Poo-powered Hydrogen Vehicles

Sounds (or rather, smells) promising. This brings recycling to an entirely new level. Somewhere in a waste facility in California...

Sounds (or rather, smells) promising.

This brings recycling to an entirely new level. Somewhere in a waste facility in California, bio-solids are being processed to create electricity and hydrogen. Although hydrogen is an abundant element on earth (and the universe! Space travel fuel, maybe?) but is still very costly to process. Critics of hydrogen vehicles will also argue that the production of hydrogen emits as much carbon dioxide as conventional petrol-powered cars.

In this new system developed by scientists from University of California’s Irvine National Fuel Cell Research Centre, bio-solids are removed from sewage (the leftover water is treated for reuse. Hmm...) and then channeled into tanks where it becomes a veritable feast for microbes. The digestion of this ‘delicious meal’ produces gas that comprises of 60% methane and 40% carbon dioxide. The methane can then be piped into a unique fuel-cell device to generate electricity, heat and hydrogen. How much more ‘green’ can this get?

Presently, the prototype project is taking place at Orange County Sanitation District. The hydrogen produced is collected into a public pump to refuel hundreds of hydrogen vehicles that are traversing the roads of California. Hyundai’s US Headquarters is conveniently located barely a mile away from the waste plant. Convenient because Hyundai is set to launch its hydrogen fuel cell version of the Tucson by the first quarter of 2014.

In the initial stage, the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell availability will be limited to selected customers in the Los Angeles and Orange County areas, for a 3-year lease term, with a USD2999 down payment and subsequent USD499 monthly payments. It may seem a bit pricey to lease a car at that rate, but the contract comes with unlimited free hydrogen fuel and maintenance, which should significantly mitigate the expenses.
Hyundai claims that the Tucson Fuel Cell can achieve a range of 250 to 300 miles, and is capable of refueling as fast as any petrol vehicle, which is less than 10 minutes. The Tesla Model S, on the other hand, requires four hours for a full charge at home, but only 30 minutes at any of their 76 ‘supercharger’ stations across North America and 90 seconds for a battery swap which costs between USD60 to USD80.

Undoubtedly, Tesla is far ahead in establishing recharging infrastructures in the US, plus every home already has electricity. There are only less than a dozen hydrogen pump stations in California, but last year, the governor signed a bill which commits USD20 million a year to fund at least 100 hydrogen stations.

Hyundai, at least, is optimistic and reports that interest in the Tucson Fuel Cell vehicle is high, having received almost 90 000 unique visitors at their microsite since launching in November 2013. Hyundai has not mentioned how many customers would eventually be selected for the programme, but they would probably be those who are residing in areas that have easy access to the hydrogen refueling stations.

While we are seeing headlines of both petrol and electric vehicles bursting into flames, Hyundai specifically mentions on the website that “The Tucson Fuel Cell has passed numerous on-road tests conducted over an accumulated distance of 2 million miles. Plus, with several safety systems designed to protect passengers and first responders, the Tucson Fuel Cell is as safe as any vehicle on the road.” Contrary to popular belief that a hydrogen vehicle is at risk of bursting into a Hindenburg-like ball of flames, tests have proven that hydrogen from a leaked tank results in flames that flow upwards instead of engulfing the vehicle (read Burn, Baby, Burn). Granted, hydrogen is a highly flammable, colourless and odourless gas, but when vehicles around us are combusting regardless of its power source (case in point, Porsche GT3 And Chevrolet SS Spontaneously Combust and Third Electric Tesla Goes Up In Smoke!) we think that all vehicles are equally capable of going up in flames, rendering the issue moot.

image: thecarconnection.com


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