Fuelcelldriven Design Freedom

General Motors's new Sequel fuel-cell concept vehicle (right) contains enou drive 300 miles, the minimum acceptable range. It does so by fitting about seven kilograms of hydrogen into its 11-inch-thick "skateboard" chassis (bottom left), which also contains almost all the crossover SUV's operating systems. The Sequel demonstrates how all-electric power trains will free auto designers to rethink the configuration of future models. Because strictly mechanical components can be replaced by fully electronic counterparts, interior layouts can be opened up (bottom right). "Look at all the space you get when you don't need to work around a big steering column," says Robert Bonaface, GM's director of advanced design. "We even had enough space to place a good-size storage bin in the dashboard which is unheard of. Parents are going to love this."

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which could set off chemical reactions that generate greenhouse gases. Finally, using fossil fuels to make hydrogen takes more energy than that contained in the resulting hydrogen itself.

Researchers at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory and Cerametec in Salt Lake City have developed a way to electrolyze water and produce pure hydrogen with far less energy than other methods. The team's work points to the highest-known production rate of hydrogen by high-temperature electrolysis. Their new method involves running electricity through water that has been heated to about 1,000 degrees C. As the water molecules break up, a ceramic sieve separates the oxygen from the hydrogen. The resulting hydrogen has about half the energy value of the energy put into the process, which is better than competing processes.

Hydrogen proponents contend that arguments over infrastructure constitute a red herring. "U.S. industry currently produces 50 million to 60 million tons of hydrogen per year, so it's not like there's no expertise in handling hydrogen out there," Campbell notes. But automakers have a somewhat different perspective. "Fifty to 60 percent of the problems we have with our fuel cells arise from impurities in the hydrogen we buy from industry," complains Herbert Kohler, vice president of body and power-train research at DaimlerChrysler. "The chemical industry needs to do their homework."

Byron McCormick, GM's executive director of fuel-cell activities, likens investment in building a hydrogen infrastructure in the 21st century to the investment in railroads in the 19th century or to the creation of the interstate highway system in the 20th century: "There'll be a point relatively soon at which these kinds of how-do-you-get-it-funded decisions will be more important than the technology," he predicts.

Resolution of the myriad remaining technical and market issues will determine whether the transportation linchpin of the proposed hydrogen economy, the commercial fuel-cell vehicle, arrives in 10 years or 50. ®

Steven Ashley is a staff technology writer and editor.

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