Perfessor Friar rambles about cars, fuel cells and saving the planet.

 All this talk about hydrogen fuel-cell powered cars.     Well, what about them?

Remember your high-school science class, when the teacher applied electricty to water with two electrodes?     It would cause electrolysis of the water. The electrical energy would cause the H2O to to dissociate into hydrogen gas and oxygen:

2 H2O + energy = 2H2 + O2

Hydrogen fuel cells work in reverse (I won’t go into the details here).   They combine oxygen and hydrogen gas to form water, and create energy.  

2H2 + O2 = 2H20 + energy

Hydrogen is everywhere on our planet.   Fuel cells don’t generate any CO2 or greenhouse gases,  just water vapor and heat.     Sounds great, doesn’t it?   Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could run our cars on hydrogen instead of gasoline? 

Well, let’s think of this for a moment.

One way to get hydrogen is from steam reforming, where H2 is extracted from hydrocarbons, mostly from natural gas 

However this process still takes energy, and still generates some  greenhouse gases.   So you’re basically still using hydrocarbons to indirectly power your car.    There is some debate that this is a short-term solution.   It still dosen’t remove us from our dependency from fossil fuels.

Another way to get hydrogen is to electrolyze water.   But the problem is,  the H’s and O’s like to be together in the form of H2O.   It takes a certain amount of coaxing to get them apart.   To do that, we need energy.  (Just like your chemistry teacher had to use a small battery for the hydrogen/water experiment). 

So where would we get that electrical energy to break down water into hydrogen?   From our power-generating stations, naturally, which are based on coal, natural gas, nuclear or hydroelectricity.

Now, what if it happens that your electricity happens to comes from a coal-burning plant? 

Well, then that defeats the WHOLE purpose of your fuel-cell car.     

You’d basically be burning coal…to make electricity… to make hydrogen…to power your car.   The net effect is you’d basically be burning COAL to run your car, which isn’t  exactly the most environmentally-friendly source of fuel.  

Sure, your car might not pollute the local neighborhood where you live, but it most definitely would, indirectly, near the coal-buring plant hundreds of miles away.   

So much for zero emissions.

The only truly zero-emission way to power your hydrogen-fuel cell car would be to generate hydrogen from nuclear or hydroelectric power plants.

Well, lots of people oppose the building of hydro dams.   Besides, there’s only so much hydroelectric  power available (we’ve pretty much dammned up every significant river in North America already).    

The most plausible answer seems to be to build more nuke plants to make more electricity.   Which again,  many people are opposed to.   

So what’s  the right choice?   (Things are never as easy as they seem, are they?)

I”m not saying hydrogen-powered vehicles dont’ have a huge potential.   Yes, we can have zero-emission vehicles that don’t depend on oil or gas.  

We just need to be aware of where this hydrogen will come from, and what price we’re willing to pay to cover the associated costs of getting it to our cars.

Explore posts in the same categories: Fried Science

Tags: , , , , , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

48 Comments on “Perfessor Friar rambles about cars, fuel cells and saving the planet.”

  1. Mike Says:

    Or everyone could just have electric cars that they plug in at home in the evening and at work in the morning.

    Oh, wait… that just adds more load to the grid.

    Therefore, we need more power plants for all of the electric cars that people are going to be buying — or get ready for brown-outs or rolling blackouts.

    We need to be aware of where we’ll get this additional electric load from, and the associated costs and problems that come along with it.

  2. Mike Says:


    “additional electric load” should read “additional electric supply”

  3. Friar Says:


    Yeah…whether we use electricity to make hydrogen for fuel cells, or use it to charge car just puts that much more load on the grid. All that energy’s gotta come from somewhere!

  4. CaptainPush Says:

    I’ve previously tried to explain this process on my blog. Will you give me permission to share this? You’re the lone voice crying in the wilderness!
    Thanks pal!

  5. Friar Says:


    Most definitely. The more informed people are, the better decisions they can make.

  6. Mike Says:

    Captain – I agree with Friar. It should be shared.

  7. […] Perfessor Friar rambles about cars, fuel cells and saving the planet.  All this talk about hydrogen fuel-cell powered cars.     Well, what about them? Remember your high-school science class, when the teacher applied electricty to water with two electrodes?     It would cause electrolysis of the water. The electrical energy would cause the H2O to to dissociate into hydrogen gas and oxygen: 2 H2O + energy = 2H2 + O2 Hydrogen fuel cells work in reverse (I won’t go into the details here).   They combine oxygen and hydrogen gas to form water, and create energy.  […]

  8. Eyeteaguy Says:


    Nice Post! I like the Perfessor.

    I have 2 questions. How does Iceland get their hydrogen? I think it has to do with geothermic enegry……but how?

    And those fancy Prius (Prii?) What about their batteries? I heard they are nasty to produce, need to be replaced and are impossible to recycle/dispose/resuse.

    Solar cars, wind powered cars, people powered cars. That may be the solution.

    Then again if we stopped producing c02 right now, we’d still be screwed.

    I’m depressed now…..


  9. Friar Says:


    I don’t have the answers off the top of my head to most of your questions (but I can probably look them up).

    But I do know the answer to solar cars. I read in a paper somewhere that to have a car be able to safety accelerate up to highway speeds, you need to be able to supply bursts of power of about 50,000 watts.

    Solar energy, under the best of conditions, is about 1400 watts per square meter.

    So do the math. That’s quite a few square meters of solar panels for a regular-sized car. There’s only so much energy you get from sunlight.

    That’s why those solar vehicles we see are those tiny bicycle-sized things that go 20 kph.

  10. Brett Legree Says:

    Tata Motors out of India have built and tested (with some input from a French company) a car that is an ICE/compressed air hybrid (ICE = internal combustion engine).

    The ICE powers a compressor that pumps up the air tanks. The air powers an air motor (they work really well, believe it or not). The ICE can burn whatever you like (gas, diesel, hemp-based biodiesel). Or maybe you don’t want to do that, so you plug the car in and that powers the air compressor.

    Tata is the company that introduced the $2000 US car last week.

    Recyclable batteries are available – the first and second-gen hybrids don’t use them, but newer ones will.

    Johnathan Goodwin (SAE Energy) has built a Hummer H2 that uses a biodiesel burning gas turbine that charges a bank of latest-gen batteries and supercapacitors that ultimately power the electric motors at each wheel. Batteries are good for cruising but starts are hard on them (static friction) – hence the supercapacitors.

    His Hummer H2 gets about 60 mpg, goes 0-60 in a hair over 5 seconds, still weighs 5000 lbs. – imagine what he could do with a Civic.

    Hmm… take the gas turbine and burn hydrogen in it! Then use it to power a generator to compress air.

    The technology is there – lots of options, it all depends on what we want to do.

    Example – world hydrogen production is about 42 million tons a year. About 60 percent of that is feedstock for ammonia production that ends up as fertilizer. Twenty-three percent ends up in petroleum refining, about 9 percent to make methanol, and on from there.

    So… perhaps if we changed the way we farm a little, we could take more of that hydrogen and use it for vehicles or whatever. We’re already making it for things you would not even imagine (fertilizer!) so I don’t see it as being such a stretch to create a hydrogen economy.

    The hydrogen economy is already here and has been for a long time.

  11. Eyeteaguy Says:

    That is true but the solar cells you see only use the red wavelength. The first multi wave length cells were used on the Mars rovers. Expected life 90 days, actual life…. well, they are still going.
    They will also be able to be flexable, so molded to the body of the car. We went from getting less than 1% of the energy converted when I was in high school to now where we could approach 30%. That is a big jump. So a solar powered, wing generating, fuel cell car that a computer hyper-miles for you. That may be the answer. Or make everyone telecommute.

    I vote to stay home and work.


  12. Friar Says:

    The thing is…gas is still cheap (relatively). Cheaper than milk. Cheaper than beer. Cheaper than designer water.

    Mabye when gas starts to hit $5.00 a liter, maybe people will start waking up and start doing something about looking at other sources of fuel. (We humans are kinda stupid that way).


    With today’s technology, there’s no reason a lot of us coudlnt’ do our jobs from home, and maybe report in to work a few times a month.

    But a lot of Big Brother companies don’t trust us enough to allow that yet.

    Again, maybe when gas becomes $5.00 a liter, and no one can afford the commute anymore, these companies will start to notice they can’t hire enough staff. Maybe then they’ll change their work policy.

  13. Brett Legree Says:

    Oh I agree, gas still is cheap. I wonder how cheap hydrogen is though, mile vs. mile – I don’t know the answer to that, I just wonder – I mean, if we’re making H2 for crop production and gasoline production, surely it can’t be too expensive.

    So I agree with you there – but when I hear people say it isn’t economically feasible to power cars via hydrogen or that we can’t have a hydrogen economy, I wonder what they’ve been smoking.

    Heck, you don’t even need an exotic engine. BMW made a 7-series car last year that used a fairly normal engine (not a gas turbine) that could burn gasoline or hydrogen.

    In addition to people being stupid, they need to be told what to do. The speed limit is 90 or 100 km/h by government decree. You can’t shoot people because you don’t like them.

    Perhaps the government can just say, “hey companies, you have to let more people telecommute” and “hey, no more gasoline powered cars”.

    There are a few companies in the world that have already committed to having 100 percent renewable energy – including cars – by a certain date. So it is possible.

  14. Brett Legree Says:

    (companies = countries –> oops!)

  15. Brett Legree Says:


    Yes, that’s the same idea.

    One thing I did not mention that bears mentioning – burning hydrogen is not that clean, just in case anyone thought it might be. It can be almost as dirty as burning gasoline.

    And I did a little digging (so as not to seem as though I think we can just start burning hydrogen) – right now, it is probably 4-5 times more costly to burn H2 per mile as it is to burn gasoline, so Friar’s point is very valid.

    Those in the business of making hydrogen seem to think they can get the prices down to the level of gasoline, but we will see…

  16. Allison Day Says:

    As always, I love it when Perfessor Friar posts. 🙂

    Though I don’t have anything to add to today’s discussion, I’m really enjoying reading all the comments today.

  17. Eyeteaguy Says:

    March 2.6
    April 5.0
    May 20.2
    June 24.9
    July 39.6
    August 36.8
    September 34.6
    October 27.9
    November 25.0
    December 25.1
    January 33.1
    February 33.6
    March 37.6

    Just some numbers. The second column is the average number of comments per month.

    From August last year until December, The Deep Friar experienced a 61.1% decrease from a high of 37 comments in July 2008.

    Then on January 13th of this year The Eyeteaguy made his first appearance. Since then The Deep Friar has experienced a 36% increase, recouping half of the lost comments. This remarkable recovery was exemplified by 2 posts where over 100 comments were made, both were records at the time.

    If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire… The Eyeteaguy

    Heh, heh, heh.

    P.S. Friar, you are welcome.
    P.S.: Forgot to mention good post!

  18. Eyeteaguy Says:

    …..not sure whay that last one got posted twice. Feel free to kill one of them.

  19. Brett Legree Says:

    Eyeteaguy – it posted twice because you’re just so damned awesome.

  20. Friar Says:


    One thing that’s going to be tricky is to have a hydrogen distribution system. We’ve had 100 years to build oil refiners and pipelines and service stations and tranportation systems.

    Doing the same for hydrogen will take some time. It wont’ happen overnight.

    Good point.

    Another important factor is the “Well to Wheel Efficiency”. How much it costs to get gas from the out of the ground, to the point of it driving your engine. Same thing for methanol, hydrogen, biomass, etc. All that needs to be taken into account.

    There are also Direct Methanol Fuel Cells. And Solid Oxide Fuel Cells. (Those come with their own advantages/disadvantages). (Heck, I might have to write a few more posts on this subject).

    YOU’RE MY HERO!!!!!

    My blog really SUCKED, until you came along!

    Thanks you. (whispers)…thank you!

  21. Brett Legree Says:

    You’re right – it will take time. I guess it depends on how important it is to a country. I mean, I figure it is not as technologically challenging as the Saturn V program to put people on the Moon, so the tech should be easy.

    After that, just a matter of rolling out the distribution.

    You wouldn’t see it here in Splat Creek for some time, for instance.

    (The first purpose built gas station was built in 1905 in St. Louis – pretty sure they didn’t get a gas station up here for another 40 years!)

  22. Eyeteaguy Says:

    I’m wondering if there is a parallel to be made with horses. They used to be the main method of transport well into this century (The German army of WW2 was famed for being mechanized but onlt 10% of their forces were. The US was the first army to be truely mechanized 1943)
    Horses were bred by the thousands and usually you were considered well off if you owned one. Now they are the domain of high end horse breeders for races or competition or as pets for pleasure.

    Might the car go the same way? Only the unique and special remaining in shows and private garages?

    In the end hydrogen is being touted as the replacement but as Friar has shown, that may not be the way and even if it is, its not around the corner.

    If we could find a way to make our global sociey local again that would go a large way to reducing our use. When I lived in BC I worked, shopped and played in a 6 block radius. I had to go to the parking garage once a week to see if my car was still there. I never used it.

    If there was public transport that went to day care and to work I would use it. But right now its 15 km to work and it takes me 15 minutes to get there by car. I use a litre of gas each way and it costs $1. A bus takes 55 minutes….. yup, 55 minutes as I have to transfer 2 times. It costs $2.

    We are not there yet. And to make matters worse we are not ready yet either. I live 5 minutes away from a co-worker, but she refuses to car ool as it “reduces her flexability” whatever that means.

    Anyway, I hope we can solve all this soon before we heat the place up and Friar can’t find a place to ski.


  23. Friar Says:

    Forget gas stations. I’m pretty sure they didn’t get ELECTRICITY up here in the 1940’s, either!

    Theoretically there’s everything I need here, within a 6 block radius. A grocery store, hardware store, a few restaurants and 3 bars.

    But downtown Vancouver it ain’t. If I didn’t have a car to occasionally get the Eff out of this place, I think I’d want to gouge my eyes out.

    Anyway, if there’s still skiing when I’m old, maybe the chairlift will be powered by hydrogen.

  24. Brett Legree Says:


    It is not an easy problem to solve. Just as it would make sense for people to carpool or take public transportation to save energy, it would also make sense for us to give up our private homes and live in apartment buildings, share bathrooms and showers, etc. like people still do in places like Russia – before the advent of automobiles, there wasn’t such a thing as suburbia either. Only the rich people had freehold homes with property, everyone else lived in cities, unless you were a farmer.

    How many people who own houses are right now willing to move into small apartments for the sake of the planet?

    A show of hands anyone?

    Perhaps hydrogen is just a transition solution or part of a solution e.g. if you live in the city, you drive electric only cars that are charged via nuclear / thermonuclear / solar / wind / whale blubber powered generators, but if you don’t, or if you need to travel intra-city, you have clean burning hybrids.

    Of course we’re still going to need some way to get food to our local societies, as there’s no way we’re going to be able to grow enough within the mythical 100 mile radius in light of how many of us there are now and how we’ve converted our best farm land in many places into suburban sprawls.

    Now, as far as solving this problem, I’m not sure we can. I suspect the Earth will solve it for us, for better or for worse.

    While I do like to show my children by example with things like Earth Hour, it will take a lot more than that.

    When the figures come in, how much of a chunk did it take out of the planetary energy use? What of all the factories in Asia making computers and car parts and fake vomit?

    I bet they kept on making that stuff without blinking an eye, and now that everyone “feels good” about turning off the lights for one hour (I was actually asleep at the time), a large percentage of those same people will go back to buying computers and car parts and fake vomit.

    We are third from the Sun, and will be for another 5 billion years or so before we are swallowed up by the red giant.

    The question is, will anyone be around to care?

  25. Brett Legree Says:

    @Friar – I knew you’d say something like that! How many would be willing to not travel and experience the world?

    If that makes me selfish, then I’m a selfish bastard I guess… 🙂

  26. Eyeteaguy Says:


    I live in a new suburban sprawl. The houses were here before the services. So I had to drive to get food, entertainment etc.
    But all the stores have moved out here from the decaying core. The core has been turned into cultural centres, meeting places, parks and parking.

    So now I walk to the store, entertainment etc. When I want some culture, I fill my car with people and we park in the parking lot and walk to all the places we want to go. That’s what I mean by local.

    As for the food chain, local works too. I’d rather buy limp lettuce grown in a greenhouse in Hamilton than crisp lettce grown in China.

    If we could continue on this path we’d not stop co2 but we would slow it down. Same with making and forcing them to make efficient cars. Anyway, doing something is better than doing nothing but it will take the “hated” government to push all this through. See the Governator in California. That dude is hard core and he is right and he will shows us the way. Even if he is wrong its better than building a coal fired plant every month like they do in China.


  27. Eyeteaguy Says:


    Me, I choose not to travel for that very reason. I am guilty of riding my motorcycle for pleasure. But I keep it tuned up and I hypermile it. I go 550 km on 30 l of gas.

    You make me an electric bike and I’ll by.
    You make me a furnace that dosn’t need gas, I’ll buy it.
    You make me a solar panel that is cheap, I’ll buy it.

    And so will a lot of other folks.

  28. Friar Says:

    I heard a good criticism of Earth Hour on the radio today. It says it teaches us that in order to conserve, we sit around in the dark, and do nothing. That’s the wrong message.

    The real message should be that we can run our normal lives, and conserve everywhere as we go, not just for one hour.

    As for myself…I drove 200 km to go to a friend’ party. So much for saving the planet.

    But it’s a once-a-year thing, and I really wanted to go.

    If I WAS in town, I’d have put on my Christmas lights, just because I COULD. (So I could be a KNOB, of course!)

    It will be interesting to see what We (as the Human Race) came up with. We only discovered the neutron in 1932…and by the late 50’s, we had commercial nuclear power.

    If we get our act together, maybe we can figure out fusion in the next few decades, and that would solve all our energy problems (provided we cont’ blow ourselves up first)

  29. Brett Legree Says:

    Oh, I know you’re right – believe me, you are.

    The government may have to do much more, in fact. Sadly, many people can only afford to buy the food they eat because it is so cheap when we import it.

    Much like many of us can only afford to buy shoes that are made in other places. A pair of hand made leather shoes would be unattainable for most folks – why? Well, because the shoemaker wants a big screen TV, of course!

    I think it used to work really well when we traded our skills with each other.

    We would need a complete shift in cultural attitudes to make it work. Yes, we have to start somewhere.

    So we start with our children.

  30. Friar Says:


    When there was a war, they managed to prioritize. And they extracted U-235 and built an atomic bomb from scratch, in five years.

    Same for the cold war. Then want from dinky little rockets, to putting a man on the Moon in 7 years.

    I think they can do the same for developing efficient cars running on alternative fuels.

    IF… they really want to.

    They obviously don’t want to…yet. It will probably take some kind of major international crisis to kick everyone in the arse and get us started.

    Like I said…we Humans are kinda stupid that way.

  31. Brett Legree Says:


    Funny you mention electric bike. I found an outfit in California (where else?) that makes extreme electric mountain bikes.

    Not cheap, yet – $2000 and up – their best one will hit 65 mph and travel about as far on a charge, then recharge in about 4 hours (cutting edge battery tech). The battery pack is also quick disconnect, so the idea might be to leave one at work (or wherever) all the time.

    Perhaps something a bit heftier than that might fit the bill.

    I’m considering buying one myself – seriously – because I could actually ride it to work.

    You also hit on something else that was mentioned earlier, and I agree – we definitely need better mass transit.

    The “hated” government can help here too. Instead of wasting money on bailing out failing companies etc., maybe we need that high speed rail link between Windsor and Montreal.

    Aircraft are not evil either, if used properly – remember the statistic about the full to capacity 747, 100 miles per gallon per person!

  32. Friar Says:

    Never mind mass transit between Montreal and Windsor. How about between Splat Creek and the Factory?

    They cut down the buses, compared to a few years ago.

    Now..if you miss the 4:30’re screwed and there’s no way to get home. (What happens if you need to work late at the last minute?)

  33. Patricia Says:

    Good explanations- I understood what you were taking about.
    Thank you too for your comments on bikingarchitect who by the way owns a Prius and 3 bikes and walks to work! even with a dog bite!

    The Architecture2030 premise is that if we cut back on energy use by building 30-75% we will increase jobs by millions per year. Not run out of Natural Gas or Hydro power enough to run the transportation systems. Because the building sector uses 40% of the energy, they have lots of charts and graphs on their website….we have already cut back our home usage by 38% and are going for 50% in 2009. Kind of fun work to do. ?? Thank you for the good post – professor!

  34. Friar Says:


    Thanks for the support.

    I heard somewhere that with dwindling oil supplies, the next major reserves we discover wont’ be new sources of petroleum. It will be conservation. That’s what this should all be about.

    Hope your hubby gets better. That looks like a nasty dog bite (OUCH!).

    Friar’s Mom cycles a lot..and she’s had quite a few close calls from angry dogs!

  35. I forgot about fusion. Friar wins. He saved the planet.

    And about crisis? In the 70 Volvo made a plastic car that passed all safety and ran on vegetable oil. We can do it, if we want to.

    I think Patricia should visit my blog and put her 10 items in.

    You too Brett and Friar.

    Time to put your money where your mouth is. I need some new cheap and easy ideas.


  36. Friar Says:


    Getting back to buildings….one easy solution we can start tomorrow would be to TURN OFF THE LIGTHS after hours.

    (How many sky-scrapers do we see, that are fully lit at all-hours of the night?)

    Turn them off! (It’s a no-brainer!)

  37. Brett Legree Says:


    Why certainly – I will definitely come by your blog and put 10 items in. I always like to visit *cool* blogs like yours and Friar’s 😉

  38. Patricia Says:

    Yes turning off the lights and computers is a big deal in empty buildings. Some buildings now have computer systems running the lights – that turn them on for the cleaning crews too, or lower lights when someone is away at a meeting along with just running the heat and air conditioning when people are in the rooms…we do lots of that in our house – except I am the computer!

  39. Friar Says:


    No..I did NOT save the planet. I just talked about doing it.

    (But it gives me bonus points with David Suzuki, I bet!).

    Mabye Eyeteaguy is…but I am definitely NOT a Cool Blog.

    I’m beginning to realize that, lately. 😉

    My Mom’s like that. She’s even the computer when she visits MY house!

  40. Brett Legree Says:


    Your blog is cool because people can sling mud at each other just for fun, and no one starts to cry.

  41. Friar Says:

    Yeah…Eyeteaguy flings it all over the place. I always have to get a mop and clean up, whenever he visits.

  42. XUP Says:

    Yes, we need to find alternate ways to power cars, but we also need to re-think our dependance on cars and reorganize our urban infrastructures. Suburbia and the whole mega-mall paradigm is not sustainable. We can’t just keep paving over wildlife habitats forever. People can’t be spending a large percentage of their day in a car getting to and from work, getting the kids to and from school, driving miles to pick up groceries, etc…

  43. Friar Says:


    You see this in older communities (like the older sections of Burlington or Oakville by the Lakeshore). All these small shops and stores in close proximity to the houses. It was a self-contained community, like a little village where everything you needed was within a kilometer.

    But the never communities (like Kanata, and other urban sprawl), are just houses, houses, houses….with only ONE ugly big-box store far far away.

  44. Eyeteaguy Says:

    Mr. Friar. I am bowing out of this conversation. You win, congratulations.


    P.S. Would you notice if I kicked you in the balls?

  45. Friar Says:


    No..this is a group effort.

    EVERYBODY WINS…!!! 😀 😀 😀

  46. Brett Legree Says:

    We could start with telecommuting. Really, for so many people (30 percent maybe?) it would work. Bosses need to get their heads out of their buttox and learn that people will goof off even if they are at work, so having me under your thumb means Jack Squat.

    We can go from there.

    Seriously, I can do my job from home, and I can do it better from home.

  47. Friar Says:

    Nooo…I think the bosses would rather have staff work in noisy distracting cubicle farms …rather than let us work in a quiet productive environment at home.

    That way they can keep their eye on us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: