used in any application in which fossil fuels are being used today, with sole exception of cases in which carbon is specifically needed. Hydrogen can be used as a fuel in furnaces, internal combustion engines, turbines and jet engines, even more efficiently than fossil fuels (i.e. coal, petroleum and natural gas). 

Automobiles, trucks, buses, trains, ships, submarines, aeroplanes and rockets can run on hydrogen. 

Hydrogen can also be converted directly to electricity by the fuel cells with a variety of applications in transportation and stationary power generation. 

Metal hydride technologies offer a variety of applications in refrigeration, air conditioning, hydrogen storage and purification. Combustion of hydrogen with oxygen results in pure steam, which has many applications in industrial processes and space heating. 

Moreover, hydrogen is an important industrial gas and raw material in numerous industries, such as computer, metallurgical, chemical, pharmaceutical, fertilizer and food industries. 

The hydrogen industry has an enviable safety record spanning more than a half-century. Any fuel is hazardous and needs due care, but hydrogen's hazards are different and generally more tractable than those of hydrocarbon fuels. In the vast majority of cases, leaking hydrogen, if lit, will burn but not explode. 

However, in the rare cases where it might explode, its theoretical explosive power per unit volume of gas is 22 times weaker than that of petrol vapour. It is not, as has been claimed, "essentially a liquid or gaseous form of dynamite." 

Hydrogen is four times more diffusive than natural gas, or 12 times more than petrol fumes, so leaking hydrogen rapidly disperses up and away from its source. 

If ignited, hydrogen burns rapidly with a non-luminous flame that can't readily scorch you at a distance, emitting only one-tenth the radiant heat of a hydrocarbon fire and burning 7% cooler than gasoline. 

Although fire fighters dislike hydrogen's clear flame because they need a viewing device to see it in daylight, victims generally aren't burned unless they're actually in the flame, nor are they choked by smoke. 

One videotaped test of a standard passenger car compared a hydrogen leak with a petrol leak. 

In the first test, a hydrogen leak was created, assuming a very unlikely triple failure of redundant protective devices. The leak discharged the entire 1.54-kg hydrogen inventory of the fuel-cell car, but the resulting vertical flame plume raised the car's interior temperature by 1-2C° (0.6-1.1 F°). The passenger compartment was unharmed. 

In the second part of the test, petrol leaked from a 1.6-mm (1/16") hole in the fuel line. The resulting explosion gutted the car's interior and would have killed anyone trapped inside. Because the hydrogen-leak test didn't damage the car, the petrol part of the test was conducted using the same car. Had the petrol portion of test been done first, a second car would have been required for the hydrogen leak test. 

Contrary to a popular misunderstanding, these safety attributes of hydrogen actually helped save 62 lives in the 1937 Hindenburg disaster. 

An investigation by NASA scientist Dr. Addison Bain found that the disaster would have been essentially unchanged even if the dirigible were lifted not by hydrogen but by non-flammable helium, and that probably nobody aboard was killed by a hydrogen fire. (There was no explosion.) 

The 33 passengers who died were killed by jumping out or by the burning diesel oil, canopy, and debris… the cloth canopy was coated with the primary chemical components of rocket fuel which ignited due to discharge of static electricity when the zeppelin docked. The other 62 survived, riding the flaming dirigible to earth as the clear hydrogen flames swirled harmlessly above them.


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HYDROGEN FUEL - Not Just Hot Air 

Larry Burns doesn't look like an evangelist. It's impossible to imagine this urbane engineer on street corners in a sandwich board declaring, "... the hydrogen economy is coming." 

However, when he says it, in his quiet and precise tones, he has the power to make converts. To turn faithless rev-heads high on fumes into hydrogen true believers. To persuade petro-holics that water, the only "waste" product of fuel cells, could become their favourite tipple. 

In January 2005, General Motors Vice-President for Research, Development and Planning was at the Detroit motor show telling the world press about Sequel, the car giant's new hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. 

It's a concept that represents the next stage in what GM chairman Rick Wagoner says will be the auto industry's "moon shot"; the ambitious goal of replacing petrol as first choice for the global fleet. 

Alone among car companies, GM has set a target of 2010 for a workable version of the technology that delivers on ability and bottom line. And Burns is GM's hydrogen prophet. 

"Our goal is to have a fuel cell propulsion system, designed and validated, that would give you the performance required and also that would be comparable in cost when you're building about 1 million a year," says Burns. 

With the price of oil making headlines daily, it's not the prospect of dry wells that worries Burns, but an uncertain, stifling future. 

"We're in the camp that feels there's plenty of petroleum for a long time on the planet, but that's not the issue. It's the volatility around that supply that's the issue," he says. 

"So there's a reason why we set that target. We believe the industry is extremely vulnerable relative to its ability to grow. 

"Not that there's demand issues with growth, only 12 per cent of the people in the world own a car. 

"But could that growth be capped by an energy issue, an environmental issue, a safety issue or a congestion issue?" 

Climate warming, energy independence, political instability or rapid growth in China, in the huge Cobo Centre Hall where the motor show is being held, car companies have already responded with a swag of hybrid cars that combine petrol engines with electric motors for efficiency. 

The success of the few models already on sale has taken the industry by surprise. 

But Burns says hybrid maths just doesn't add up. 

"Let's say tomorrow morning we woke up and every one of the cars in the US, 220 million cars and trucks, had a hybrid system in it that could make it 25 per cent more efficient," he supposes. 

"How many years do you think the US could go forward before we started consuming more petrol that we consume today? 


He explains: "Vehicle miles travelled correlate directly with economic growth, which is running at 3 per cent to 4 per cent a year. Compound that over six years and you get 25 per cent, wiping out all your hybrid gains." 

In engineering terms too, hybrids have fundamental problems. 

"A hybrid adds hardware, batteries, electric motors, power electronics, and things to the car which have mass, package requirements and cost implications. Hydrogen fuel cells take you in the other direction. They're simpler, and we think they have the chance of solving the problem." 

The principle, at least, has been around a long time, after being discovered in 1839. Fuel cells were used by NASA in the Apollo projects and today there are even fuel cell mobile phones. 

But fuel cells for cars seem forever around the corner, with cost a major hurdle. Vehicles already running around the US and Japan represent small-scale, pre-commercial trials. 

Burns says huge production gains remain to be released. 

"There's one-tenth as many moving parts in a fuel cell propulsion system (FCPS) as there is in an internal combustion engine system," he explains. "That's a huge opportunity for cost competitiveness. 

"Furthermore, the parts that you do have in an FCPS have very simple geometry, it's more like making CDs or video cassettes than the traditional heavy-duty engine manufacturing line. 

"So what you have working for you is a quite different manufacturing system that wouldn't be as capital-intensive and a design that has one-tenth as many moving parts. There's nothing in the pile of molecules that makes up a fuel cell propulsion system that says it should cost more." 

Based on an equivalent petrol engine, GM says its target is $US50 ($65) per kilowatt. Burns reckons the Sequel, which uses fourth-generation fuel cells, comes in at around $US500 ($650) a kilowatt. 

But only six years ago it was $US5000 and the example of chip power in the computer industry shows how rapidly gains can be made. Burns can smell success. 

"We have a vision for the design; we know how you would take your $US50 per kilowatt and allocate it to every part and subsystem in that design. And we have people working very hard to meet those cost and durability targets ... and nobody is saying it can't be done." 

Take away feasibility and the sceptics raise other objections: how will we produce enough hydrogen? What about the cost of building thousands of refilling stations? And safety... remember the Hindenburg airship disaster? 

Burns has answers for them, too. Hydrogen is already being produced in large quantities, he says, and the sources are many and varied, coal, natural gas, any source of electricity. Even petrol. 

He quotes a gas specialist company called Air Products, which has calculated that enough hydrogen is made around the globe to fuel 200 million fuel cell vehicles... every day!

"You don't have to invent something to know how to create hydrogen, that's well-known technology given the quantities being produced," Burn says. 

"This industry apparently handles it safely because I never hear about a hydrogen accident. There's a lot of safety knowledge out there." 

And Burns demolishes the infrastructure argument like this: "Suppose you put hydrogen stations in the 100 largest US cities (representing 70 per cent of the population) so that none is more than 3.2 kilometres away, plus every 40 kilometres on all interstate highways. That equals 12,000 stations across the US. 

"Companies like Shell, Exxon Mobile, Chevron Texaco suggest those stations would cost about $US1 million each, that's $US12 billion," Burns continues. "If you were going to build the Alaskan pipeline today it would cost $US25 billion. 

"The Alaskan pipeline is one sliver of the petroleum infrastructure in the US." 

Hydrogen could be trucked from refineries to the stations or made at the station itself from natural gas or water and electricity. 

"We believe $US12 billion is a pretty good option for the US Government to buy to have an alternative to petroleum. When you consider what it costs to keep the Iraq war going, it's not an astronomical number." 

Petrol may be around a long time, 750 million cars depend on it, but "hydrogen has to become the dominant technology". 

Governments will need to get the hydrogen wheels rolling, perhaps with favourable tax structures, certainly with codes and standards. But the market must steer the course, Burns says. 

"Governments can't subsidise shifts of that magnitude and certainly industries can't sell products below cost to make that happen. It really has to be a market dynamic." 

So there's no point finding favour with a small circle of Hollywood early-adopters who can afford to care. Here, for Burns, is the biggest challenge: widespread consumer acceptance. 

A hydrogen fuel cell car will be better, possibly even more affordable, but it will be different, without the sensual qualities of internal combustion. 

The solution lies in software. 

"If you want the sound of a car accelerating we can just put it through the sound system, the thing that makes it feel like a Porsche instead of a VW is going to be software and you just program that in." 

And horsepower has lost some of its pull. 

"For a lot of kids growing up today that's just not what it is. The technology is the computer and mobile telephone and they're more environmentally sensitive due to the education system. That could accelerate this change."


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Written and Authorised by Selwyn Johnston, Cairns FNQ 4870