Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Chevy Volt is a band-aid

The research I help with in the UT Combustion Labs involves producing syngas (a mixture composed chiefly of H2) from bio-fuels for industrial use and hopefully eventual use in fuel cells. Although I would not say that I do a particularly good job of keeping up with the constant energy debate, I have had the sense that the buzz about hydrogen has somewhat died out. In fact, in a blog I was reading today, one commenter referred to the "now-debunked hydrogen hype", while championing electric vehicles (EV's). My initial reaction to this was agreement, especially when it was mentioned that highway capable EV's can be built right now and I knew that, with the exception of a small fleet of hydrogen powered Fords in D.C., there were not any hydrogen powered vehicles. But the more I got thinking, the more I realized that an EV's highway capability according to this commenter were dependent on "convenient" fueling stations. True convenience is not having to fuel up at all, or at least not often. What I'm getting at is the fact that the technology is not there yet for long distance travel in electrical vehicles. Not to mention, that electrical vehicles need electricity, which can potentially be produced from really unclean and often inefficient sources like coal. Now that being said, does hydrogen offer an alternative? Not even close, at least not right now. An investigation of NREL's Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Research page exposes the multitude of problems with hydrogen, while simultaneously exposing its potential. The new age of "electric cars" like the Chevy Volt that will be appearing in car lots soon are a vast improvement over our existing vehicles, but ask them to go beyond their 40-mile battery range and their "revolutionary propulsion system" relies on a gasoline engine. They are an improvement, especially given the American affinity for the morning automotive commute, but they not a solution in my opinion. They are the band-aid, not the platelets healing the wound. They still use fossil fuels to achieve our current capabilities. One could argue that those fossil fuels could be replaced by bio-fuels and you would have a pretty sweet system. But all of this requires much more research to be viable, just like hydrogen. Only, the goals of hydrogen are much grander. Like the buzz has said, more on the scale of a revolution. The DOE's discussion of hydrogen's problems speaks to this:

Hydrogen storage: On-board hydrogen storage systems must enable a driving range of greater than 300 miles while meeting vehicular cost and performance requirements without intruding into vehicle cargo or passenger space.[1]

Obviously, researchers involved in hydrogen are seeking a vehicle that can perform comprably with our current IC-driven cars, not just solve the problem of the morning commute. And overall, hydrogen has the potential to be of use in every aspect of our lives because it is a perfectly clean energy carrier that is available from renewable sources [2]. Its production from these sources could also prove to be more efficient than producing electricity.

Again, I will repeat: hydrogen in its current state is not a huge factor in solving our energy problems. Band wagons should typically be avoided and I do believe there is no silver bullet to solve our problems. But hydrogen's potential is large, and it can only be reached through research, which requires funding, which requires the hydrogen buzz to remain around in at least a moderate way.


[1] DOE's "fuel cell overview" (available to download from the page that is listed as source [2])



Click Tappet said...

Really, when it comes down to it, the problem is one of range. In Los Angeles, if you have a battery electric vehicle (BEV) OR a hydrogen fuel cell (FC) car you can get all around the city with existing refueling infrastructure.

With either technology, the refueling issue is a big one. Project Better Place thinks they've figured out the answer for BEVs - swappable battery packs at stations located throughout a city. They started in Israel and have partnered with cities in Australia, North America and Europe. Hydrogen is a little harder because it's harder to handle hydrogen in gas or liquid form than a battery box.

However, it should be pointed out that while the refueling issue stands for both BEVs and FC cars, the price of the technology is at least one order of magnitude apart. BEVs with fully scaled-up production are in the price range of consumers - they won't compete with a Kia on price, but the same people who can afford something on offer from a luxury manufacturer could pick up an electric vehicle. On the other hand, fuel cell propulsion in cars is not at the price point where any normal person could afford to buy one. Coupled with it being literally impossible to drive outside of a few areas with refueling like LA (at least there are outlets everywhere) - that's just not viable in the near term.

Far into the future, I think we will see a mix of different technologies, depending on people's needs for their vehicles, but BEVs and FC cars will hopefully be prominent.

And lest I go on too long, we also know that consumers always overbuy for their actual needs. Look around at all the people who have 2 kids, don't camp, own a ranch or farm, and don't ever tow, but commute alone 10 miles to work in a Suburban. Most people just don't drive enough to make a strong case against a 100 mile range.

As a side note, there are other FC vehicles out there besides the Fords in DC that you mentioned. The Honda FCX Clarity is currently on trials in LA and I believe Chevrolet has a fleet of Equinox FC crossovers (under the program Project Driveway) in NY, LA and abroad.

Anonymous said...

I'm not advocating one way or another for EV's or PHEVs, etc., but the Volt is actually a pretty neat idea. When I first heard about it I wrote it off as a another attempt out of Detroit to stop the hemorrhaging of auto sales . But then I read some more about it.

The Volt is different than the other gasoline-hybrids out there right now in that it doesn't use gasoline to provide mechanical motion; the gasoline engine only recharges the battery. The beauty in this is that you can run the engine at its optimal setting instead of having to adjust for different driving conditions. The electric motor is the only that physically drives the wheels.

While I don't think the evolution of transportation stops with the Volt, it might help ease consumers into relying less on gasoline and more on electricity.

lighthouseffect said...

I came across a report from NPR ( that somewhat supports this post:

The gist of this report is that at present, hydrogen-powered cars are not a practical option for car buyers. While GM plans to release around 100,000 hydrogen fuel cell test cars soon, it's going to be a while before consumers start adopting this technology en masse.
This is because current fuel cells require precious metals, which leads to an increase in production costs. While a cheaper way to develop fuel cells is being worked on, other technologies such as lithium-ion batteries used by the next generation of hybrids may give consumers a better option of fuel efficiency and costs. If this is the case, the question is asked - why should companies like GM pursue hydrogen fuel cell technologies? The answer for GM, at least is that the company has already spent over a billion dollars in developing this tech.

I guess we shall see what comes to pass. However, in general, I agree that variety is great for consumers, and at some point, experimentation will lead to a home run.