Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Hydrogen Engine

It is often said that the future of cars lies with the fuel cell, which runs on hydrogen. Since its only emission would be water, it would go a long way to solve many of the environmental problems caused by cars. However the fuel cell seems to suffer an insurmountable problem: on the one hand the engines themselves won't be market-efficient for at least a few years and when they will be nobody would want a fuel cell car because there is no distribution system for hydrogen in place - therefore no possibility to refuel.
The Financial Times has an interesting article today that discusses a possible solution to this problem: the creation of a hydrogen engine.
But now a competing technology, which enables ordinary internal combustion engines to run on hydrogen, will soon start to hit the road.
Enthusiasts say the hydrogen engine could help smooth the introduction of hydrogen as a fuel - a process that will require heavy investment in filling stations, hydrogen production and specialised components.
The hope is that hydrogen engines will provide a "bridging technology" to fuel cells, says Vance Zanardelli, Ford's chief engineer for hydrogen engines. "When the fuel cell is ready for prime time, the world needs to be ready for hydrogen," he adds.
This is excellent news. There are several disadvantages to the hydrogen engine compared to the fuel cell, but it seems to me that this would be an ideal way to encourage the creation of a hydrogen distribution system.
Another reason I am happy that these kinds of developments are taking place is that I believe the Kyoto Protocol is a useless and costly mistake (see here and here) and Europeans will realize the folly of it once it hits them in the pocket (without actually improving the environment). Anti-americanism may be good fun, but are we really willing to pay for it thorugh the nose, all the while destroying what little is left of our economies?
Tech Central Station (hideous name - but great website) has an interesting article explaining why this is so.
According to the European Environment Agency only two countries are on track to comply with the Kyoto targets, the UK and Sweden. Funnily enough, both of them are doing well because of political decisions that (1) date back to the 1980s and (2) have nothing to do with climate. In other words, climate policies aren't helping them move towards their supposed target, whereas other policies (that may or may not be wise for other reasons) do. Such policies include the shift from coal to natural gas (as is the case for the UK) and a strong reliance on nuclear power (which provides some 45 percents of Swedish electricity needs).
ETS (the European Trading Scheme) is designed to work in the short, not the long, run. Emission reductions are targeted to 2008-2012. The risk then is that we invest in inefficient ways to reduce emissions because we need to do it quickly - instead of taking more time to find more efficient and beneficial methods. Moreover, emission reductions under ETS are going to be fake: a form of money redistribution between those who exceed the Kyoto targets and those who have been good negotiators and have obtained national goals that they would have met anyway for unrelated reasons. That means most companies will have to pay a lot to buy allowances, and will have less to spend on innovation. Some will get richer, some will get poorer, but nobody will end up with cleaner technologies because nobody will invest in research & development.
Do read the whole article. The real question is how long it will take us to realize this, and focus on actual solutions. I'm not holding my breath.

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