by Jim Kerr

What will fuel our cars and trucks in the future? There have been several different fuels, from propane to electricity, used in the past and still offered as a solution for the future. Nobody knows for sure if a single fuel source will dominate such as gasoline has for the last century. Hydrogen has to be at the top of many researchers’ lists because of its abundant supply, but there are problems associated with hydrogen too.

One of the problems with fuel for vehicles is delivering it to the end user. Gasoline and diesel fuel have a huge infrastructure in place to allow convenient delivery to consumers. If a fuel such as hydrogen is to replace either of these as the primary vehicle energy source, it will have to be as convenient to obtain as gasoline.

Many fuels could fit right into the gasoline infrastructure without any trouble. Ethanol (grain alcohol) is a renewable resource and can be delivered just as gasoline is. In fact, only the labels on the pumps would need to be changed, and of course the automobiles. While ethanol is a fine alternative, the amount of energy in a kilogram of alcohol is substantially less than that of gasoline.

Methanol, wood alcohol, is another possible alternative. A renewable resource, methanol has been touted as one fuel that could be easily broken down into a source of hydrogen for fuel cell equipped vehicles. A reformulator on-board the vehicle would convert the methanol into hydrogen fuel. This sounds promising, but methanol is very corrosive, so stainless steel fuel tanks, lines, and delivery pump components would all be required. This adds to the cost of delivering the fuel.

Electricity has been described as the least polluting fuel of the future. Honda and Toyota’s hybrid cars have shown that electricity does work, but battery technology is not yet present that would allow practical operation on only electricity.

Propane and natural gas have been used as alternative fuels, but the infrastructure to deliver them has aimed more at fleets of vehicles rather than privately owned units. High pressure storage tanks, high pressure delivery tankers, and pipelines are all part of the infrastructure that would need to be expanded at tremendous costs to accommodate the volume needed by vehicles on the road today.

Opel Zafira GM HydroGen1
GM’s Hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, Opel Zafira HydroGen 1. Driven by a 55 kW / 75 hp three-phase electric motor that gives it a top speed of 140 km/h, the range of this fully functional five-seater is around 400 kilometers. The necessary electric energy is generated by a hydrogen-powered fuel-cell stack. According to Hans H. Demant who heads Opel’s International Technical Development Center in Rüsselsheim, “Hydrogen is unquestionably the fuel of the future.”

That brings us back to hydrogen. Hydrogen could be described as the perfect fuel. It is non-polluting, high in energy, and able to be used directly in internal combustion engines or indirectly in fuel cells. Much of the vehicle technology used to store propane and natural gas in vehicles can be adapted to hydrogen. One of the problems with hydrogen is the limited range because of on-board vehicle storage. This is being overcome gradually by using storage tanks capable of operating at 10,000 psi, electronic fuel pressure regulation, and efficient engine design.

Another problem with hydrogen is getting it to the consumer. There is no delivery system currently in place, but the solution has been developed and the delivery infrastructure products are waiting for the first hydrogen-fueled vehicles to hit the market place.

One company, Stuart Energy Systems, a leading developer of hydrogen generation and supply systems, has designed a full line-up of free-standing hydrogen filling stations for commercial and home use! The Stuart refueling stations use electrolysis and need only a water and electricity supply to generate hydrogen fuel on-site.

Already hydrogen fuel suppliers for fuel cell equipped bus projects in B.C. and California, Stuart has demonstrated the ability of their self-contained hydrogen generator stations. In fact, a complete line-up of fueling stations has been developed to accommodate everyone from the commercial bus fleet to the private individual.

Large fleets use a large unit with storage tanks to enable vehicle refueling in as short as four minutes. Smaller units, called the “Community Fueler”, would be a logical replacement for the corner gas station. It has capabilities to fuel 50 vehicles or more in only a few minutes each.

Most interesting, and still under development, is Stuart’s Personal Fuel Appliance. This small hydrogen generating station is currently about the size of a washing machine, and is capable of supplying fuel for up to five cars. Using 220-volt electricity and water, the unit is designed to fill the vehicle tank safely and slowly overnight. Just like recharging a cell phone battery.

With convenient refueling, especially home refueling as designed by Stuart Energy Systems, hydrogen could become the dominant fuel of the future. Now lets see: when I’m not filling the car; hydrogen barbecues, hydrogen clothes driers, hydrogen water heaters, the possibilities are endless!

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