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Hydrogen bombshell

A few months ago, we reported in this space about a test-drive we took in a hydrogen-powered Chevy Equinox. The car was one of about 100 fuel-cell-powered prototypes that had been hand-built at General Motors’ Fuel Cell Activities Center in Honeoye Falls, NY, a few miles from Rochester.

The only sound coming out of the hydrogren-powered Chevy as it accelerated was the hum of the tires, and the only exhaust it produced came out in the form of water vapor.

We left the General Motors facility near Rochester last year hopeful that we had just experienced a preview of the car of the future. We looked forward to the mass-production of fuel-cell powered vehicles as a key solution to a carbon-based transportation system that is contributing to the looming catastrophe of climate change.

However, we noted in our report that the limited range of the prototype (160 miles on a full 4-liter tank of hydrogen), the high cost of producing it, and the lack of a network of hydrogen gas stations in the U.S. were major hurdles that would have to be overcome to make hydrogen-powered cars a reality.

It now appears that the U.S. Department of Energy has concluded that these hurdles are insurmountable, at least for the next couple of decades.

Releasing energy-related details of the federal budget last week for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, Energy Secretary Steven Chu disclosed that the government has determined that development of hydrogen fuel cells is not feasible at this time. Therefore, Dr. Chu said, the government will cut off funds for continued development of hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Chu indicated that coming up with a way to transport hydrogen across the country as part of a new fuel system was the biggest obstacle to commercializing the technology. As a result of the Energy Department’s decision, government funding will be steered toward the continued development of electric car batteries that can be plugged directly into the power grid.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is indicating it is preparing to authorize an increase in the amount of ethanol that can be blended with gasoline. The percentage of ethanol permitted in the blend likely will increase from 10 percent to 15 percent.

Engine manufacturers and consumer advocates have raised concerns about the impending ruling, suggesting that warranties for many of the estimated 500 million gasoline engines in use in cars, trucks, lawn mowers and other products prohibit use of fuel containing more than 10 percent ethanol.

EPA is responding to a request from Growth Energy, an ethanol lobbying group, which joined with 54 ethanol manufacturers to ask for a waiver of the Clean Air Act to permit more ethanol to be added to gasoline.

According to the American Petroleum Institute, nearly three-quarters of the gasoline sold in the U.S. last year contained some ethanol. EPA previously has approved the use of ethanol blends of up to 85 percent ethanol, but only for cars and trucks certified by manufacturers as ”flexible fuel vehicles.” The requested 15-percent blend would replace the standard blend that is sold across-the-board for all vehicles.

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