Hydrogen fuel for eco cars?

As a wave of political awakening sweeps across many of the world’s key oil-producing nations, 2011 looks set to be the year the eco car enters the mainstream.

Toyota Prius Hybrid

The number of new eco-cars being released or announced this year, be they all-electric vehicles, super-efficient diesel cars or hybrid combinations of electric power and internal combustion engines, is impressive.

Few, if any, automakers have yet to at least talk about working on green versions of some of their existing products. Many of the carmakers not already selling vehicles classed as ‘green’ have announced the imminent arrival of something to fix that problem.

Bio Fuel for eco cars?

Swedish hyper-car company Koenigsegg has had its green CCXR Flower Power producing more than 1,000bhp on bio-fuel since 2007. The world’s other supercar companies have also started taking steps to demonstrate that they’re committed to responsible excitement instead of hedonistic fun leading to the demise of Mother Earth.

Ferrari unveiled a hybrid supercar last year. Rolls-Royce has just presented an electric luxury super-barge at Geneva.

As impressive as most of these developments are, that’s pretty well all they are – developments. Even the most technically-advanced of today’s alternative-energy vehicles represent mere evolutions of a long-established motoring tradition. Electric vehicles have, after all, been around for several decades longer than cars powered by internal-combustion engines.

Preserving a healthy future for our planet

The latest incredible eco-cars do, thankfully, appear to represent a revolution in transport thinking – the general acceptance that we all have roles to play in preserving a healthy future for our planet. However, in terms of motoring technology, today’s eco-cars generally represent only more of the same, rather than a true revolution.

When the idea of alternative-energy mass transport first really took off about 10 years ago, much of the talk at the time centred on hydrogen fuel.

Unfortunately, hydrogen has proved a major pain to work with. Scientists and engineers in the field have had to contend with a range of challenges, covering everything from production and storage of hydrogen to the various ways it might be used to power products, including cars, trucks, mobile phones and computers.

Hydrogen is an attractive energy source

In theory, hydrogen is an extremely attractive energy source. Water, which covers more than 70 per cent of the earth’s surface, is a simple combination of oxygen and hydrogen atoms.

Split water molecules and you end up with oxygen, hydrogen and nothing else. There is no pollution, unless you use a dirty process to split the molecules. Burning hydrogen then gives you back energy and water, making hydrogen seem like the ultimate fuel.

Unfortunately, things are not quite so simple in practise. Firstly, there’s the question of safety. As anybody who has heard about the Hindenburg Disaster will know, hydrogen is both lighter than air and extremely flammable.

Recent evidence indicates that the Hindenburg actually caught fire because of its paint, not its hydrogen. That is little consolation to the people who were killed and injured when the hydrogen finally did explode, however.

Hydrogen brings a host of environmental issues

It also turns out that hydrogen production brings a host of environmental issues. To split water atoms, you need electricity. The source of that electricity itself is often likely to be a dirty power station.

Even if you use environmentally-friendly sources of electricity, the process of splitting water leads to a major increase in energy requirements overall. Other methods for producing hydrogen are potentially less green, too.

For years now, scientists and other experts working in the field of hydrogen power have had to contend with both the serious technical challenges and the stigma attached to the chemical as a result of the deadly Hindenburg incident. Hopefully, we will one day enjoy a life in which we simply pour water into our cars, boats, motorcycles, phones, laptop computers and other hi-tech devices to enjoy a clean, modern lifestyle.

Toyota Prius Plug in Cars

Until that day arrives, however, we’ll have to contend with fuel-efficient conventional cars using diesel and petrol engines, green hybrid vehicles and all-electric eco cars. A few lucky drivers might even get to enjoy the experience of 200mph green supercars.

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