H 2 Go

A new Israeli invention just may solve some of the world's fossil fuel problems.

hydrogen car 88 224 (photo credit: USDOE)
hydrogen car 88 224
(photo credit: USDOE)
Everyone's heard that old story about the scientist who invents a "magic pill" that turns water into gasoline - with the invention eventually getting into the hands of the oil companies, who "bury" it, fearing they will be driven out of business when word gets out about their "competition." 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 says 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. And as a result, he says, 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. US President George W. 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, Perth and Santa Monica - where nearly three-quarters of all municipal vehicles of all types are powered by the stuff. Instead of producing carbon monoxide or other harmful pollutants, hydrogen fuel emits water vapor, which while some scientists believe should be considered a greenhouse gas, is certainly better for the environment than fossil fuel emissions. LOWER POLLUTION, less money for OPEC - hydrogen sounds tailor made for the fuel problems that ail us. And 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 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 is one 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 from bumps and potholes that are a part of everyday driving, so the tanks themselves are large and heavy, and hold at most 20 liters of fuel - enough for barely 250 kilometers of driving. Then there's the issue of integrating the fuel into internal combustion vehicles which, 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, since hydrogen stations are rather rare, at least in my driving experience. All these are legitimate concerns that have kept hydrogen development restricted more or less to the lab, Stern says - 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 leakproof glass container. The best part: You'll be able to buy your "gas" at automotive or discount stores, fueling up every 600 kilometers or so. "We can build a 60-liter tank that can travel up to 600 km. and weighs no more than 50 kg.," Stern said, unlike tanks currently used for liquid hydrogen that weigh hundreds of kilos. "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 waste treatment company Environmental Energy Resources (EER). "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." 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 Yokohama don't have to retool their factories or production lines to build cars with the capacity for hydrogen cells. The knowhow and means of production are in use right now, in fact, as nearly every car manufacturer is already producing hybrids or straight electric cars. George Sverdrup, Technology Manager for the US government's National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Hydrogen, Fuel Cells and Infrastructure Technologies program says 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 says, 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. IMAGINE THE scenario: You're tooling along on a family trip, and you glance at the fuel gage: You're running real low. In the old days of fossil fuels, you'd be stuck - literally - if you ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere. It would be either wait at the side of the road looking forlorn, in the hope that a passing motorist would stop to help, or take a nice, long hike, in two directions - one to the gas station you passed 25 kilometers back, and the other back to the car. With Stern's hydrogen solution, all you have to do is pull out the empty cell and put in the fresh one. You'll be good to go for another 600 kilometers, plenty of time to get your spent cell refilled. 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 Prof. Dan Eliezer of Ben-Gurion University, an expert in hydrogen who has done work for NASA and for security organizations here and in the US. The team has conducted more than 100 tests over the past several years, and is now going to be conducting field tests in Germany, where the company will seek approval by BAM (the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing). "With our solution, we have solved the three major problems that has faced hydrogen fuel technology - size of the tank, its safety, and lightweight storage. In addition, we believe that the use of this system will actually reduce the price of cars overall, chopping about $1,600 off the sticker price, since the standard gas tank will no longer be necessary," Stern says. HYDROGEN SOUNDS all well and good - but weren't these supposed to be the years of the electric car? Renault-Nissan struck a deal with Shai Agassi of Better PLC to make Israel the showplace of the electric car economy. The government's in on it too, providing tax breaks for the electric cars, and helping to provide the infrastructure for 500,000 "fill-up" points where car batteries can be recharged. Is there some sort of "green sibling rivalry" developing here? Hopefully not, says Stern, who believes that both technologies have their place: "Both electric and hydrogen are important alternative fuel methods, and can work in tandem." But in the long run, he says, hydrogen is the way to go. "Our hydrogen fuel system is superior to current electric battery technology. Batteries need to be recharged after 200 kilometers, while our hydrogen cells will last for 600 kilometers. And changing the battery is difficult, as it weighs at least 200 kilos, unlike our cells, which weigh 50, and can be handled by one or two able-bodied individuals," he says. One of the criticisms of hydrogen naysayers has been that production of the fuel requires a great deal of energy expenditure, a problem solved by C.En's accumulation process. "And where do you think the battery power for the electric car batteries comes from, anyway?" Stern asks. "That power has to be produced by burning fossil fuels, so while you cut out the emissions from cars, you're still dependent on oil for your power." And hydrogen fuel produced in this manner has another advantage, Stern says. "Since we are in essence producing a battery, the technology can be adapted to work with other devices and products that utilize battery power as well, such as laptop computers and cellphones." A laptop battery product to scale would be cheap and easy to make, and allow far greater periods of "untethered," electricity-free work than the current Li-On batteries used by many laptops. In other words, Stern now has two "lobbies" to fend off - the one for gasoline, and the one for electric battery car power. And while the latter is, like hydrogen, also finding its way, the former is a well-entrenched industry that for many years has been the only game in town - one that has made the people associated with it wealthy. For an American raised on a diet of conspiracy theories, then, it made sense to ask - tongue in cheek, of course - if he had been "approached" by someone in the business to lay off the hydrogen for his own good. Imagine my surprise when he told me that he had been made an offer he almost couldn't refuse - just a day earlier! "I have to say I've never been asked that question, but now that you mention it, yes, I was approached. A representative of a major player offered me $50 million to shelve the project." Not that he was tempted, Stern says. "I really believe in this, and I would say no even if they offered me $500 million." But we - I mean they - have other ways of making troublemakers cooperate, or so the conspiracy theorists say. "I hear stories too, and I can't say I'm not somewhat concerned for my safety. This project has been under development for a while, but we've only very recently publicized it - in part because of that concern," Stern says. Now, though, he feels the time has come to tell the world about his hydrogen advances. "At this point the project is too far along to do anything to stop it. Patents have been filed and we've shown it to major players. Doing something to harm me or the project would be moot now," he says. After six months of testing in Germany, where they expect approval by the BAM institute, Stern and his team will present the technology to US authorities and international carmakers. "BAM's approval will be accepted worldwide, and at that point we will be able to close deals with a strategic partner," Stern says. Meanwhile, C.En has raised $10 million so far, and expects to greatly increase its stake once the testing is done. "We are looking now for one of the giants to adopt our technology and support it," Stern says - and it's hard to imagine he won't find several companies to embrace his breakthrough, which could really, finally, solve the oil problem, once and for all.