In Today’s Eco Echoes
1) GM Unveils Hydrogen Motor
2) Tohoku University Professor Produces Hydrogen from the Sunlight
3) An Electrovan, Not an Edsel
4) Zero Pollution Vehicles
1) GM Unveils Hydrogen Motor
The US Must Follow Europe’s Lead And Turn Its Back on Oil The Rise of Hydrogen Power Makes Energy Regime Change Inevitable
Jeremy Rifkin The Guardian UK Thursday, 10 October, 2002
This week, the world got a glimpse into the future when General Motors unveiled its revolutionary new Hy-wire car at the Paris motor show. GM’s automobile is run on hydrogen, the most basic and lightest element in the universe. When burned, it only emits pure water and heat. The automobile itself is built on a fuel-cell chassis that lasts for 20 years. Customers can snap on any model they want. There is no conventional steering wheel, no pedals, brakes or engine - the car is steered with a joystick. It is a car for the dotcom generation. While GM financed the car, what is particularly interesting is that much of the engineering, design and software were developed in Europe. The GM car marks the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine and the shift from an oil-based civilization to a hydrogen age. Its debut in Europe also speaks to a great change taking place in the way Europe and America view the future.
The EU and the US are beginning to diverge in the most basic aspect of how a society is organized: its energy regime. Nowhere was this emerging reality more apparent than in Johannesburg, at the world summit, when the EU pushed for a target of 15% renewable energy by the year 2010 for the whole world while the US fought the initiative. The EU has already set its own internal target of 22% renewable energy for the generation of electricity and 12% of all energy coming from renewable sources by 2010. The difference in approach to the future of energy couldn’t be more stark. While the EU is beginning to mobilize its industrial sector, research institutes and the public to the task of making an historic transition out of carbon-based fossil fuels and into renewable resources and a hydrogen future, the US is pursuing an increasingly desperate search to secure access to oil. President Bush’s almost fanatical obsession with opening up the pristine wildlife refuge in Alaska for oil drilling, despite the fact that even the most optimistic estimates conclude that the oil there will only provide a mere 1% to total global production, is a case in point. Now the president seems determined to invade Iraq. The ostensible reason is that Saddam Hussein may be harboring weapons of mass destruction, posing a serious security threat to its neighbors and the rest of the world. He may well be right. Still, there is a powerful sub-theme making its way in political circles that the White House is certainly mindful of. That is, Iraq contains the second largest oil reserves in the world, after Saudi Arabia. If a US invasion were to “liberate the oil fields”, the US would enjoy a new strategic position of influence in the oil-rich Persian gulf and provide a counterpoise to Saudi influence in the region.
Meanwhile, just in case the White House’s Middle East strategy backfires, President Bush convened a high-level meeting in Houston last week to work out the details of an earlier May agreement with President Putin of Russia to secure oil from Siberia. Of course, what is left unsaid in the euphoria around finding a possible substitute for Persian gulf oil is that Russia’s remaining oil reserves are less than half that of Saudi Arabia, and the Russian reserves are depleting quickly as its oil companies flood the world market.
What is becoming clear is that while the EU is looking to the future, the US is desperately holding on to the past. The world is moving into the sunset era of the great fossil-fuel culture that began with the harnessing of coal and steam power more than 200 years ago. Granted, the world’s leading petro-geologists disagree about exactly when global production of oil will peak. That is the point where half the known oil reserves and projected oil yet to be discovered are used up. After that point, the price of oil on world markets steadily rises as oil production moves down the classic bell-shaped curve. The Cassandras say that peak production is likely to occur as early as the end of this decade, but probably no later than 2020, while the optimists say that global peak production won’t occur until around 2040. What is most striking, however, is how little time difference separates the two camps - only 20 to 30 years. What they both agree on is that once global oil production does peak, two-thirds of the remaining oil reserves will be in the Middle East, the most politically unstable and volatile region of the world. What this means is that countries still dependent on oil will be locked into a fierce geopolitical struggle to maintain access to the remaining oil fields of the Middle East, with all of the grave risks and consequences that accompany that sober reality.
The difference in perspective between Europe and America on this score is reflected in the attitudes of the world’s giant energy companies. The European-based energy giants, British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell, have made a long-term commitment to making the transition out of fossil fuels and are spending large amounts of money on renewable technologies and hydrogen research and development. BP’s new slogan is “Beyond Petroleum” and Philip Watts, chairman of the committee of managing directors of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group, has stated publicly that his company is preparing for the end of the hydrocarbon age and is actively exploring the promise of the hydrogen economy. By contrast, the American energy company, Exxon Mobil, has remained steadfast in its long-term commitment to fossil fuels with little effort being expended on renewables and the exploration of hydrogen-based research development. The EU is now in a unique position to lay claim to the future by becoming the first superpower to make the long-term shift out of carbon-based fuels and into a hydrogen era. A change in energy regimes of this magnitude over the course of the next half century is likely to have as profound an impact on human society as the harnessing of coal and steam power more than three centuries ago. The fossil-fuel era forever changed our living patterns, our notion of commerce and governance, and the values we live by. So too will the coming hydrogen economy.
At some point, the reality is going to set in that Europe is heading into a new energy future. When that happens, the ripple effect could cross the pond like a great tsunami - forcing the US to rethink its own energy future. The last time the US was awakened from its somnambulance was 1957 when the Russians sent their first satellite into outer space. Caught by surprise, it mobilized every corner of American society to the task of catching up and surpassing the Russians. Maybe it’s time for another jolt.
Jeremy Rifkin is the author of The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the World Wide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth (Polity Press, 2002).
www.foet.org © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002
September 30, 2002 —- Tohoku University Prof. Kazuyuki Toji has discovered an efficient way to create hydrogen, which can be used in fuel cells to produce clean energy, by exposing a hydrogen sulfide solution to sunlight. Toji’s discovery is expected to reduce costs in producing hydrogen for fuel cells. Hydrogen is mainly produced by passing electricity through water, but it can also be created through photodecomposition when hydrogen sulfide is exposed to sunlight.
Although many experiments to use sunlight to create hydrogen have been conducted, the process was still in development until Toji’s success. The professor focused on the fact that it requires 50 percent less energy to extract hydrogen from hydrogen sulfide, a compound of sulfur and hydrogen, than that required for extracting hydrogen from water. He put a new catalyzer, made of extremely tiny particles of sulfated cadmium molded into the shape of an eggshell, into a water solution of hydrogen sulfide, and then whipped it into a froth to create hydrogen.
About seven liters of hydrogen can be produced per hour from a solution spread out over a surface area of one square meter. This amount is 20 times greater than that extracted by the conventional process. A pool of the solution with a surface area of 200-square meters could produce electricity required for one household. “I hope the discovery will help provide an energy source that is less expensive than petroleum,” said Toji.
Toji’s findings will be announced on Oct. 16 at a special symposium to discuss environmental issues at the National Science Museum in Tokyo. A demonstration will also be performed.
3) An Electrovan, Not an Edsel
By DANNY HAKIM
NY TIMES, November 17, 2002
DETROIT–Three decades ago, Dr. Craig Marks consigned his greatest feat of engineering to the scrap heap. Dr. Marks, who oversaw General Motors’ futuristic engineering projects in the 1960’s, had created a prototype that took more than two years and a staff of 250 to construct. It was called the Electrovan, the automotive industry’s first attempt at making an automobile powered by a hydrogen fuel cell–a technology now embraced as the power train of the future.The prototype resembled the mostly forgettable 1966 GMC Handivan, which it was, on the outside. Inside, there was hardly room for the front seats. Five hundred fifty feet of piping were jammed alongside two tanks, one for oxygen and one for hydrogen. Both were chilled to hundreds of degrees below zero, and highly flammable. When journalists got a glimpse on a sunny October day in 1966, they weren’t allowed behind the wheel. The Electrovan was “a nightmare of complexity,” Dr. Marks said then. It contained enough platinum to buy a fleet of regular vans. G.M. executives decided the technology was not feasible. They also decided G.M. didn’t have enough room to preserve this prototype.”I had tried to get it into the Smithsonian, because I said, ‘You know, this is an incredible vehicle,’ “ recalled Dr. Marks, who at age 72 is now retired and lives in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. “They had never heard of a fuel cell.”Nobody revisited the technology until the industry returned to it, en passe, in the 1990’s. The Electrovan had been long forgotten; DaimlerChrysler even claimed for a time to have built the first fuel-cell car. Today every major automaker is developing fuel-cell cars. Just last week, Spencer Abraham, the Secretary of Energy, laid out a lengthy report on what is needed to get fuel cells on the road. And G.M. is predicting it will mass produce fuel-cell cars by 2010.Skeptics abound, including Dr. Marks. Some doubt the industry’s scientific prognostications; some see the fuel cell as Detroit’s excuse to defer any short-term gas mileage improvements. Others worry about the enormous complexity of retrofitting the nation’s 176,000 filling stations with hydrogen, not to mention tearing up the car industry’s manufacturing infrastructure.
“Power plants get developed over decades, not a few years,” said Dr. Marks, who still follows fuel-cell developments and is chairman of the board of trustees of Altarum, a consulting and research firm based in Ann Arbor, Mich.He said such a complex technology must first be tried in simpler applications, like powering commercial or government vehicle fleets. Carmakers have just begun such ventures. “Anything 10 years out in this industry is a hope,” Dr. Marks said. “All the time I was in the auto industry, gas turbines were going to be in automobiles in 10 years, and that went over a period of 30 years. When auto people say 10 years, they mean they hope 10 years. We don’t know.”
>From its infancy, the auto industry has explored alternatives to the internal combustion engine. Sometimes the hurdles came down to the simplest problems. In the 1960’s, Dr. Marks searched out Abner Doble, founder of the long defunct Doble Steam Car Company, then in his 90’s. Dr. Marks believed Mr. Doble had built the most sophisticated steam car and wanted to know why steam had lost the battle to gas and electricity. “Craig,” Mr. Doble told him, “water freezes.”
Battery-powered cars date from Thomas Edison’s day. But the same old problems hinder them now as a mass market product–batteries take too long to recharge and require recharging too often. Dr. Marks saw a solution in the space race. NASA was using fuel cells to power the inside of Gemini spacecraft. Essentially, the cells strip electrons from hydrogen atoms and use them as an electrical current, then reassemble the hydrogen and combine it with oxygen to form water. The cells provided electricity and water astronauts could drink. Would the prospects for electric cars be different if they could produce their own electricity?The Electrovan project became a mini-moonshot, but G.M. then was corporate America’s 900-pound gorilla, a Microsoft of manufacturing in an era when starched white men in lab coats could solve anything.
The project started with a new battery-powered car in the body of a Corvair, dubbed Electrovair. Then Dr. Marks’ people built a fuel cell system far too big to fit into the car. His team scaled it down enough to put into a van.There were other problems. The electrolyte used in the system weighed 550 pounds and produced “brilliant fireworks,” as Dr. Marks said, if it leaked. The explosion of an external hydrogen storage tank sent pieces flying a quarter-mile away, causing no injuries but underscoring the dangers of stored hydrogen.Dr. Marks also had to explain to G.M.’s purchasing chief why he needed a horse trough big enough for a man to lie down in. (It was to be filled with flame retardant in case of chemical spills.)”The guy in purchasing had been getting orders from me for miles of plastic tubing and all this stuff he’d never ordered before,” Dr. Marks said. “He said, ‘Okay, we’ll get a horse trough. I’m not going to ask you what it’s for. But when the order comes through for the horses...’ “In the end, the Electrovan weighed more than twice as much as a normal van. It could travel up to 70 miles an hour. Many hurdles have since been overcome. Outside air can be used instead of liquid oxygen, and the size of cell systems has been greatly reduced. But plenty is left to be done, Dr. Marks said. Start with storing hydrogen as a highly pressurized gas, which raises safety concerns. An alternative, solid hydrogen, is still impractical.Then there is the question of gas stations. As an alternative to reinventing them, some propose equipping cars with miniature onboard refineries that would strip hydrogen from gasoline. Creating devices like that would be a considerable undertaking in itself. The precious metal required for the electrodes is also a concern.
Today the amount is far less than the Electrovan required but still considerable.”Is that a long enough list?” Dr. Marks asked. Nevertheless, the industry is motivated to make fuel-cell technology work this time. Environmental concerns are increasingly influential, particularly in California, which has very tough clean air standards. Today, there seems to be light in Dr. Marks’s blind alley. Two years ago, G.M. informed him that the Electrovan had been found in a warehouse, its metallic blue skin and bug-eyes reminiscent of Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine. The discovery illustrated one advantage of huge bureaucracies: some orders are ignored. G.M. is even using the vehicle to publicize its prowess as a fuel-cell pioneer.”I just wished more of the people who worked on it realized it still existed and it was a precedent-setting vehicle,” Dr. Marks said. “We just sort of stumbled through.”
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Courtesy of Global Village News & Resources
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