The Technology Context – B101
IS HYDROGEN THE NEW ALTERNATIVE FUEL?
As a car company, BMW have answered the call of duty of fellow car manufacturers to enrol into the greener car market. They created the BMW Hydrogen 7, based on their current 7-series car; only the engine is capable of directly burning hydrogen with virtually no emission.
The BMW Hydrogen 7
BMW are not the first company to implement this strategy of using hydrogen to power a vehicle; however they are the first to apply it into a full size luxury sedan and take it past the prototype stages. At first glance it appears perfectly viable as these gas-guzzlers have really high emissions and finding a way to lower emissions from vehicles such as these would be very beneficial to the environment and the sustainability of future generations. But on the other hand, as the H7 does not have a very long driving range on its near zero emissions hydrogen fuel, only 100 miles, before it has to switch back to conventional petroleum once again and the emissions rise sky high again (Wust, 2006, para. 10).
The graph below perfectly illustrates how a hydrogen ICE (internal combustion engine) compares to other similar types of alternative fuels. The graph shows the amount of CO2 equivalent emissions on the x-axis and has the type of vehicle on the y-axis. The H7 does not compare too well against the other alternative fuel vehicles, it has infact one of the highest CO2 emissions on the graph. On the other hand, looking at the hydrogen fuel cells, we can clearly see that the emission is far lower than most other fuels. This turns out to be a much feasible solution if hydrogen is to be used as a fuel to power motor vehicles.
(EV World Blogs, 2005)
Hydrogen as a fuel
Hydrogen is an energy carrier and not an energy source, thus there is also a price which has to be paid in order to make the hydrogen readily available to be used as a fuel to power a motor vehicle. Before hydrogen becomes a feasible source of energy, work must first be done to produce it in a cost-effective manner. Hydrogen does not occur freely in nature, it must therefore be extracted from other chemical compounds.
It is considered as one of the most widely used and available alternative fuels on the market. A key advantage of hydrogen is that it stores approximately 2.8 times the energy per unit mass as gasoline (Kushnir, 2000, para. 8). It is able to provide the energy needed to power a motor vehicle mainly in two different ways. As BMW have done with the H7, it can be directly burned in an ICE or it could also be stored in gaseous form to be used in fuel cells.
When using liquid hydrogen in an ICE, a major drawback is the storage and transportation. It has to be stored at in a specially designed tank, keeping the hydrogen at -273 degrees Celsius in order to prevent it from evaporating. Even at these low temperatures, a full tank of liquid hydrogen will fully evaporate if left standing in just under 14 days (Gain, 2006, para. 13). This and many other drawbacks of using liquid hydrogen have caused car manufacturers to stay away and rather use hydrogen-powered fuel cells, where energy is stored before it is converted into electricity to power the motor vehicle.
Fuel cells combine hydrogen with oxygen to produce electricity with only water as a by-product (Kushnir, 2000, para. 29). This electricity is then used to power an electric motor which infact powers a motor vehicle. Hydrogen used in fuel cells is compressed and stored in special high-pressure containers similarly to how LPG (liquid petroleum gas), which is more common, is stored in vehicles. Another key reason for using fuel cells is that they are by far more efficient than ICE and with current technological advances they are becoming cheaper to manufacture, therefore many car manufacturers are considering releasing fuel-cell powered hybrid cars into public use. Overall, fuel cells are a very effective way of converting Hydrogen and Oxygen into water vapour with the release of a lot of energy capable of powering a motor vehicle. However, it certainly seems that sufficient amounts of Hydrogen cannot be stored in a car for any length of trip without compressing it to extremely high pressures. This causes cost and safety considerations which make the use of Hydrogen a very slim possibility to fully replace petroleum.
Due to hydrogen's clean burning characteristics, it has a very high probability that one day it will become a widespread transportation fuel capable of replacing petroleum.
This probability of hydrogen replacing petroleum will have many impacts on the global infrastructure. Countries that turn to hydrogen as a future fuel capable of replacing petroleum will certainly cease their dependency on oil reserves. In this day and age, this is a major political issue as the United Kingdom and the United States are both involved in major military and political affairs with countries that hold large oil reserves. By turning to hydrogen as a replacement for petroleum, many of these issues could be approached and resolved in a civil way.
If hydrogen becomes a global fuel capable of replacing petroleum, at least in the car industry, many major implications might take place which will have drastic effects of our current global economy. Oil companies most certainly will not benefit from this changeover as they rely on cars running on petroleum as that is their product which they sell. If there is no demand from petroleum, many companies will most certainly cease to operate and this will most certainly have some implications on the economy.
While alternative fuels are being tried and tested, the conventional use of petrol is far from extinct. The commerce of oil is still a thriving multi billion dollar industry which is not ready to give way to alternative fuels.
If hydrogen is to be the new petroleum alternative the largest social obstacle that must be overcome is the resistance to change. Society in general is not too keen on change unless there is a very good cause, especially when current technology does the job and availability is not an issue at present. On the other hand, oil reserves are due to be depleted in the near future and when, or if, this time comes, society is sure to look at alternative ways in providing the energy needed that petroleum and other oil products were able to produce.
In my opinion, hydrogen is a very feasible source of energy which could be used in the replacement of petroleum in the near future. Many car manufacturers are currently looking into and developing many new ‘greener’, environmentally friendly cars which produce virtually no emissions at all. This is a great possible solution to save the current environment. As hydrogen is implemented to be used in ICE and in fuel cells, one could say that it is the future fuel that could replace petroleum. However I have my doubts, regarding using hydrogen in ICE. The storage is one of the main issues here, but also the efficiency and the emissions both make this option not very sustainable. Whereas using hydrogen powered fuel-cells in cars is a much better option as it’s far more efficient and produces actually no carbon emission at all. As for the BMW Hydrogen 7, personally I believe that the ICE is running on hydrogen is not yet ready to be released past the prototype stages as it can still be vastly improved to be more efficient. Another reason why I believe that BMW have rushed the release of the Hydrogen 7 is that liquid hydrogen is not yet a viable fuel replacement. Much more work has to be put into creating a vehicle that is feasible to run on liquid hydrogen and one has to be able to overcome the storage hurdles that arise when trying to store liquid hydrogen.
In conclusion sustainable development in the car manufacturing sector has had major improvements and advances in recent years. BMW have joined the other car companies in continuing their advancements in environmentally friendly cars by introducing the first full size luxury sedan with a hydrogen ICE past the prototype stages. However, this was not as successful as initially anticipated, mainly due to the fact that after the hydrogen tank runs out after 100 miles, the engine switches back to petrol and the emissions rise once again.
A majority of the other car manufacturers have at least one model which they have tested new alternative types of fuels and some have released these hybrid models into public use. These models are far more environmentally friendly than their predecessors with low carbon emissions. Using low emission alternative fuels is a vast advancement to a sustainable future.
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