Thrawn Rickle 24

Electric Cars — Dream or Reality

© 2003 Williscroft

Why have pollution-free electric cars never caught on?

Of the many reasons, the most pertinent is the relatively short range of every “practical” electric car developed thus far. Electric cars run on stored electricity. Most research has centered on more efficient batteries. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of a large number of fine scientists and engineers, battery development has been slow with disappointing results.

When all is said and done, the most practical battery still is a bank of lead-acid cells—basically a bunch of car batteries. Lead-acid batteries are expensive and heavy. It takes twenty or more to keep an electric car running for about a hundred miles.

This might work for commuting, but you had better stay near an electric outlet! As a result, electric cars have never caught on—they’re just not practical in today’s hectic world.

Then along came Roger Billings, well known hydrogen researcher.

I first met Roger in 1980 at the Third World-Hydrogen Conference in Tokyo. I was there presenting a paper on solar power satellite production of hydrogen. Roger’s presentation followed mine. He had developed a working model of a hydrogen powered internal combustion engine. He was not the first to do this, but he had developed one that functioned beyond the limits that researchers in this field thought were absolute. When a staid English professor (the grand old man of hydrogen-fueled internal combustion engines) interrupted Roger’s presentation to inform him that his results were impossible, Roger offered to fly the professor by first class to his lab to inspect a working model.

Billings doesn’t believe in limits—which is why he has extended the limiting envelope again.

A fuel cell is an electricity generating device. Stored hydrogen is fed into it under proper controls. Inside the cell, hydrogen combines with oxygen from the air to form pure water and electricity. It’s that simple—no by-products, no pollution, absolutely nothing but pure water and electricity. NASA has used fuel cells since the early manned space flights, but fuel cells have always been exotic, expensive toys outside the space community.

Billings has made the fuel cell practical and relatively inexpensive. His demonstration car can travel 300 miles on one fill-up of hydrogen. At current prices, as a function of distance driven and typical gasoline cost, this translates into an equivalent gasoline price of $1.10 a gallon. The only current drawback is that you cannot drive up to the nearest gas station and “fill ’er up” with hydrogen—yet.

One of the remaining problems is a cheap and practical source of abundant hydrogen. Although hydrogen is one of the more abundant elements on the surface of our planet, most of it is tied up in seawater. It takes power, lots of it, to liberate this hydrogen so it can be used elsewhere. The remaining hydrogen is locked up in natural gas for the most part, with some more available from crude oil. Here, once again, it takes lots of power to liberate it.

We have a planet-wide infrastructure dedicated to generating gasoline from crude oil. The capital investment is enormous, and it cannot simply be ignored. Shec Labs in Saskatoon, Canada, has developed and patented a catalytic method of generating hydrogen from natural gas. The process is nearing commercial capability. In the short term, this technology can begin to replace the gasoline generating infrastructure, so that the invested capital can continue to work and pay dividends to investors, while the industry itself shifts to processes that produce materials instead of something to burn.

More exciting for the future, however, is another Shec development. Shec, Solar Hydrogen Energy Corporation, started out in 1996 when Bob Beck developed a process for producing commercial quantities of hydrogen from water using sunlight. The process has now reached the commercial implementation stage, and a pilot project plant is being constructed. This has the potential for making the dream of a practical electric car a reality.

Fly into any major city on a sunny day. The pall of brown smog hanging over the region will amaze you. Step out into any city street and listen—really listen to the noise level. We are buried in a sea of automobile generated noise and fumes.

The Billings fuel cell backed up by the Shec process offers a realistic, practical solution. The Billings fuel cell overcomes the chief objection to electric cars: short range. And the Shec process makes it possible. An electric car can accelerate fast, can be quick and responsive, can be everything we have come to appreciate in personal transportation—without the noise, the heat, the pollution, or the consumption of irreplaceable resources.

With the power source problem virtually solved, researchers should quickly develop ways of extending the range even further. We can expect to see practical flywheels and motor-generator devices to recover energy when the electric car slows down. These and other developments will eventually double the 300 mile range. That will bring the price down to about 50¢ a gallon.

The Shec process offers an even larger benefit that goes far beyond the impact of electric cars, even though this, by itself, would revolutionize life on Earth. In my article Energy Sources: Solar Power Satellites & Hydrogen I discuss how we can solve the Earth’s energy problems for all time by using a combination of solar energy collecting satellites in orbit that beam the collected power to equatorial marine locations where it can be used to generate hydrogen from seawater. I originally presented a landmark scientific paper on this subject to the Third World-Hydrogen Energy Conference in Tokyo in 1980. At that time, however, there was no practical way to use the incoming power to generate hydrogen.

Shec has solved that problem. We are now on the verge of a new paradigm in energy production and consumption. That it will happen ultimately is inevitable.

What we need is that it happen sooner rather than later. That’s worth expending some effort to make it happen.

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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