Sunday, April 29, 2007

Hydrogen: The Future of Cars?

The New York Times pulled a stunt recently, asking auto manufacturers to show up with hydrogen cars at the site of the Hindenburg disaster on the anniversary of that disaster. It was supposed to show that the Hindenburg did not kill Hydrogen vehicles, but some automakers found the concept of the event tasteless. Three vehicles showed up, and the author talks about three other hydrogen-powered vehicles he has driven in this article. The main question he seeks to answer in this article is the one many consumers care about: how do these things drive?

In less than a minute, the Hindenburg disaster of 1937 turned hydrogen, which provided the zeppelin’s lift, into a pariah. But 70 years later, a growing number of advocates are promoting hydrogen as a panacea, a promising alternative to petroleum. In the last decade, every large carmaker has jumped on the hydrogen express.
In dozens of laboratories and research centers, scientists and engineers are busy searching for ways to reduce the cost and improve the practicality of hydrogen-powered vehicles. Development has progressed to the point that some of these prototype vehicles are in daily service, commuting around Detroit, delivering packages in Washington, serving urban bus routes.
To look in on the development progress of hydrogen vehicles, The New York Times invited 10 companies actively promoting hydrogen for personal transportation to bring their vehicles to the Naval Air Engineering Station here. With pressure mounting to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, the anniversary of a pivotal event 70 years ago seemed an appropriate time to look for a clearer understanding of what cars may be like in 30 years.
Some carmakers deemed the disaster site an awkward location for this gathering; others were sympathetic but unable to field a vehicle because experimental mules have testing and appearance schedules busier than those of presidential hopefuls. The three hydrogen-powered vehicles that did arrive here (all by trailer, because refueling was not available for the long trips from their bases) were not the latest models from the auto show circuit, but hard-working development vehicles with thousands of testing miles on their odometers.
Weather was also a factor. The day of the gathering was fraught by a severe northeaster. Six inches of rain was followed by flooded roads and snow, as the winds blew and angry skies frowned. But the show went on, thanks in part to the hosts at the base and the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society.
The Hindenburg anniversary is not the only reason hydrogen is in the news. Four years ago, in his State of the Union address, President Bush announced a $1.2 billion hydrogen initiative to foster clean air and lessen dependence on imported oil. The Department of Energy has conducted marriages of sorts, joining automakers with energy companies — General Motors and Shell; Ford and DaimlerChrysler with BP — to encourage research and set standards for refueling hardware.
As hydrogen gains favor, hydrocarbons seem to be taking over the role of villain. Peak oil theorists, especially Matthew Simmons, chairman of the Simmons & Company investment bank and the author of “Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy” contend that increased demand will outpace the ability to increase production. And the Supreme Court’s April 2 ruling that the E.P.A. has authority to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, as it does tailpipe emissions, was a powerful vote against fossil fuels.
So the three hydrogen-fueled vehicles that gathered at the Hindenburg crash site are harbingers of the future, proof that all of hydrogen’s
potential in transportation did not go up in flames 70 years ago.

IREJN is Connecticut's Interfaith Power and Light. Visit us at

No comments: