Saturday, 29 January 2011

Cheaper greener hydrogen car - I want one!

A British company just invented a way to make hydrogen based fuel for cars at a projected 19p/l. Existing cars wouldn't need to be modified in any way, and the fuel could be pumped into them in just the same way as petrol or diesel is now. Hydrogen, I'm told, can be made out of water, and when burned in the car's engine, it emits water vapour again. So as long as we find some (renewable) energy efficient way of splitting water into hydrogen, we can use this cycle as an endlessly renewable fuel-source for all our engines and other machines that currently burn oil.

I've just got a few questions. I don't much believe in human carbon emissions having an appreciable effect on worldwide climate, but if carbon is causing any greenhouse effect, won't clouds of water vapour be even worse? Water vapour is certainly preferable to smoke in busy traffic. But wouldn't it still turn into a big - admittedly clean but still dark and grey - cloud of fog over heavily populated areas? Would all that damp cause problems to the surrounding buildings and infrastructure? I'm thinking for example of conservation isssues in historic buildings made of easily eroding stones.

Other than those practical problems, I am very happy with this news. I've always felt the current 'solutions' to the problem of people burning fossil fuels to drive cars around are ineffective and even counterproductive.

Electrical cars are available, but impractical. They are small and can't drive long distances. So they're fairly useless for most real families. You can't use one to get two children and your luggage to the beach for a weekend break. Charging them up takes too much time as well. Not to mention that it simply shifts the fuel-consumption problem as you charge it with electricity made in primarily coal-fired plants.
A lot of the same problems occur with hybrid cars. There's not a single hybrid people carrier, and on a long haul, you'd need a lot of fuel anyway.

And there's another problem with trying to change the way people drive by changing the way their cars work. It's slow and has the most succes with the wrong people. Electrical and hybrid cars are incredibly expensive. Most families could not possibly afford to upgrade to one, especially not while the car they own right now is so incredibly expensive to run. Raising fuel prices through taxes only reinforces this cycle (it really isn't going to stop people using their cars, obviously!). As long as I'm driving my 'old' car, I spend so much money on it, I'll never save up enough for a new one. Only a few people can afford to buy electrical or hybrid cars, therefore it will remain a luxury article. It may well be that once you have such a car, it 'pays for itself' in saved fuel, but the majority can't afford the initial outlay.

Usually, going green means paying extra, and often it means sacrificing something (comfort, convenience...). That's why it's hard to really do it succesfully. I want to look after my planet, but I also have practical needs to use my car. To really make a change, you've got to produce something that people can switch to easily, and that can be mass-marketed and mass-distributed. If I can simply drive up to the pump in my old car and choose between Diesel at £1.50/l or Hydrogen at £0.19/l, I know what I'll pick!

This is an innovation that makes ecological, economical and social sense! I'm all for it.

I'll give the electric and hybrid cars a miss. I'm not forking out for a totally new type of car until I can have a flying one!


  1. Water vapour in the air would actually decrease the world temperature, as the white cloud reflects the suns heat. The problem with C02 and other GreenHouse gasses are they effectivly let the light in but don't let the heat out, where as water vapour reflects the light back into space and is a very effective conductor of heat from ground level to the upper atmosphere , through evaporation.

    I'm also rather sceptical that you wouldn't have to make any changes to your current car to let you use Hydrogen which is a gas rather than pertrol which is a liquid.

    I agree its hard to expect families to change to expensive green cars, when the cost of fuel is so high anyway. Although it is a bit of false economy. I think more money needs to be invested into generation of fuels from atmospheric carbon dioxide, the easiest being growing plants and making alchol. As you don't get a net increase in CO2 levels that way and we aren't at the whim of Opec nations for our fuel.

  2. Thanks for your comment!

    As I understood it, they invented a way to bind the hydrogen gas into microbeads that could be pumped and work in an engine in the same way as a liquid. Although there might be a problem with the outer shell of those beads: they may not burn up but need to be disposed of somehow, but that wasn't entirely clear.

    My problem with growing plants and making alcohol is that, with a growing world population, we probably should reserve arable land for food production.

    I like the idea of not being dependent on particular nations for fuel. The political consequences of that have been pretty unpleasant so far!

  3. Yes I’ve been on their site.

    Very interesting, so in essence its a "liquid" made up of tiny solid capsules filled with hydrogen gas. Ingenious. This is the kind of out of the box thinking that British industry needs.

    Yeah definitely they have to grow extra food to turn into fuel not take it out of the mouths of the starving. Alas capitalists markets have no margin for the prevention of human suffering.