Tomorrow's Car

The morning drive is smooth and relaxing. The only noise coming from the engine is the soft sound of air compressing. You take a breath of clean, fresh air and listen to the birds singing, then realize it's been a few months since the last time you fueled up the car. A quick stop at the hydrogen station and you're back on the road.Today, this scenario is only imagined, but governmental demands for cleaner-running engines could greatly impact our future. Amendments to the 1990 Clean Air Act have allowed states to set their own guidelines for regulating auto emissions, causing the automobile industry to work toward perfecting alternative fuel engines. Fuel cell vehicles are one promising option that auto manufacturers are exploring.The fuel cell was invented in 1839 by British scientist Sir William Grove, but wasn't put to use until the 1960s when NASA powered the Gemini and Apollo spacecrafts with fuel cells.The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) predicts that if only 10 percent of cars nationwide used fuel cells, air pollutants would be cut by one million tons and carbon dioxide by 60 million tons per year. The same number of fuel-cell cars would cut oil imports by 800,000 barrels a day, or 13 percent of total imports.Jason Mark, a transportation analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says fuel cells would also stabilize the climate by reducing emissions of heat-trapping gases by 85-100 percent. According to Mark, "Fuel cells are one of the most promising technologies on the horizon. They could be to the energy market what microprocessors were to the computer world."In a fuel cell engine, hydrogen fuel is fed continuously into the cell, an electrochemical device that converts the fuel into electricity. Inside the cell a thin layer of platinum is used as a catalyst to separate the hydrogen into electrons and protons. The protons pass through a membrane to combine with oxygen and produce pure water. The electrons cannot pass through the membrane and instead are channeled to the electric motor. The only other byproduct is moderate heat.The cells run most efficiently on hydrogen, but with modifications can also run on methanol or gasoline. "We're talking about shades of 'very clean,'" Mark says. "We need to really evaluate which source of energy for the fuel cell car is best [in terms of clean air]."Ideally, renewable energy sources would be used to produce hydrogen because the process would create almost no pollutants. The two sources of renewable energy are biomass, which produces methanol from decomposing plant material, and solar or wind power, which can be used to generate electricity that, through electrolysis, can strip the hydrogen from water (the reverse of what the fuel cell does).The Department of Energy (DOE) has been researching fuel cell cars with Federal laboratories like Los Alamos National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory; research companies like International Fuel Cells and Ballard Power Systems, Inc; and the big three U.S. Auto companies -- Chrysler Corporation, Ford Motor Company and General Motors Corporation. Ballard Power Systems, Inc, is a leader in the field of fuel cell production, and has contracts with eight of the world's nine largest car manufacturers. Ballard's fuel cell is a protein exchange membrane, which operates at low temperatures (about 200 degrees Fahrenheit) and has a high power density that can vary its output quickly to meet shifts in power.CTA Leads the WayLast May, Daimler-Benz, in conjunction with Ballard, developed the NEBUS (new electric, or no emissions bus), a vehicle with fuel cells in place of the engine and reinforced aluminum cylinders that hold the hydrogen mounted on the vehicle's roof.The Federal Energy Policy Act of 1992 requires businesses and public agencies with fleets of ten or more vehicles to begin switching to low or zero-emission vehicles this year. In conjunction with the Act, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) will be the first transit agency to place a pollution-free, fuel cell bus into revenue service. The first fuel cell bus was unveiled in September as part of a two-year test program. It will soon be joined by two more and the new buses will begin carrying passengers later this year."We are delighted that this important breakthrough is happening first in Chicago," said Environment Commissioner Henry L. Henderson. "Reducing diesel emissions in major vehicle fleets is a critical strategy for cleaning our region's air, and this field trial leads the way."Officials say if the buses work as well as expected, they hope eventually to convert the CTA's entire 2,000-bus fleet to fuel-cell vehicles.There are still problems facing fuel cell vehicles. Hydrogen must be manufactured and the hydrogen infrastructure is small. You can't go to the corner gas station and fill-er-up with hydrogen, yet. According to experts, it could take 50 to 100 years to achieve a mature "hydrogen economy." To acommodate the lack of hydrogen fueling stations, Chrysler is developing a "fuel-flexible" fuel cell engine that will include a reformer capable of converting gasoline and other fuels to hydrogen. The Daimler-Benz fuel cell uses a reformer that converts methanol to hydrogen."This technology has a lot of attractive environmental entities," says Christopher E. Borroni-Bird, an advanced technologies specialist at Chrysler. "It's inherently clean and efficient."Borroni-Bird points out that while methanol is easier to break down into hydrogen than gasoline and is more readily available than using pure hydrogen, a "fuel-flexible solution may be a nicer solution," because it meets a variety of needs.One major problem in using hydrogen rests with public perception of the fuel. Most experts believe the use of the element is no more dangerous than gasoline, yet the public associates hydrogen with bombs and the Hindenberg disaster. However, hydrogen bombs operate on an entirely different principle than hydrogen-powered vehicles. As for the Hindenberg (a hydrogen-filled dirigible that burned after colliding with a docking tower in 1937), evidence points to the fabric skin of the blimp as the primary fuel of that disastrous fire.Storage may represent a stickier problem. To provide the range equal to 15 gallons of gasoline, hydrogen stored as compressed gas would require four times as much space -- and would weigh twice as much. Researchers say the use of graphite nanofibers in storage tanks could increase current storage capacities. This discovery could enable a car to travel 5,000 miles on one hydrogen cartridge.Price is another issue that fuel cell manufacturers face. A 1994 U.S. Office of Technology study estimated fuel cell cars will cost $4,000-7,000 more than their internal combustion equivalents, though Ford expects its fuel cell car will only cost $1,500-2,000 more.Other OptionsBattery-powered cars have been around for more than 70 years, but typically are expensive, slow, and have limited range. General Motors has a $33,000 battery-powered car on the market today (in California) called the EV1. The vehicle is powered by 26 lead-acid batteries that account for more than a third of the car's total weight, take three hours to charge, and limit the car's range to about 90 miles.Honda has also put a battery-powered car on the market. The EV Plus can travel 100 miles on an 80 percent charge, but the batteries are three times more expensive than the General Motors model. And with all electric cars, the batteries must be replaced every year or two.California has the toughest emissions laws in the U.S., but because battery-powered car development had stalled, was forced to repeal an earlier law mandating two percent of new vehicles sold in the state in 1998 be zero-emissions vehicles. The quota is scheduled to rise to five percent in 2001, and ten percent in 2003.To accommodate the zero-emissions vehicles, California Gas has built more than 100 charging stations, with other states expected to soon follow suit. The government has also proclaimed buyers of electric cars eligible to receive a federal income tax credit.Hybrid SolutionsInstead of concentrating solely on total elimination of emissions, auto manufacturers are focusing on developing yet another option called the hybrid-electric engine.Hybrid-electric engines use two or more energy sources, usually combinations of gas and electricity. A combustion engine generates power in combination with an electric-drive motor. These engines have a range advantage over the battery-powered cars and can get up to 80 miles per gallon of gas, but lack the acceleration and power of a standard combustion engine car.The hybrid vehicle uses battery power for short distance driving and switches to a one-litre internal combustion engine for longer distances. The car runs clean when using the batteries, but using the engine for long distances will still produce emissions.Toyota Motor Corporation is first to market with a gasoline-electric hybrid car, that doubles the mileage of gasoline engines with half the emissions. The Toyota Prius (pronounced Pree-us), is being sold only in Japan with a $17,000 price tag, but might be sold in the U.S. in 1998.Ford Motors is currently developing a hybrid vehicle called the P2000, in hopes of having the car on the market by 1998.The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prefers to encourage car manufacturers to create "cars dedicated to a single alternative fuel," says Kathy Gold, a senior analyst with the Advanced Technological Support Division of the EPA. She also points out that even in fuel cell cars, the conversion process emits some pollution. "Methane itself is a greenhouse gas," she says. According to the DOE, transportation accounts for about half of the pollutants that form smog in our cities. When it comes to saving our air from the noxious fumes of cars, technology and innovation will be the keys to tomorrow's car.Environmental concerns alone won't sell the American public on alternative engines, Borroni-Bird says. "People in general are not too concerned with fuel quality and air quality [unless their comfort level is taken away]."ResourcesAn excellent article in "Wired" ("Dawn of the Hydrogen Age," by Jacques Leslie, October, 1997) explores the implications of a hydrogen-based economy.Ballard Power Systems has a web site at www.ballard.com.Chicago Transit Authority has a web site (www.transitchicago.com), however, at this printing there was no information about the fuel cell bus test program on the site.Sidebar OneDriving Toward a Cleaner Environment James FaberIt is inherently human to be resistant to change, but shifting our priorities toward resource conservation and emissions reduction requires radical thought and an open mind.This was the thinking behind an idea for an alternative automobile engine made reality by Ben and Harold Rosen of Rosen Motors. The brothers' venture could lead to the first commercially successful change in the auto industry since development of the internal combustion engine 110 years ago."We are the leader in developing the world's first practical solution to the most challenging problems confronting automobile manufacturers: how to meet stringent future clean air laws around the world and significantly improve fuel efficiency without sacrificing performance," says Harold Rosen.According to the Rosens, their hybrid-electric powertrain produces "zero emissions" by EPA standards and will at least double the gas mileage of the car in which it's used. The engine burns fuel more efficiently and cleanly than a regular engine, while accelerating from zero to 60 mph in six seconds.Ben Rosen explains, "Our hybrid-electric powertrain, in contrast to some other hybrid electric concepts under investigation by automobile manufacturers, is not simply a 'range extender' for a battery-powered vehicle. Instead, it is an innovative system that will also sharply cut fossil fuel consumption and measurably improve the performance of the 21st century automobile."The Rosen powertrain consists of four components: a turbogenerator; flywheel; electric drive motors; and electronic controller.The turbogenerator is a small gas turbine connected to an electric generator and fueled by unleaded gasoline for maintaining consistent speeds. A catalytic combustor burns the fuel at temperatures below that at which nitrogen oxides are created, producing nearly zero emissions, while other pollutants are produced in much smaller quantities than in an internal combustion engine.The flywheel is a rotating object (like a potter's wheel) that stores kinetic energy which is converted to electric power by a motor generator. The flywheel-motor-generator combination doubles the car's gas mileage, providing surge power for the vehicle and energy storage lost through braking in today's cars.The electric drive motors propel the wheels with the combined power of the turbogenerator and the flywheel in response to the positions of the accelerator and brake pedals. They also respond to the position of the hand lever used to select forward or reverse.The electronic controller consists of the logic, power electronics, and software which control the drive motors, directing the power when and where it is needed.Rosen Motors has triumphantly tested a vehicle driven by their hybrid-electric powertrain, but has also had its share of problems. The main challenge is housing the flywheel in a fail-safe container. The flywheel rotates at around three times the speed of sound and could be lethal if it were to break out of its containment vessel.Rosen insists they have both technology and safety in hand, claiming they have successfully burst ten different engines at high speeds with no danger. Some experts still disagree.Kevin M. Myles, director of the electrochemical technology program at Argonne National Laboratory, has done extensive research with alternative-fuel vehicles, and doesn't think the Rosens have addressed the safety problems adequately. According to Myles, the Rosens are attempting to do what Detroit has tried over decades, and the design still needs work on housing and containment.Problems with alternative-fuel vehicles are not rare. Ford and Chrysler, in promoting their fuel-cell engines, must deal with public concern about the safety of driving with a full tank of volatile hydrogen. Battery operated cars are expensive, have a limited range and take hours to charge.Rosen Motors is a privately funded company located in Woodland Hills California. The company has 68 employees and was founded by the Rosen brothers in 1993. Ben Rosen has already spent over $13 million of his own money on the project, and remains confident they will succeed.If past success is any measure of the future, the Rosens have the odds in their favor. Ben Rosen, 64, is chairman of Compaq Computer and was listed by "Computerworld" magazine in 1992 as one of 25 people in the computer industry who "changed the world."Harold Rosen, 71, is a pioneer in communications technology and is recognized as the father of the geostationary communications satellite, the world's first practical commercial communications satellite.Only time will tell if the Rosens will be successful in their venture, but they are definitely on track and heading in the right direction.Ben Rosen says, "We wanted to help change the world just one more time."

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