It sounds like science fiction, but believe it or not, that's exactly what happened to Moshe Stern, head of C.En (Clean Energy), who said his company's scientists have developed a revolutionary breakthrough that will enable automobile manufacturers to produce -- and sell -- cars that use hydrogen power. It's a breakthrough that has been getting a lot of attention -- and oil companies got wind of it, too, with one company allegedly offering him $50 million to shelve his project.
Stern didn't take the money, though; he intends to see his hydrogen car project through. As a result, he said, for the first time the West has an opportunity to make a real dent in its dependence on OPEC oil.
Hydrogen has long been the great green hope for governments and environmentalists, as well as the ideal opportunity to lessen oil imports for Western countries -- since hydrogen can be manufactured from water.
President Bush has set aside billions for development of the technology, and hydrogen is the preferred alternative fuel for public vehicles, like buses, in many cities. Among the cities with at least some public buses fueled by hydrogen are London; Reykjavik, Iceland; Perth, Australia, and Santa Monica -- where nearly three-quarters of all municipal vehicles of all types are powered by the fuel.
Instead of producing carbon monoxide or other harmful pollutants, hydrogen fuel emits water vapor, which is certainly better for the environment than fossil fuel emissions -- even though some scientists believe it should be considered a greenhouse gas.
Lower pollution and less money for OPEC -- hydrogen sounds tailo rmade for the fuel problems that ail us. While Bill Gates of Microsoft fame may have been right when he said, "If GM kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25 cars that got 1,000 miles per gallon," the fact is that the industry says that hydrogen is still not ready for prime time.
While producing the hydrogen is easy enough, getting the fuel into the car and storing it in a fuel tank are some of the biggest obstacles for the technology. This, industry experts say, has traditionally been the deal-breaker for increased hydrogen use.
Most hydrogen vehicles on the road use a liquid form of the material, which requires a super strong and super heavy storage tank. Liquid hydrogen is unstable and needs to be insulated from the excess shocks of bumps and potholes that are a part of everyday driving, so the tanks themselves are large and heavy, and hold about five gallons of fuel -- enough for barely 160 miles of driving.
Then there's the issue of integrating the fuel into internal combustion vehicles that, for better or worse, are unlikely to be phased out anytime soon -- as well as the question of where drivers are supposed to fill up, because hydrogen stations are rare.
All these are legitimate concerns that have kept hydrogen development restricted more or less to the laboratory, Stern said, and all concerns that are addressed and solved with C.En's hydrogen storage and supply solution.
The difference? C.En's tank uses hydrogen gas collected from the environment (i.e., not produced from fossil fuels) and enclosed in a thin but leak-proof glass container. The best part: Drivers will be able to buy "gas" at automotive or discount stores, fueling up approximately every 370 miles.
Stern said they can build a 16-gallon tank that weighs no more than 100 pounds,unlike tanks currently used for liquid hydrogen that weigh several hundred pounds.
"Our company's breakthrough is in accumulating hydrogen in a glass material that is very small, only a few microns," said Stern, who is also president of Environmental Energy Resources (EER), a waste treatment company. "You don't need to transport hydrogen to fuel stations, and you don't need pipelines. The tanks will be like a battery that can be replaced, and you can carry a reserve in the car."
When you run out of hydrogen in one tank, according to Stern, you just pull out the empty cell and put in the fresh one, which will be good for another 370 miles.
The cells, in fact, will act just like batteries in electric or hybrid cars and fit right in with the standard internal combustion engine -- which means that Detroit or Japan don't have to retool their factories or production lines to build cars with the capacity for hydrogen cells. The know-how and means of production are in use right now, in fact, as almost every car manufacturer is already producing hybrids or straight electric cars.
George Sverdrup, technology manager for the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory's hydrogen, fuel cells and infrastructure technologies program, said that once the storage problem is solved, there is no reason hydrogen cannot be used as the premiere fuel to power cars.
"We can use hydrogen to decrease our dependence on imported petroleum, because it can be produced by a variety of domestic resources, including water and biomass," he said, adding that his group has made a great deal of progress in recent years figuring out ways to store hydrogen more safely -- a problem solved by C.En's invention.
Stern is coordinator of the project and chief investor. Among the others are Israeli, as well as Korean, Japanese and Russian investors. The head researcher is professor Dan Eliezer of Ben-Gurion University, an expert in hydrogen who has done work for NASA and security organizations in Israel and the United States.
The team has conducted more than 100 tests over the past several years and is going to be conducting field tests in Germany, where the company will seek approval by BAM (the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing).
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