Bjorn Simonsen, Chairman of The Hynor Project spoke to us today about the research and development of hydrogen-powered cars. Hydrogen is the smallest, lightest element in the universe and it is abundant (70% of the elemental universe is hydrogen). The difficulty is that it is bound to other elements and is difficult to separate. In 2009 Norway opened the first Hydrogen Highway and Bjorn talked to us a little bit about the development of the technology and the future of the project.
By using hydrogen, a country does not need to rely on foreign countries for a fuel source because hydrogen is abundant everywhere and can be produced anywhere. In Norway a lot of hydrogen can be gathered through the hydropower process. Hydrogen fueled cars also means a much faster fueling time.
Hydrogen is more efficient that gasoline (2 to 1 ratio). Hydrogen cars have less moving parts than gasoline powered cars (40 parts vs. 200 parts). This means they will be easier to fix and likely cheaper to maintain.
Is the technology dangerous?
Bjorn was honest in saying “yes,” but went on to say that all energy carriers are dangerous. Safety is a very important aspect of any fuel source and the volatility of hydrogen is taken into account in the development of hydrogen fuel cells.
Hydrogen connects itself to anything it touches, which means there are a few storage options. One option is to connect it to a pile of metals. This isn’t a very good option because it’s heavy. Another option is to compress it in a very high pressure way. The pressure in an average room is 1 bar. The pressure inside a tank of compressed hydrogen is 700 bars. Another storage option is to cool hydrogen down and turn it into a liquid. In order to make this a feasible option, hydrogen needs to be cooled down to -253 degrees Celsius and it takes a lot of energy to get hydrogen to this low temperature. Storage issues are complex, but at this point the most popular storage method is to compress hydrogen into a tank.
How do you use it?
Hydrogen can either be burned in a combustion engine or used in a fuel cell. The fuel cell model is proving to be the most viable option and makes a lot of sense because it is easily scalable. Japan recently installed 2000 fuel cells in homes. The fuel cells provide enough energy to completely meet the energy needs of the houses.
Current hydrogen technology in Norway
There are cars being driven in Norway that have a 300-mile range and fuel in under 5 minutes. They still are incredibly expensive and far beyond the reach of the average consumer, but the cost is decreasing as the technology improves and the infrastructure develops. At this point it’s mostly rich entrepreneurs and big companies that own hydrogen cars, but Bjorn anticipates this changing in the next few years. Hydrogen cars cost about $200,000 US today, but Bjorn anticipates them costing around $50,000 by 2015.
The HyNor (Hydrogen Road of Norway) Project
This project began in 2003 and is the umbrella organization for coordinating hydrogen infrastructure activities. It’s a nongovernmental organization with some public funding and is not a legal entity so it has no purchasing power, but plays an important administrative role.
The vision in 2003 was that by 2009 it would be possible to drive hydrogen-fueled vehicles between Stavanger and Oslo. The HyNor road opened on May 11, 2009, so this goal has been realized.
Currently there are conversations about unified standards for hydrogen cars made across the world so they can be fueled the same anywhere.
Bjorn joked that for Norwegians the main test for the viability of hydrogen-powered cars is a) whether the cars can be used in daily life activities and b) whether the cars can be taken to the cabin and back on the weekends.