Technology Update: Fill 'er Up...But Whatever With? And Wherever From?
The Stone Age didn't end because of a lack of stones.
The initial fill-up of your neat new car was on the dealer's tab, but now it's up to you. What fuel will it use? Where will you get it? And what will be the origins of this fuel?
Oh, by the way, it's October 2019.
Between now and this date 15 years hence, there's going to be a paradigm shift in what we casually call "filling 'er up." Indeed, some say there'll be cataclysmic change. To get an idea of what's ahead, I've collected information from sources as varied as the World-Wide Fuel Charter, published by the European Automobile Manufacturers Association; my monthly Automotive Engineering, from SAE International; my weekly Science magazine, from the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and our local newspapers, The Orange County Register and Los Angeles Times. I've spoken with specialists at the American Petroleum Institute, GM, Honda and Toyota. Here's what I've learned.
Most agree that hydrogen is the fuel of the future. But we're talking mid-term here, not the long run. The year 2019 is too soon for a complete shaking out of other options. Specialists are confident it's also too soon for any catastrophic end of the Petroleum Age. There will still be gasoline and diesel, in both purely internal-combustion and hybrid applications, plus a small but significant number of hydrogen-powered vehicles in private hands.
Let's examine this multi-fueled mid-term in reverse order. And, in a breathtaking leap of prognostic faith, let's agree to omit lily-livered words like "might," "may," "potentially" and "likely."
Fuel-cell vehicles will enter the mass market in 2010-2012. Six percent of our 2019 new car mix will be hydrogen-fueled. Though a tiny percentage, this is still a million cars. By the way, hydrogen will power more than fuel-cell electrics. Several manufacturers, BMW among them, espouse hydrogen-fed internal combustion as a carbon-free option.
The diversity of hydrogen sources is an advantage. Proponents expect competing technologies to bring costs down eventually. In our mid-term, though, as is the case today, most of the hydrogen will come from fossil sources, principally natural gas.
Research in thermochemical cracking and in biomass generation will start to pay off. And nanotechnological advances will cut the cost of solar-electric-supported electrolysis. (This option is currently five to eight times beyond any reasonable cost target.) Wind-power-supported electrolysis also will play an increasing role, albeit from minuscule beginnings. (Solar- and wind-power will involve energy buffering: Off-peak electricity generates hydrogen electrolytically, which is then held in underground hydride storage until needed.)
These cars won't be refueled at every street corner. Today, hydrogen is transported in liquid form, but liquefaction takes a tremendous amount of energy. Instead, there will be dedicated hydrogen depots, strategically located, each with on-site steam reformation of natural gas or other advanced technology.