Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Putting the Hydo in Hydrocarbon

This story about a possible market-available hydrogen car from BMW seems too good to be true. And so, of course, it is - but only a little.

The idea is that BMW has a hydrogen-powered combustion engine race car. It can go from 0-60 in about 10 seconds, and has clocked speeds of 187mph. That would definitely seem to eliminate what you might call the "redneck factor." That is, even people who are really attached to their current cars should be able to love this one. There's nothing "fruity" about it. It looks like a BMW, runs damn fast, and operates on a combustion engine - i.e. is internally more or less the same as a gas-guzzler. (The hydrogen is cryogenically stored - at something like -250 degrees C - in a tank that's cleverly engineered for safety.)

There has to be a catch, right?

Well, there is, but only sort of. Currently it costs about $2.50 to produce a kilogram of hydrogen (via electrolysis), which is roughly the same as a gallon of gas. Obviously that's not really a competitive price - especially when you consider that the car itself is so expensive that it's only going to be available for lease at first. Now, fair enough, a gallon of premium hovers at around 3 bucks these days, so it technically makes the economy mark. But then again, gas prices seem inflated. It wouldn't be really shocking if they fell back to around $2 - and, in fact, putting a hydrogen car on the market would certainly give Big Oil a reason to get its ass in gear and MAKE IT HAPPEN. So it seems like hydrogen production will need to get cheaper.

Another nagging concern is the fueling option. Obviously hydrogen that has to stay cooled at -250C can't just be pumped at a regular fueling station. Not to mention, with no cars on the road that take hydrogen, there isn't a lot of motivation for fueling stations to stock it anyway. However, in Germany stations are already going into place - and over there they're focusing on fuel production stations (the fueling stations would make their own fuel in house), bypassing the supply system. In the US, no surprise, things are proceding more slowly, but there are some (purely ceremonial, at this point) stations around DC - on the way to New York. Ahnold also says he wants a hydrogen highway in Califohneea by 2010 - and given the giant green hardon his constituents have, there's no reason to imagine he can't do it. One of the especially cool spinoffs of all this is that one of the stations in Munich (the one at the airport) is working on a robotic fueling system. How cool is THAT? (All refernces in this paragraph can be found in preceding links.)

So the short answer is, yes, there are a couple of headaches, but they don't seem that serious. The fueling station problem will obviously be solved as the cars become more popular, and since they are cars in the traditional sense, that seems more likely than getting anyone enthusiastic about the battery-powered electric cars. BMW is also making this transition easier by installing a regular gas-powered engine in the first generation, so there is no danger of running out of fuel miles from one of the four or five stations on the continent. It's apparently as easy as just pressing a button to switch over to the traditional system.

The fuel cost problem is obviously more serious. It should be said that hopes that improvements in fuel production will soon follow are likely to be overstated in the case of hydrogen cars. Hydrogen fuel (made primarily from biomass in the US, apparently) is already available for non-automotive uses, so it isn't as though anyone can count on a sudden push in efficiency improvements once cars hit the road. Also, BMW's claims that it can get costs down to $2/kg by 2010 are probably fantasy as they depend on expected improvments in solar and wind power technology. These technologies are highly inefficient at present - and yet the German government employs them for 15% of the power grid. There are likely to be political motivations for claims of upcoming improvements. For another thing, the oil industry is robust. Improvements in the cost of hydrogen fuel are not likely to compete with Big Oil's ability to lower prices. Oil refining constantly posts efficiency improvements - and as laws change to allow more refinery here at home (which they are currently under pressure to do), the supply of oil will increase, pushing gas prices down. The point is that it's not just that hydrogen has to meet some static oil-based target - it's that it has to compete with a dynamic and highly efficient industry. It doesn't seem very likely to me that it will succeed by 2010, as the BMW guys are claiming.

The one possible "out" to this is that hydrogen will catch on in Europe, where fuel costs are through the roof. Hitting the target is considerably easier there. And, of course, as Europe goes toward hydrogen, the oil industy will have a harder time making its bottom line through oil alone. It would adapt, putting more capital into hydrogen production, and things would really start to take off then, I think. But again, this rosy scenario depends on a significant portion of Europe going hydrogen, and that's simply not going to happen by 2010.

However, I am an optimist, and the bright side of this is that the technology for virtual energy independence is clearly here. BMW has a car that runs from 0-60 in 9 seconds and exceeds 185mph on hydrogen. That is a VERY COOL THING. We're definitely "getting there." Marketability is still over the horizon, but I have reason to expect that in my lifetime fossil fuels will dwindle into insignificance, the US will be energy-independent, pollution problems from emissions will be largely solved, and idiots like Chavez and Al Qaeda will be more or less bankrupt.

Technology rocks.


At 5:41 AM, Blogger Jon said...

This was really interesting. I was just talking to MaryAnne last night about the oil industry trap. The people getting rich off of a dirty, dwindling resource are of course going to make it hard to push these kinds of great ideas through until the very end of their supply, but eventually, when the oil is simply no longer available to sell, then we'll have to muddle through a major economic shift. But then everybody WILL be driving those cool new cars (or something else running on an alternative source), so the stations will just hop on that wagon instead.

It's those of us who can walk to work, walk to the store, and know how to ride a bike that will hopefully remain the least directly affected by the transition. As for the economic turbulence that will undoubtedly accompany it, let's cross our fingers. I assume that the mass transport industries (delivery, freight, etc) will be informed enough to anticipate a shortage in time to prepare, even if average Joe is left wondering when there just won't be gas at the pump one day.

So, for now, businesses are getting richer as demand increases and supply diminishes, but it doesn't change the fact that you can't divide by zero.

I enjoyed this one AND the Searle response (waiting for the conclusion).


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