Hydrogen-powered Mazda RX-8 RE (© Mazda Motor of America, Inc.)Click to enlarge picture

The hydrogen-powered Mazda RX-8 RE was available for testing at a conference in California.

Did you know that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe? That it powers our very sun?That everything in the hydrogen future is going to be so groovy that we'll need tranquilizer darts shot into our necks just to keep from screaming about how great it'll be?

There are politicians, plutocrats and pundits who believe that H2 is the future, that ramming it through the membranes of a fuel cell to make electricity is what will power cars in the not-too-far-from-near term. And there are companies betting big bucks on that, too.

All of these elements — people, private industry and government entities — converged this week at the annual National Hydrogen Association's Exposition and Conference in Long Beach, Calif. Even the governor showed up and bench-pressed a few atoms.

The news? One interesting thing was that Toyota chose this week to announce that the target price for its fuel cell-powered sedan, due in showrooms in 2015, will be about $50,000. That's a far cry from early fuel-cell-car estimates that were usually more like “astronomical.”

Toyota, General Motors, Honda, Daimler and Hyundai have all said they'll have fuel-cell cars available for retail sale in the United States within five years. So while it's still off in the future, the fuel-cell revolution is a little less futuristic than it traditionally has been.

And while for years it was easy to dismiss hydrogen-powered anything as being too energy-intensive to be worthwhile, some of the experts at the expo were at least saying that hydrogen makes financial as well as efficiency sense.

“Hydrogen is already made today in large scale at very efficient rates, over 80 to 85 percent efficient in terms of energy in to energy out,” said Ed Heydorn, business development manager of Hydrogen Energy Systems for Air Products. “Technologies already exist that can produce hydrogen at efficiencies and costs that meet the needs for transportation and other applications.”

Granted, Heydorn is selling the stuff, but he had some interesting points.

“One of the beauties of hydrogen is you can make it out of just about any product that's out there, especially renewable resources,” Heydorn continued. “A project that we're undertaking now is one at the local wastewater treatment facility in Orange County, Calif. We're working with a company called Fuel Cell Energy that has a fuel-cell technology that can convert the biogas made from wastewater treatment into electricity. We're taking a slipstream within that electricity production to coproduce hydrogen and make it available for vehicle fuel.”

Bing: Fuel Cell Technology

One thing we didn't discuss was how much hydrogen such a process would produce. While there are wastewater treatment facilities throughout the civilized world, is there enough of the stuff to power 140 million cars in the United States and millions more throughout the rest of the world?

Heydorn points out that hydrogen is also available as an off gas from various chemical production processes. However, the majority of H2 available today comes from steam reformation of natural gas, which is an energy intensive process that releases CO2. True, CO2 can at least theoretically be sequestered underground, but that requires still more energy, and there's always the threat that it'll get out again, all at once.

But you can't just write off hydrogen altogether. It's still more efficient that gasoline.

“In today's nonrenewable technologies, using conventional conversion systems, hydrogen is probably 40 percent better than gasoline,” Heydorn said. “Now, if you want to get to the long-term 2020, 2050 goals of 80 percent reduction, what you do is bring in renewable components from the production of hydrogen: biomass, solar, wind, the right renewable component depending on the location because there's different optimals based on the availability. But if you do that, the footprint for hydrogen for transportation fuels becomes very low.”

That's a lot of windmills.

One other advantage is hydrogen made from windmills and solar can be used as an energy storage medium that can be released when the wind dies or the sun don't shine.

Sure, but why not just use all that energy to make electricity that goes straight into an electric battery to power an EV?

“It's actually complementary in terms of market focus. Hydrogen has range that batteries aren't able to meet with current technology. In terms of efficiencies, it becomes a choice of what's the right use of the different feedstocks that are available, whether renewable or conventional. Hydrogen can provide a pathway that complements what's already happening in the world of electricity production.”

Since most hydrogen is made from natural gas, why not just pump the natural gas into a Honda Civic GX NGV?

Bob Boyd, manager of project development and hydrogen solutions for energy giant Linde North America, Inc., said hydrogen is still a better bet.

Bing: Linde North America Inc

“If you take a unit of volume of natural gas and put it in a Civic, you might be able to go the EPA equivalent of 35 miles. If you take the same amount of natural gas, convert it into hydrogen, use some of that natural gas to compress the hydrogen and put it into a fuel-cell car, it'll go about 25 percent further.”

But even hydrogen specialist Boyd admits the element isn't perfect.

“The biggest drawback is density. It's a light gas. How do you get it into a small space? Other fuels — diesel for instance, is very dense. With hydrogen, the biggest problem is finding a place to put it on the car. Even if we make it into a liquid, it's still four, five, six times less dense than gasoline. That's really the biggest challenge.”

That, and what to do as the developing world rises up and starts wanting polyester slacks, big screen televisions and their own fleet of BMWs.