Ready to buy?

Get a
Free Quote!

Hydrogen - The longer tailpipe

By Lou Ann Hammond

Efficiency of gas, hybrid and hydrogen from well to wheels
photos courtesy of Toyota Motor Corp.

Remember the old Chevron commercials where you saw the oil rigs in the middle of the ocean and the fish were happily swimming around the barnacled bottome of the rig? At the end of the commercial the Chevron logo came up and asked "Do people really care? People do care."

That's Bill Reinert, Bill is involved in saving the Galapagos Islands. He's concerned about strip mining and all things environmental.

He's also concerned with what we call well to wheels. Well to Wheels is the term the auto industry uses to describe the time, or dollar amount, the raw fuel is abstracted from the ground (or hydrogen is produced) to the point its energy is translated into motion at the wheel of the vehicle. Reinert is most concerned with the well to wheel thermal efficiency. So far, well to wheel thermal efficiency is last for hydrogen.

As seen in the chart, currently a gas vehicle (GV) and gas hybrid vehicle (G-HV) are the most efficient. This is because both use gas and the well to tank percentage right now is 88 percent efficiency. This means that only 12 percent efficiency is lost in production of fuel. Once you get the gas in the tank, the tank to wheel efficiency goes way down in an internal combustion engine and up in a hybrid. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCHV) are woefully bad from well to tank (production), at only 58 percent efficiency. The tank to wheel, however is much more efficient than even the newest Toyota Prius.

According to Reinert, "A hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicle emits only water. Carbon monoxide, however, is produced when hydrogen is made from fossil fuels, as we currently do. If we intend to reduce carbon monoxide, we must go beyond tank to wheel efficiency and tackle well to tank efficiency as well. We need to consider production methods from a comprehensive viewpoint." Most people don't even think about how many emissions are created when producing the fuel, only how many emissions are being spewed out of the exhaust pipe.

Toyota's Fuel Cell Hydrogen Vehicle (FCHV)
photos courtesy of Toyota Motor Corp.

It may be years before there are standards and codes for production, storage and distribution of large amounts of hydrogen. The hope of all concerned is that the production of hydrogen can become more efficienct, with less emissions.

In the mean time auto manufacturers are working on vehicles that can run on hydrogen. I drove the Toyota FCHV and was amazed and excited.

The world breaks out hybrid technology from hydrogen fuel cell technology. Toyota does not. The Toyota Prius is the world's first mass produced hybrid car. It combines an internal combustion engine (ICE) and a battery, power control unit and motor to achieve energy management, fuel efficiency and less emissions.

Toyota has applied the same practice to their Toyota Fuel Cell hydrogen vehicle (FCHV). The one big difference is they have replaced the ICE with a fuel cell stack.

In the FCHV, the electricity comes from the fuel cell, powered by an electric motor. In the Prius, electricity comes from a battery, powered by an ICE. The fuel cell gets its energy from hydrogen whereas the ICE gets its energy from gasoline.

So, how does the FCHV drive?

The fuel cell cars of today should be kept and put in the Smithsonian, just as the Model A and Model T surely reside in museums. The current hydrogen cars are the cars of a hundred years ago. The technology on these cars will be obsolete before they are finished producing the first commercially viable hydrogen car.

Toyota's hybrid and hydrogen design

The FCHV exterior looks just like any other Highlander SUV. It wouldn't have surprised me if someone had honked and threw a green peace sign at me, that is how normal they look. There is one badge that says FCHV, but that's it. No funny looking Prius - car of the future - design.

According to Reinert, the car of today doesn't have enough power, it's too "tanked up", weighing at least 300 lbs more than a regular Highlander. And he says it doesn't go far enough between fuel stops to be commercially viable.

Reinert, obviously, doesn't drive a large SUV too often.

If I were to compare a large ICE SUV with the Highlander hydrogen (HH) there would be some surprising results. While one can feel the weight difference and the difference in suspension the HH is much quieter. While one can feel the difference in power, the passing quotient is much stronger on the HH. Remember, you're using the same fuel NASA sends space rockets into orbit. It has a lot of oomph, and it has it at the very start. There is no meting the engine to the transmission for optimal torque, the torque on hydrogen comes in at 0 rpm. It made the Toyota Solara Conv feel rather wimpy when I got back in the car.

The next issue is the drive mileage between fuel ups. I have driven SUVs that have cost over $40 to fill up and have gone less than 150 miles to the next fill up.

According to Reinert,"Each new model has to be better and offer more. This is also true about fuel cells."

The nav tells you how the fuel cell system is working
photos courtesy of Toyota Motor Corp.

Certainly, this is the time for education and experimentation. Reinert knows it's not good enough to build a hydrogen Model A when consumers are used to driving the car of their choice with all the functionality included.

Print this page

Email this page

subscribe to monthly newsletter
newcars,New Cars
*Always wear your seat belts
newcars,New Cars

And Remember
Never drive faster than your Angel can fly. ©

Copyright 1994-2004, all rights reserved.