Category Archives: Automotive

Hydrogen cars and buses are better than Tesla

Hydrogen fueled cars and buses are as clean to drive as battery vehicles and have better range and faster fueling times. Cost-wise, a hydrogen fuel tank is far cheaper and lighter than an equivalent battery and lasts far longer. Hydrogen is likely safer because the tanks do not carry their oxidant in them. And the price of hydrogen is relatively low, about that of gasoline on a per-mile basis: far lower than batteries when the cost of battery wear-out is included. Both Presidents Clinton and Bush preferred hydrogen over batteries, but the current administration has favored batteries. Perhaps history will show them correct, but I think otherwise. For whatever reason, there is not a hydrogen bus, car, or boat at Disney’s Experimental Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) — nor is there an electric bus car or boat. I think it’s a mistake. 

Compare the best current hydrogen and electric vehicles currently on the road. The Honda Clarity, debuted in 2008 has a 270 mile range and takes 3-5 minutes to refuel with pressurized hydrogen at 350 atm, 5150 psi. By contrast, the Tesla S-sedan that debuted in 2012 claims only a 208 mile range for its standard, 60kWh model (the EPA claims: 190 miles) and requires three hours to charge using their largest, 20 kW charger. The replacement cost of the batteries is $12,000 as subsidized by DoE; without the subsidy, the price would be more like $40,000.

Part of what hurts the range of battery vehicles is that the stacks are very heavy. Despite using modern lithium-ion technology, Tesla’s 60 kWh battery weighs 1050 lbs including internal cooling, plus another 250 lbs for extra structural support. By contrast, Honda Clarity fuel cylinders weigh only 150 lb. They require another 120 lb. for the fuel cell stack and lithium-ion battery, about  30 lb. and 90 lb respectively. The net effect is that the Tesla-S weighs 1135 lbs more than the Clarity; 3582 lbs vs 4647 lbs. Largely because of this extra 1135 lbs the Tesla gets worse mileage, about 3.3 mi/kWh or 0.19 mile/lb of battery versus 60 miles/kg of hydrogen for the Clarity suggesting  3.6 mi/kWh at typical efficiencies.

High pressure hydrogen tanks can be smaller than batteries if the pressure is high. The higher the pressure the smaller the tank for a given range. The current Clarity takes 350 atm, 5,150 psi hydrogen to save tank space, and the next generation (shown below) takes higher pressure hydrogen to save space. But high pressure is not necessary. A reasonable car could be made to use 335 atm hydrogen (5000 psi) stored, for example, in four cheap 8″ diameter tanks (ID), 4′ long. At these dimensions the tank might be made from 0.065″ Maranging (aged) stainless steel (UTS = 350,000 psi, density 8 g/cc), surrounded by 0.1″ of aramid fiber (UTS = 250,000 psi, density = 1.6 g/cc). With this construction, each tank would weigh 14.0 kg (30.5 lbs) empty, and hold 11,400 standard liters, 1.14 kg (2.5 lb) of hydrogen at pressure. These tanks would cost about $1500 total, and provide a range of 273 miles. This is 40% more range and a far cheaper cost than the standard Tesla S.

Next generation Honda fuel cell vehicle prototype at the 2014 Detroit Auto Show.

Next generation Honda fuel cell vehicle prototype at the 2014 Detroit Auto Show.

Now lets now compare fuel cost. My company, REB Research, makes hydrogen generators that produce 75 slpm of ultra pure hydrogen by steam reforming methanol-water in a membrane reactor. A generator of this type produces 9.5 kg of hydrogen per day, consuming 69 gal of methanol-water. At 80¢/gal for methanol-water, and 10¢/kWh for electricity, the hydrogen costs $2.50/kg., or $5,000 over a 120,000 mile life. This is somewhat cheaper than gasoline, but about twice the dollar per mile cost of a Tesla S if only electric cost is considered. The hydrogen car is much cheaper on a per-mile basis, though when you include the fact that the battery has only a 120,000 mile life. A 120,000 mile life is short for a luxury car, and very short for a truck or bus.

The charge time advantages of hydrogen are extreme for busses and trucks, as the fuel use and battery size is larger, and the range targets are longer. A bus or truck can expect to get 1/4 the mileage of a car; you can build a hydrogen bus with five 20 foot x 8″ tanks of the above construction. Fueled at 5000 psi., such buses will have a range of 420 miles between fill-ups, and a total tank weight and cost of about 600 lbs and $4000 respectively. By comparison, you are unlikely to build an electric bus with more than a 300 mile range, and even this will require a 6000 lb., 360 kWh lithium-ion battery that takes 18 hours to charge from a 20 kW charger. You could cut the charge time in half, to 9 hours a 40 kW charger (100 Amps at 400 V for example), but even that is excessive compared to 10-20 minutes for fueling with high pressure hydrogen.

While hydrogen generators are not cheap — about $500,000 including the cost of a compressor, the cost of a 40 kW DC is not much less when you consider the cost to run a 100 Amp, 400 V line to an appropriate spot for charging. Add to this the time lost by buses having to stand around for hours once or twice per day while the battery charges. Tesla has shown there are a lot of people who value cleaner transport if that comes with comfort and style; a hydrogen car can meet that handily, especially when you consider the comfort of longer range and not needing hours to recharge.

Robert E. Buxbaum, February 12, 2014 (Lincoln’s birthday). Here’s an essay on Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, on the safety of batteries, and on battery cost vs hydrogen. My company, REB Research makes hydrogen generators and purifiers; we also consult.

My failed process for wood to green gasoline

Most chemical authors only publish results from their successful projects, an understandable failing given the cost and work to publish in traditional journals and the lack of interest in flops. But it’s a shame too; it means that no one knows to avoid the mistakes and missteps that previous groups fell prey to.  As a result, half the value of research is lost and labs keep making the same mistakes over and over. It’s a shame too because failure makes for a more interesting story than success (all success stories are similar). The motivation for the failure is usually sound, and perhaps someone will see a way around the problem. Here, on my blog, I’d like to describe a great idea I had that didn’t quite pan out when I tried it: turning wood plus hydrogen into synthetic, green gasoline.

My thinking was based on a few key insights plus my company’s long experience and expertise in reforming alcohols to make hydrogen — based on this, I figured it would be easy to make alcohols by adding hydrogen to cellulose.  The key insights were: (1) Hydrogen is a great auto fuel, that whose single main problem is the need for a way to store and transport it in an energy-dense form, e.g. a high-octane alcohol. (2) Wood + hydrogen should produce a 6 carbon alcohols and similar compounds that would have high-octane and the right vapor — and (best yet) would be soluble in ordinary gasoline. (3) The economics looked excellent because gasoline is currently expensive, while wood is cheap and hydrogen isn’t that expensive, even using electrolysis, and membrane reactors (a major product of our company) had the potential to make it cheaper. (4) The thermodynamics looked good: wood + hydrogen–> alcohols should react exothermically, a big benefit for reactor design.

With all this in place, my only problem would be to design a reasonably cheap process to make it happen at reasonable efficiency. While a fluidized bed reactor seemed like the right way to build, I decided to do development work with a small, packed bed reactor, 8″ long by 3/4″ OD filled with wood chips and iron oxide as a catalyst. I’d heat the reactor and flow hydrogen (plus 5% helium) through, hoping to extract water and gasoline out the other end. I’d had the hydrogen – helium mix left over from a previous experiment, and was paying rental on it, otherwise I would have used pure hydrogen. I used heat tape and a controller to keep the temperature near-constant (not difficult with a small reactor).

I convinced myself, correctly or not, that the helium in the gas mix would help me to control the hydrogen addition better, allowing me to add the right amount of hydrogen. Wood is mostly cellulose, a chain of 6-carbon carbohydrates. Six carbons is, more-or-less, the right chain length for gasoline: C6H10O6. If I added the right amount of hydrogen, and created no new CC bonds, I’d get the really useful alcohols, aldehydes, and ketones I was looking for, e.g. C6H10O, something that I expected would be a cheap, high-octane fuel that would be low polluting and easy on the engine. This process seemed far better and cheaper than trying to make fuel made from syngas: CO +H2, using traditional Fischer Tropsch. I’d get far fewer low molecular weight products like methane, ethane and methanol — things I didn’t want.

Controlling the temperature was key, I thought, to my aim of avoiding dehydration and the formation of new carbon-carbon bonds. At too high a temperature, the cellulose molecules would combine and lose water to form a brown high molecular weight tar called bio-oil, as well as methane and char. Bio-oil is formed the same way you form caramel from sugar, and as with sugar, it’s nothing you’d want to put in a car. If I operated at too low a temperature (or with the wrong catalyst) the reaction would be too slow, and the capital costs would be excessive. I could keep the temperature in the right (Goldilocks) temperature, I thought with the right catalyst and the right (high) hydrogen pressure.

No matter how I did this, I knew that I’d get some carbon-carbon bond formation, and perhaps a little char, but so long as it wasn’t too much it should be manageable. I figured I could hydrogenate the tar and remove the char at the end of the process. Most of the gasoline energy would come from the trees, and not the hydrogen, and there would be little hydrogen wasted forming methane. Trees would always be cheap: they grow quickly, and are great at capturing solar energy. Many cities pay for disposal of their tree waste, so perhaps a city would pay us to take their wood chips. With cheap wood, the economics would be good so long as used all the hydrogen I put in, and got some reasonable fraction of energy from the wood. 

i began my reaction at 150°C with 50 psi hydrogen. At these conditions, I saw no reaction; I then raised the temperature to 200°C, then raised the pressure to 100 psi (still nothing) and then tried 250°C, still at 100psi. By now we were producing water but it was impossible to tell if we were hydrogenating the cellulose to gasoline, or dehydrating the cellulose to bio-oil.

As it turned out we were getting something worse that bio-oil: bio-oil gunk. Instead of the nasty brown liquid that’s made when wood is cooked to dehydration (water removal, caramelization), I got something that was nastier than I’d imagined possible. The wood molecules did not form nice chains but combined to form acidic, aromatic gunk (aromatic in both senses: benzine-type molecules and smelly) that still contained unreacted wood as a sort of press-board. The gunk was corrosive and reactive; it probably contained phenol, and seemed bent on reacting to form a phenolic glue. I found the gunk was insoluble in most everything: water, gasoline, oil, methanol (the only exception was ethanol). As best I can tell, you can not react this gunk with hydrogen to make gasoline as it is non-volatile, and almost impossible to get out of my clogged reactor. Perhaps a fluidized bed would be would be better, but I’m afraid it would form wood clumps even there. 

I plan to try again, perhaps using higher pressure hydrogen and perhaps a liquid hydrogen carrier, to get the hydrogen to the core of the wood and speed the catalysis of the desired products. The key is finding a carrier that is not too expensive or that can be easily recovered.

Robert E. Buxbaum, Dec 13, 2013. Here’s something on a visit to my lab, on adding hydrogen to automobile engines, and on the right way to do science. And here’s my calculation for how much wood a woodchuck chucks if a woodchuck could chuck wood, (100 lbs/ night) plus why woodchucks do not chuck wood like beavers.

Camless valves and the Fiat-500

One of my favorite automobile engine ideas is the use of camless, electronic valves. It’s an idea whose advantages have been known for 100 years or more, and it’s finally going to be used on a mainstream, commercial car — on this year’s Fiat 500s. Fiat is not going entirely camless, but the plan is to replace the cams on the air intake valves with solenoids. A normal car engine uses cams and lifters to operate the poppet valves used to control the air intake and exhaust. Replacing these cams and lifters saves some weight, and allows the Fiat-500 to operate more efficiently at low power by allowing the engine to use less combustion energy to suck vacuum. The Fiat 500 semi-camless technology is called Multiair: it’s licensed from Valeo (France), and appeared as an option on the 2010 Alfa Romeo.

How this saves mpg is as follows: at low power (idling etc.), the air intake of a normal car engine is restricted creating a fairly high vacuum. The vacuum restriction requires energy to draw and reduces the efficiency of the engine by decreasing the effective compression ratio. It’s needed to insure that the car does not produce too much NOx when idling. In a previous post, I showed that the rate of energy wasted by drawing this vacuum was the vacuum pressure times the engine volume and the rpm rate; I also mentioned some classic ways to reduce this loss (exhaust recycle and adding water).

Valeo’s/Fiat’s semi-camless design does nothing to increase the effective compression ratio at low power, but it reduces the amount of power lost to vacuum by allowing the intake air pressure to be higher, even at low power demand. A computer reduces the amount of air entering the engine by reducing the amount of time that the intake valve is open. The higher air pressure means there is less vacuum penalty, both when the valve is open even when the valve is closed. On the Alfa Romeo, the 1.4 liter Multiair engine option got 8% better gas mileage (39 mpg vs 36 mpg) and 10% more power (168 hp vs 153 hp) than the 1.4 liter cam-driven engine.

David Bowes shows off his latest camless engines at NAMES, April 2013.

David Bowes shows off his latest camless engines at NAMES, April 2013.

Fiat used a similar technology in the 1970s with variable valve timing (VVT), but that involved heavy cams and levers, and proved to be unreliable. In the US, some fine engineers had been working on solenoids, e.g. David Bowes, pictured above with one of his solenoidal engines (he’s a sometime manufacturer for REB Research). Dave has built engines with many cycles that would be impractical without solenoids, and has done particularly nice work reducing the electric use of the solenoid.

Durability may be a problem here too, as there is no other obvious reason that Fiat has not gone completely camless, and has not put a solenoid-controlled valve on the exhaust too. One likely reason Fiat didn’t do this is that solenoidal valves tend to be unreliable at the higher temperatures found in exhaust. If so, perhaps they are unreliable on the intake too. A car operated at 1000-4000 rpm will see on the order of 100,000,000 cycles in 25,000 miles. No solenoid we’ve used has lasted that many cycles, even at low temperatures, but most customers expect their cars to go more than 25,000 miles without needing major engine service.

We use solenoidal pumps in our hydrogen generators too, but increase the operating live by operating the solenoid at only 50 cycles/minute — maximum, rather than 1000- 4000. This should allow our products to work for 10 years at least without needing major service. Performance car customers may be willing to stand for more-frequent service, but the company can’t expect ordinary customers to go back to the days where Fiat stood for “Fix It Again Tony.”

Hydrogen versus Battery Power

There are two major green energy choices that people are considering to power small-to-medium size, mobile applications like cars and next generation, drone airplanes: rechargeable, lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen /fuel cells. Neither choice is an energy source as such, but rather a clean energy carrier. That is, batteries and fuel cells are ways to store and concentrate energy from other sources, like solar or nuclear plants for use on the mobile platform.

Of these two, rechargeable batteries are the more familiar: they are used in computers, cell phones, automobiles, and the ill-fated, Boeing Dreamliner. Fuel cells are less familiar but not totally new: they are used to power most submarines and spy-planes, and find public use in the occasional, ‘educational’ toy. Fuel cells provided electricity for the last 30 years of space missions, and continue to power the international space station when the station is in the dark of night (about half the time). Batteries have low energy density (energy per mass or volume) but charging them is cheap and easy. Home electricity costs about 12¢/kWhr and is available in every home and shop. A cheap transformer and rectifier is all you needed to turn the alternating current electricity into DC to recharge a battery virtually anywhere. If not for the cost and weight of the batteries, the time to charge the battery (usually and hour or two), batteries would be the obvious option.

Two obvious problems with batteries are the low speed of charge and the annoyance of having to change the battery every 500 charges or so. If one runs an EV battery 3/4 of the way down and charges it every week, the battery will last 8 years. Further, battery charging takes 1-2 hours. These numbers are acceptable if you use the car only occasionally, but they get more annoying the more you use the car. By contrast, the tanks used to hold gasoline or hydrogen fill in a matter of minutes and last for decades or many thousands of fill-cycles.

Another problem with batteries is range. The weight-energy density of batteries is about 1/20 that of gasoline and about 1/10 that of hydrogen, and this affects range. While gasoline stores about 2.5 kWhr/kg including the weight of the gas tank, current Li-Ion batteries store far less than this, about 0.15 kWhr/kg. The energy density of hydrogen gas is nearly that of gasoline when the efficiency effect is included. A 100 kg of hydrogen tank at 10,000 psi will hold 8 kg of hydrogen, or enough to travel about 350 miles in a fuel-cell car. This is about as far as a gasoline car goes carrying 60 kg of tank + gasoline. This seems acceptable for long range and short-range travel, while the travel range with eVs is more limited, and will likely remain that way, see below.

The volumetric energy density of compressed hydrogen/ fuel cell systems is higher than for any battery scenario. And hydrogen tanks are far cheaper than batteries. From Battery University.

The volumetric energy density of compressed hydrogen/ fuel cell systems is higher than for any battery scenario. And hydrogen tanks are far cheaper than batteries. From Battery University.

Cost is perhaps the least understood problem with batteries. While electricity is cheap (cheaper than gasoline) battery power is expensive because of the high cost and limited life of batteries. Lithium-Ion batteries cost about $2000/kWhr, and give an effective 500 charge/discharge cycles; their physical life can be extended by not fully charging them, but it’s the same 500 cycles. The effective cost of the battery is thus $4/kWhr (The battery university site calculates $24/kWhr, but that seems overly pessimistic). Combined with the cost of electricity, and the losses in charging, the net cost of Li-Ion battery power is about $4.18/kWhr, several times the price of gasoline, even including the low efficiency of gasoline engines.

Hydrogen prices are much lower than battery prices, and nearly as low as gasoline, when you add in the effect of the high efficiency fuel cell engine. Hydrogen can be made on-site and compressed to 10,000 psi for less cost than gasoline, and certainly less cost than battery power. If one makes hydrogen by electrolysis of water, the cost is approximately 24¢/kWhr including the cost of the electrolysis unit.While the hydrogen tank is more expensive than a gasoline tank, it is much cheaper than a battery because the technology is simpler. Fuel cells are expensive though, and only about 50% efficient. As a result, the as-used cost of electrolysis hydrogen in a fuel cell car is about 48¢/kWhr. That’s far cheaper than battery power, but still not cheap enough to encourage the sale of FC vehicles with the current technology.

My company, REB Research provides another option for hydrogen generation: The use of a membrane reactor to make it from cheap, easy to transport liquids like methanol. Our technology can be used to make hydrogen either at the station or on-board the car. The cost of hydrogen made this way is far cheaper than from electrolysis because most of the energy comes from the methanol, and this energy is cheaper than electricity.

In our membrane reactors methanol-water (65-75% Methanol), is compressed to 350 psi, heated to 350°C, and reacted to produce hydrogen that is purified as it is made. CH3OH + H2O –> 3H2 + CO2, with the hydrogen extracted through a membrane within the reactor.

The hydrogen can be compressed to 10,000 psi and stored in a tank on board an automobile or airplane, or one can choose to run this process on-board the vehicle and generate it from liquid fuel as-needed. On-board generation provides a saving of weight, cost, and safety since you can carry methanol-water easily in a cheap tank at low pressure. The energy density of methanol-water is about 1/2 that of gasoline, but the fuel cell is about twice as efficient as a gasoline engine making the overall volumetric energy density about the same. Not including the fuel cell, the cost of energy made this way is somewhat lower than the cost of gasoline, about 25¢/kWhr; since methanol is cheaper than gasoline on a per-energy basis. Methanol is made from natural gas, coal, or trees — non-imported, low cost sources. And, best yet, trees are renewable.

Why the Boeing Dreamliner’s batteries burst into flames

Boeing’s Dreamliner is currently grounded due to two of their Li-Ion batteries having burst into flames, one in flight, and another on the ground. Two accidents of the same type in a small fleet is no little matter as an airplane fire can be deadly on the ground or at 50,000 feet.

The fires are particularly bad on the Dreamliner because these lithium batteries control virtually everything that goes on aboard the plane. Even without a fire, when they go out so does virtually every control and sensor. So why did they burn and what has Boeing done to take care of it? The simple reason for the fires is that management chose to use Li-Cobalt oxide batteries, the same Li-battery design that every laptop computer maker had already rejected ten years earlier when laptops using them started busting into flames. This is the battery design that caused Dell and HP to recall every computer with it. Boeing decided that they should use a massive version to control everything on their flagship airplane because it has the highest energy density see graphic below. They figured that operational management would insure safety even without the need to install any cooling or sufficient shielding.

All lithium batteries have a negative electrode (anode) that is mostly lithium. The usual chemistry is lithium metal in a graphite matrix. Lithium metal is light and readily gives off electrons; the graphite makes is somewhat less reactive. The positive electrode (cathode) is typically an oxide of some sort, and here there are options. Most current cell-phone and laptop batteries use some version of manganese nickel oxide as the anode. Lithium atoms in the anode give off electrons, become lithium ions and then travel across to the oxide making a mixed ion oxide that absorbs the electron. The process provides about 4 volts of energy differential per electron transferred. With cobalt oxide, the cathode reaction is more or less CoO2 + Li+ e—> LiCoO2. Sorry to say this chemistry is very unstable; the oxide itself is unstable, more unstable than MnNi or iron oxide, especially when it is fully charged, and especially when it is warm (40 degrees or warmer) 2CoO2 –> Co2O+1/2O2. Boeing’s safety idea was to control the charge rate in a way that overheating was not supposed to occur.

Despite the controls, it didn’t work for the two Boeing batteries that burst into flames. Perhaps it would have helped to add cooling to reduce the temperature — that’s what’s done in lap-tops and plug-in automobiles — but even with cooling the batteries might have self-destructed due to local heating effects. These batteries were massive, and there is plenty of room for one spot to get hotter than the rest; this seems to have happened in both fires, either as a cause or result. Once the cobalt oxide gets hot and oxygen is released a lithium-oxygen fire can spread to the whole battery, even if the majority is held at a low temperature. If local heating were the cause, no amount of external cooling would have helped.


Something that would have helped was a polymer interlayer separator to keep the unstable cobalt oxide from fueling the fire; there was none. Another option is to use a more-stable cathode like iron phosphate or lithium manganese nickel. As shown in the graphic above, these stable oxides do not have the high power density of Li-cobalt oxide. When the unstable cobalt oxide decomposed there was oxygen, lithium, and heat in one space and none of the fire extinguishers on the planes could put out the fires.

The solution that Boeing has proposed and that Washington is reviewing is to leave the batteries unchanged, but to shield them in a massive titanium shield with the vapors formed on burning vented outside the airplane. The claim is that this shield will protect the passengers from the fire, if not from the loss of electricity. This does not appear to be the best solution. Airbus had planned to use the same batteries on their newest planes, but has now gone retro and plans to use Ni-Cad batteries. I don’t think that’s the best solution either. Better options, I think, are nickel metal hydride or the very stable Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries that Segway uses. Better yet would be to use fuel cells, an option that appears to be better than even the best batteries. Fuel cells are what the navy uses on submarines and what NASA uses in space. They are both more energy dense and safer than batteries. As a disclaimer, REB Research makes hydrogen generators and purifiers that are used with fuel-cell power.

More on the chemistry of Boeing’s batteries and their problems can be found on Wikipedia. You can also read an interview with the head of Tesla motors regarding his suggestions and offer of help.


A visit to the Buxbaum laboratory from Metromedia

It’s a slow news day in Detroit, so the folks from Metromedia came to visit my laboratory at REB Research. You can visit too. We’re doing cool stuff most of the time, we’re working on a hydrogen-fueled plane that stays aloft for weeks (not that cool, actually, the Hindenberg did it in the 30s). On this particular day I’ve got a cool hat on, and a beige suit. I’m putting hydrogen in my car. Hydrogen increases the speed of combustion, and so it adds to milage – or it has when we’ve added it from electrolysis sources.buxbaum-003

The fun thing about science is that there are always surprises.

Adding hydrogen to a Malibu at REB Research

Adding hydrogen to a Malibu at REB Research

Purifying the Hydrogen from Browns gas, HHO, etc.

Perhaps the simplest way to make hydrogen is to stick two electrodes into water and to apply electricity. The gas that is produced is mostly hydrogen, and is sometimes suitable for welding or for addition to an automobile engine to increase the mileage. Depending on the electrodes and whether salt is added to the water, the gas that is produced can be Browns gas, HHO,  town gas, or some relative of the three. We are sometimes asked if we can purify the product of this electrolysis, and my answer is typically: “maybe,” or “it depends.”

If the electrode was made of stainless steel and the water contained only KOH or baking soda, the gas that results will be mostly hydrogen and you will be able to purify it somewhat with a polymer membrane if you wish. The gas isn’t very explosive generally, since most of the oxygen that results from the electrolysis will go into rusting out the electrodes. The reaction is thus, H2O + Fe –> H2 + FeO. To see if this is what you’ve got, you can use determine the ratio of gas production with a simple version of the Hoffman apparatus made from (for example) two overturned glass jars, or by separating the electrodes with a paper towel. You can also determine the H2 to O2 ratio (if you know a bit more physics) from a measure of the amperage and the rate of gas production. The hydrogen you form with steel plates will always contain some oxygen though, as well as some nitrogen and water vapor. While a polymer membrane will remove most of the oxygen and nitrogen in this gas, it won’t remove all, and it will not generally remove any of the water. With this gas, I suspect that you would be better off just using it as it is. This is particularly so if the fraction of oxygen is more than a few percent: hydrogen with more oxygen than this becomes quite explosive.

Since this gas will contain water, you probably don’t want to store it, and you probably don’t want to purify it over a metal, either, There are two reasons for this: the water can condense out during storage, and will tend to rust whatever metal it contacts (it’s often alkaline). What’s more, the small amount of oxygen in the hydrogen is likely to react over a hydrogen storage metal to form water and heat. This may give rise to the explosion you were trying to avoid. This is clearly the quick a dirty approach to making hydrogen.

Another version of electrolysis gas, one that’s even quicker and dirtier than the above involves the use of table salt instead of KOH or baking soda. The hydrogen that results will contain chlorine as an impurity, and will be quite toxic, but it will be somewhat less explosive.The hydrogen will smell like bleach and the water you use will turn slightly greenish and quite alkaline. Both the liquid and gas are definitely bad news unless your aim was to make chlorine and alkali; this is called the chlor-alkali process for a reason. On a personal note, as a 12 year old I tried this and was confused about why I got equal volumes of gas on the cathode and anode. The reason was that I was making Cl2, and not O2: the chemistry is 2 H2O + 2 NaCl –> H2 + Cl2 + 2 NaOH. I then I used the bromide version reaction to make a nice sample of bromine liquid. That is, I used KBr instead of table salt. Bromine is brown, oily, and only sparingly soluble in water.

Another version of this electrolysis process involves the use of graphite electrodes. If you are lucky, this will give you a mix of CO and hydrogen and not H2 and O2. This mix is a called “town gas.” It’s a very good welding gas since it is not explosive. It is, however, quite toxic. If you begin to get a headache using this gas stop immediately: you’re experiencing CO poisoning. The reaction here is H2O + C –> H2 + CO. CO headaches just get worse and worse until you die. If you are not lucky here you can get HHO instead of town gas, and this is quite explosive: H2O –> H2 + 1/2 O2. The volume ratio will be a key clue as to which you are making; another clue is to put a small volume in a paper bag and light it. If the bag explodes with a terrific bang, you’ve made the wrong gas. Stop!

With all of these gases I would recommend that you add a polymer of paper membrane in the water between the electrodes. Filter paper will work fine for this as will ceramic paper; the classic membrane for this was asbestos. If you keep the two product gas streams separate as soon as they are formed, you’ll avoid most of your explosion-safety issues. Few people take this advice, I’ve found; they think there must be some simpler way. Trust me: this is the classic, safe way to make electrolysis hydrogen.

A balloon filled with pure hydrogen will not ignite. To show you, here is a 2.5 min long video where I poke a lit cigar into a mylar balloon filled with hydrogen from my membrane reactor generators. Note that this hydrogen does not even burn in the balloon because it is oxygen free. As a safety check try this with your hydrogen, but only on a much-smaller scale. Pure hydrogen will not go boom, impure hydrogen will. My advice: keep safe and healthy. You’ll feel better that way, and your heirs will be less inclined to sue me.

In case you are wondering how electrolysis hydrogen can add to the gas mileage, the simple answer is that it increases the combustion speed and the water vapor decreases the parasitic loss due to vacuum. I’ve got some more information on this here. I hope this advice helps with your car project or any other electrolysis option. In my opinion, one should use a membrane in the water to separate the components at formation in all but the smallest experiments and with the smallest amperage sources. Even these should be done only in a well-ventilated room or on a car that is parked outside of the house. Many of the great chemists of the 1800s died doing experiments like these; learn from their mistakes and stay among the living.

How hydrogen and/or water can improve automobile mileage (mpg)

In case you’ve ever wondered why it was that performance cars got such poor milage, or why you got such bad milage in the city, the biggest single problem has to do with the vacuum drawn by the engine, some of the problem has to do with the speed of combustion, some has to do with rolling friction, and some with start/stop loss too. Only a very small fraction of the energy is lost on air friction until you reach highway speeds.

Lets consider vacuum loss first as it is likely the worst offender. A typical US car, e.g. a Chevy Malibu, has a 3.5 liter engine (a performance car has an engine that’s much larger). As you toodle down a street at 35 mph, your engine is going at about 2000 rpm, or 33 rps. Since the power required to move the car is far less than the 200 hp that the car could deliver, the air intake is throttled so that the engine is sucking a vacuum of about 75 kpa (10 psi for those using English units). To calculate the power loss this entails, multiply 33*3.5*80; this is about 8662 Watts, or 12 hp. To find the energy use per mile, divide by your average speed, 25 mph (it would be 35 mph, but you sometimes stop for lights). 8 kW/25 mph = .21 kW-hr/mile. One finds, as I’ll show that the car expends more energy sucking this vacuum than pushing the car itself. This is where the majority of the city mpg goes in a normal car, but it’s worse in a high performance car is worse since the engine is bigger. In city driving, the performance mpg will be lower than for a Malibu even if the performance car is lighter, if it has better aerodynamics (it does), and if you never stop at lights.

The two other big places were city mileage goes is overcoming rolling friction and the need to stop and go at lights, stop signs, etc. The energy used for rolling friction is the force it would take to push your car on level ground when in neutral times the distance. For a typical car, the push force is about 70 lbs or 32 kgs or 315 Nt; it’s roughly proportional to the car’s weight. At 35 mph, or 15.5 m/s, the amount of power this absorbs is calculated as the product of force and speed: 15.5*315 = 4882 W, or about 6.5 hp. The energy use is 4.9 kW/35 mph =.14 kWhr/mile. The energy loss from stop lights is similar to this, about .16 kWhr/mile, something you can tell by getting the car up to speed and seeing how far it goes before it stops. It’ll go about 2-3 blocks, a little less distance than you are likely to go without having to stop. Air resistance adds a very small amount at these speeds, about 2000 W, 2.7 hp, or .05 kWhr/mile; it’s far more relevant at 65 mph, but still isn’t that large.

If you add all this together, you find the average car uses about .56 kWhr/mile. For an average density gasoline of 5.6 lb/gal, and average energy-dense gasoline, 18,000 BTU/lb, and an average car engine efficiency of 11000 BTU/kWhr, you can now predict an average city gas mileage of 16.9 mpg, about what you find experimentally. Applying the same methods to highway traffic at 65 mph, you predict .38 kWhr/mile, or 25 mpg. Your rpms are the same on the highway as in the city, but the throttle is open so you get more power and loose less to vacuum.

Now, how do you increase a car’s mpg. If you’re a Detroit automaker you could reduce the weight of the car, or you the customer can clean the junk out of your trunk. Every 35 lbs or so increases the rolling friction by about 1%. These is another way to reduce rolling friction and that’s to get low resistance tires, or keep the tires you’ve got full of air. Still, what you’d really like to do is reduce the loss to vacuum energy, since vacuum loss is a bigger drain on mpg.

The first, simple way to reduce vacuum energy loss is to run lean: that is, to add more air than necessary for combustion. Sorry to say, that’s illegal now, but in the olden days before pollution control you could boost your mpg by adjusting your carburator to add about 10% excess of air. This reduced your passing power and the air pollution folks made it illegal (and difficult) after they noticed that it excess air increased NOx emissions. The oxygen sensor on most cars keeps you from playing with the carburator these days.

Another approach is to use a much smaller engine. The Japanese and Koreans used to do this, and they got good milage as a result. The problem here is that you now had to have a very light car or you’d get very low power and low acceleration — and no American likes that. A recent approach to make up for some of the loss of acceleration is by adding a battery and an electric motor; you’re now making a hybrid car. But the batteries add significant cost, weight and complexity to these cars, and not everyone feels this is worth it. So now on to my main topic: adding steam or hydrogen.

There is plenty of excess heat on the car manifold. A simile use of this heat is to warm some water to the point where the vapor pressure is, for example, 50 kPa. The pressure from this water adds to the power of your engine by allowing a reduction in the vacuum to 50 kPa or less. This cuts the vacuum loss at low speeds. At high speed and power the car automatically increases the air pressure and the water stops evaporating, so there is no loss of power. I’m currently testing this modification on my own automobile partly for the fun of it, and partly as a preface to my next step: using the car engine heat to run the reaction CH3OH + H2O –> CO2 + H2. I’ll talk more about our efforts adding hydrogen elsewhere, but thought you might be interested in these fundamentals.

Hydrogen addition to an automobile engine

Today, I began a series of experiments putting hydrogen into my car engine. Hydrogen is a combustion promotor, increasing the flame speed significantly, even at low compositions, and it has a very high octane value, so it does not cause pre-ignition. I used my Chevy Malibu, shown, and generated the hydrogen using one of our (REB Research’s) methanol-reformer hydrogen generators. I used a small hydrogen generator we sell for gas chromatographic use, and put 280 ccm hydrogen into engine, as shown. This is enough to provide 1% of the energy content about during idle.

I’ve not measured mpg change yet (as a stationary experiment the mpg is 0), but was really looking for outward signs of knock or other engine problems. Adding 280 ccm of hydrogen should increase the flame speed by ~2%, which should increase the degree of high pressure combustion, and this should increase the mpg by about 3% or 4% if you don’t include the hydrogen energy. So far, I saw no ill effects: no ill sounds and no check engine lights.


Hydrogen added to a Chevy Malibu engine at REB Research

About half the hydrogen energy comes from waste heat of the engine, and half the methanol. Either way this energy is very cheap: methanol costs about $1.20/gal, about half of what gasoline does on a per-energy basis.  Next step is to make my hydrogen generator mobile, and check the effect on mpg. I’m glad it worked OK so far. There was a reporter watching.