Hydrogen should be a fuel for the car of the future, according to a June 2010 report by the U.S. National Research Council or NRC. We spoke with Vernon Roan, who chairs the committee for the NRC on hydrogen cars and fuel.
Vernon Roan: Eventually, we are going to be forced into some kind of synthesized fuel economy. And hydrogen is by far the most likely, because it’s a super fuel. We’re going to wind up there, because we’re going to run out of fossil fuels. It’s not going to happen in the next decade. But eventually it’s going to happen.
Hydrogen fuel cells work by combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity. The technological problems of doing that efficiently and economically are yet to be solved.
We do recognize that this is a long term technology. It’s going to take years of continued research and development, and a lot of effort on the part of industry as well as on the part of government.
Roan said that the ‘gas’ tank of a hydrogen car is an active area of scientific research. There’s still not a good way to carry significant amounts of hydrogen for long distances. And there is the problem of where to get the hydrogen. Today, nearly all hydrogen for cars comes from fossil fuels. But the research is on to get it from wind and solar. And while the costs of making fuel cells remain high, Roan said they’ve dropped by 30 percent in the last two years.
Dr. Roan spoke described for EarthSky the state of the hydrogen car today, in 2010.
The hydrogen fuel cell car is now operating around the world. In the majority of countries, and certainly the Western countries, there are fuel cell powered cars running around on hydrogen. The state of this is that these are still demonstration vehicles. And they’re still being fairly carefully controlled. For example, General Motors made 100 of the Chevrolet Equinox, converted these vehicles to fuel cell power and hydrogen fuel. They have been put in the hands of typical users, 6-8 weeks at a time, and then they return them to General Motors, and General Motors passes them on to someone else. And so there are people getting experience. And the National Laboratories and NREL have been collecting data so that we have some idea of what some of the problems are and where additional efforts need to go into resolving some of the issues that remain.
Building a transportation system around hydrogen, said Roan, requires thinking about the pumps as well as the car.
This is a huge problem. We actually produce quite a bit of hydrogen right now in this country. But it’s all captive hydrogen. It’s being used in processes, in refineries, and in making cooking oils, and there are lots of processes that use hydrogen. But we really don’t have much of a infrastructure for it. What we have missing is the capability to produce massive amounts of hydrogen and the capability to distribute it to the appropriate locations, in other words, where we need it.
Vernon P. Roan chairs the Review of the FreedomCAR and Fuel Research and Development Program for the National Research Council. Dr. Roan is the retired director of the Center for Advanced Studies in Engineering and professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Florida, where he has been a faculty member for more than 30 years. He has been a consultant to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory monitoring their electric and hybrid vehicle programs. He has organized and chaired two national meetings on advanced vehicle technologies and a national seminar on the development of fuel-cell-powered automobiles and has published numerous technical papers on innovative propulsion systems. He is currently a member of the Expert Panel on Zero Emission Vehicles for CARB. Dr. Roan received his B.S. in aeronautical engineering and his M.S. in engineering from the University of Florida and his Ph.D. in engineering from the University of Illinois.