Saturday, February 28, 2009

Myths & Realities About Hydrogen Fuel

Saturday, Mar 21, 1:30 pm Public & Free

Rene Carlos, Advanced Composites Group,
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD

National Science Foundation, Room 110
4201 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, VA (*)

Mankind has known of and studied hydrogen for over 300 years, and applied it to vehicles for over 200--first in balloons and dirigibles, then as high-performance rocket fuel, by military, civil, and commercial organizations. More recently, multiple navies have tested and deployed hydrogen-containing submarines. This is in addition to chemical and nuclear applications, and most likely consumer electronics in the near future. With fuel cost and availability worsening, and concerns that greenhouse gases produced by fossil fuel use are driving climate change, hydrogen has been promoted by some in government and industry as the ultimate widely-available and pollution-free fuel for private automobiles as well. Using fuel-cell technologies, such automobiles are claimed to exhaust nothing but water; hydrogen can also fuel conventional but modified piston engines.

But the devil is in the details. Many of the technical hurdles and shortcomings are usually left out of the conversation. The very claim that hydrogen is abundant and pollution-free is a matter of interpretation. Issues of sourcing and manufacture, as well as practical distribution and handling, haven't been as visible in the debate, while fears of Hindenburg-style disasters have gotten more traction than the evidence would suggest. In addition, fuel cells can use many other fuels besides hydrogen, including gasoline; the future of cars, with electric and hybrid cars also in contention, is far more complicated than the average driver has been led to believe. Even fuel-cell researchers themselves disagree on hydrogen's merits.

Rene Carlos is a mechanical engineer in the Advanced Composites Group at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD. In that capacity he has served on multiple flight projects resulting in operational spacecraft, as well as on ground tests and technology demonstrations. He received his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in Materials Science, at Northwestern University. Personally, he has analyzed alternate-fuel conversions for his own vehicles.

* NSF is one block south of the Ballston-Marymount University metro stop on the Orange Line. For most drivers the easiest route is to exit Route 66 onto Fairfax Dr. eastbound to N. Stuart Street. Enter the NSF building at the corner of N. Stuart Street and 9th St. N. Parking is available in the Ballston Common mall, in the NSF building, and at other area parking lots and garages. Metered parking is also available on the surrounding streets. (Map)