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End tailpipe tyranny


Today: a diet of fossil fumes in China’s car-choked cities. Tomorrow: clean air?

Photo: Steve Lewis /Still Pictures

China’s auto industry is the fastest growing in the world. In 1996 there were fewer than 2 million private cars; by 2002 there were 16 million. Visitors to China used to talk about all the bicycles. Now they talk about all the cars – and the smoggy cities.

James Cannon, who heads Colorado-based Energy Futures and visits China often estimates: ‘The Chinese automobile population could surpass the US numbers, more than 200 million, within 10 to 20 years. At the current pace, you have China quickly becoming a larger carbon dioxide (CO2) emitter than the US, which is now the world leader.’

However, China’s cars won’t necessarily be fossil-fuel driven or have internal-combustion engines – an embryonic hydrogen industry could save the country from the tyranny of the tailpipe.

‘ When I visited China as part of a hydrogen delegation in 1997, we were hard pressed to find more than just basic research into the chemical and physical properties of hydrogen,’ Cannon says. ‘But since that time China has made very rapid progress in building a well-co-ordinated national hydrogen program. There are several fuel-cell cars now, and plans for larger numbers.’

With the world choking on auto exhaust, the zero-emission fuel cell is increasingly seen as its green savior. Hydrogen fuel cells aren’t exactly new. They were invented by Briton Sir William Robert Grove in the 19th century but were not used until the 1960s’ Apollo and Gemini space missions.

Fuel cells can be compared to a car battery in that hydrogen and oxygen are combined to produce electricity. The cells are stackable flat plates, each one producing about one volt, the size of the stack determining the power output.

If pure hydrogen is used as fuel the only emission is clean water, with waste heat as a by-product.

Fuel cells could replace power plants to produce electricity on a large scale; and they could be miniaturized to replace batteries in computers and even watches. But the race to put them under the hood of a car generated the most fierce international competition, led by Japan, Germany and the US.

Japan won. Last February, Toyota presented its FCHV fuel-cell car (based on the Highlander) at the University of California, Irvine. The car had been 10 years in the making. ‘This could be one of those historic moments,’ said Toyota boss Jim Press, ‘almost like the Wright Brothers taking off from Kitty Hawk.’ That might be stretching it a bit, but the FCHV is the first market-ready hydrogen fuel-cell car delivered to a customer. On the same day Honda unveiled plans to test five fuel-cell vehicles with cells built by Canada’s Ballard Power Systems, the world’s fuel-cell leader.

The University of California has since been putting into daily use Toyota’s cars, which have a top speed of 96 miles per hour, a range of 185 miles on a tank of hydrogen gas and get an equivalent of 64 miles to the gallon.

‘Nuclear-generated hydrogen is like a nicotine patch that causes cancer’

US car manufacturer General Motors meanwhile has been developing a fuel-cell car with a more generous 300-mile capacity. General Motors has good friends in Washington, where hydrogen is the new buzz word since President George W Bush announced $1.2 billion in research funding in January. It’s perhaps no accident that White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card is a former GM vice-president, as well as the former president of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association. Now GM is declaring its intention to be ‘the first auto maker to sell a million fuel-cell vehicles – profitably’.

Who could oppose that? Most environmentalists like fuel cells. But they don’t want the promise of them to delay the delivery of fuel-efficient cars today.

Then there’s Bush’s fondness for the idea of producing hydrogen from nuclear power. Indeed, many see the need for large-scale hydrogen production as a way to jumpstart the moribund nuclear industry.

Hydrogen can be generated in a number of ways: locally using renewable energy or by using power from the large-scale, centralized oil and nuclear power industries.

‘Nuclear-generated hydrogen is like a nicotine patch that causes cancer,’ says Dan Becker, energy program director for the Sierra Club environmental group. The fossil-fuel and nuclear industries are already beginning to muscle in on hydrogen conferences and workshops. Shell Hydrogen is getting stuck in. It’s installing hydrogen pumps at one of its Washington garages in conjunction with GM’s plan to provide a fleet of six fuel-cell Zafira mini vans at $1m each for people to test drive.

If fossil fuels are used in the process of separating hydrogen from one of its many sources – water for example – this will produce greenhouse gases and significant pollution. If extracted from natural gas through a process called steam reformation this will generate CO2 as well.

Only through the use of renew-able resources is the whole process emissions-free. Photovoltaics (PV), wind energy, hydro-electric power, geothermal and biomass could each be harnessed to produce the electricity needed to isolate hydrogen.

Denmark, with 3,400 megawatts of wind-generating capacity – the equivalent of five medium-sized nuclear-power plants – would be an ideal supplier of hydrogen for a fuel-hungry world.

But it could also be made at a local level: say, at a filling station level. Or large-scale PV or wind farms might carry the day. According to Worldwatch, the market for oil is growing at less than 1.5 per cent per year, while the wind and solar photovoltaic markets are now doubling in size every three years. PV costs are high, however, and will need to come down considerably to make the hydrogen process competitive.

Iceland meanwhile has declared its intention to host the world’s first hydrogen-energy economy and has opened the first commercial hydrogen filling station in Reykjavik.

With most of its heat and electricity coming from geothermal energy, Iceland wants to go totally renewable by 2030. The Icelandic station is in part sponsored by the European Union’s ECTOS Project, which also plans to build a hydrogen gas station in Hamburg, Germany to supply a fleet of fuel-cell buses. Citaro fuel-cell buses, made by DaimlerChrysler, have been ordered by 17 European cities, with trials to begin late this year.

Meanwhile, Mexico City, São Paulo, Cairo, New Delhi, Shanghai and Beijing are expecting the delivery of 46 fuel-cell buses as part of a United Nations Development Programme project to assess the viability of the technology in crowded mega-cities.

Attempts by the fossil fuel industry to hijack hydrogen shouldn’t blind us to the very real promise of this lighter-than-air element.

In his book The Hydrogen Economy Jeremy Rifkin envisions ‘a vast redistribution of electricity with far-reaching consequences for society. Today’s centralized, top-down flow of energy controlled by global oil companies and utilities can become obsolete. In the new era, every human being with access to renewable-energy sources could become a producer as well as a consumer – using so-called “distributed generation”.’

Despite setbacks and obstacles, there’s a gathering consensus that ‘the forever fuel’, hydrogen, will eventually replace oil as the world’s principal energy source. The World Resources Institute (WRI) has predicted that world oil production could peak as early as 2007, at the low end, or 2014, at the high end. This is not just wishful thinking by environmentalists. John F Bookout, a former president and CEO of Shell Oil, is in basic agreement with WRI, projecting that production will peak at 75 million barrels a day ‘around the year 2010’.

According to the Britain-based Fuel Cell Today, there were more than 1,000 stationary fuel cells in use around the world in 2002, quadruple the number in 2000. There are just a handful of fuel-cell cars in test programs now, but thousands will take to the streets in the next few years.

There’s a lot at stake. As the hydrogen research programs play themselves out, China motorizes at an unprecedented rate, and global warming effects accelerate.

Jim Motavalli is a former motor correspondent who is now editor of the US environmental magazine E.


Where a few years ago lack of interest might have been a major obstacle to bringing in the hydrogen era, today the opposite may be true – too much interest from the wrong sources.


New Internationalist issue 357 magazine cover This article is from the June 2003 issue of New Internationalist.
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