The Car of His Dreams

Amory Lovins says gas prices won't stick, but even if they do, he's still stuck on his Hypercar.
Fortnightly Magazine - February 15 2001


Amory Lovins says gas prices won't stick, but even if they do, he's still stuck on his Hypercar.

This just in—if you can believe Amory Lovins, who has the news posted on the network of Web sites sponsored by his Rocky Mountain Institute.

Sheikh Yamani, the Saudi oil minister for a quarter century up until 1986, reportedly stated last July, according to Britain's , that world oil prices will plummet in this decade, due in no small part to competition from hydrogen-powered fuel cells.

"This is coming before the end of the decade and will cut gasoline consumption by almost 100 percent," Yamani is quoted as saying, in warning of potential economic consequences for Saudi Arabia.

"Thirty years from now there will be a huge amount of oil, and no buyers. ... Thirty years from now ... oil will be left in the ground."

Is this legit? Even those who believe in the benefits of a hydrogen-based economy might question how the energy industry could possibly make such a transition. Yet Lovins has ready answers for would-be critics.

To Lovins, an early proponent of renewables, conservation and "negawatts," that car of yours sitting out in the middle of your office parking lot could become a 20-kilowatt fuel cell generator, but only if it's built light enough and efficient enough to be able to run the fuel cell off of its own onboard hydrogen gas storage tank. Once that's possible, there's no need to first construct an interstate hydrogen gas pipeline, since the building where it's parked would produce its own hydrogen from natural gas, and pipe it to vehicles sitting in the parking lot with little more fanfare than an upgraded garden hose.

Then, as fuel cells proliferate, the hydrogen infrastructure would expand in tandem, complete with hydrogen pipelines and hydrogen "gas stations." Initially, though, fuel cell "Hypercars," (the service marked name given to ultralight, ultra-low-drag, hybrid-electric vehicles by RMI's spin-off Hypercar Inc., could be leased to people who work in buildings with fuel cell generators, presumably in areas with tight emissions standards, such as Southern California.

In this issue, Lovins and colleague Brett Williams offer their vision of how the United States might create a hydrogen-based energy economy. And in the following interview, Lovins expands on his article and shares some updates on what's been happening of late.

How safe is an ultralight, carbon fiber car? Would it fare well in a collision-say, against a tractor trailer?

Probably not a tractor trailer, because that will mash anything except another one or a locomotive, I suppose. But actually an ultralight advanced-composite car can be safer than a conventional car. The advanced-composite materials in a correctly designed crush structure can absorb five times as much crash energy per pound as steel, and do so more evenly so that the crush link or stroke can be used twice as effectively. It is possible, for example, to design—and Hypercar Inc., has designed—an SUV replacement Hypercar vehicle comparable in interior volume and superior in load hauling and other attributes to the most popular mid-sized SUVs.

[This concept car] is simulated to have an undamaged passenger compartment in a head-on, fixed-barrier crash at 35 mph; you simply replace the front end, but the people would be fine and their safety compartment undamaged. ... It would have a 330-mile driving range on 7.5 pounds of hydrogen. That's equivalent in gasoline terms to 99 mpg. ... These are remarkable materials. Such a car would weigh less than half as much as the most popular mid-sized SUV, but it could haul 1/8 more weight. It could also go 0 to 60 in about 8.2 seconds.

Then what's keeping these things off the road today?

The technology exists, but integrating it optimally takes another two years of detailed engineering design and manufacturing process development and validation. However, the information published by Hypercar Inc. indicates this can happen sooner and at lower cost with their design than industry norms ... for a conventional car.

Is Hypercar Inc. partnering with major automakers?

Hypercar Inc. aims to support the industry's transition. ... The only two of our many industrial partners that we're currently authorized to disclose are BP Amoco and Sun Microsystems. ... I can say that ... one of the European firms that we've been working most closely with in developing the concept vehicle is not just an automotive engineering house and Formula One race shop, but also an automaker in its own right.

Fuel Cell Century?
A Look at Last Year's Technology

  • January 2000. Ballard's Mark 900 75-kW fuel cell cuts mass 30 percent and bulk 50 percent. GM shows the five-seat, 108-mpg Precept fuel-cell concept car.
  • February. DaimlerChrysler shows the five-seat, ~70-mpg, thermoplastic/aluminum ESX-3 with 1.5-liter diesel hybrid, lithium-ion buffer battery, at estimated price of $28,500.
  • March. Ballard announces an automotive PEM fuel cell goal of $20 per kilowatt stacks and $80 per kilowatt systems.
  • April/May. Three German firms offer hydrogen-powered fuel-cell buses for sale.
  • May. GM says its "long-term vision is of a hydrogen economy." Texaco enters the fuel-cell/H2 business with ECD/Ovonics. The TES consortium (DaimlerChrysler, BMW, VW, MAN, Shell, ARAL, RWE, and the German government) switches its default fuel choice from methanol to direct hydrogen.
  • June. Ford confirms its chairman's view that 20 percent of cars on the road by 2010 will be hybrid-electric. GM aims to make "hundreds of thousands of fuel-cell vehicles annually before the end of the decade."
  • August. GM says it will always stay ahead of Ford, confirms that within a few years it will be selling full-sized, hybrid-electric pickup trucks. Environmentalists cheer the combatants on. Several California cities confirm commercial orders for fuel cell buses.
  • September. Volkswagen's chairman targets 2003 production of the 1 liter/100 km (236 mpg) city car, mainly carbon fiber and apparently an engine hybrid.
  • October. GM sells its first hybrid buses. Daimler-Chrysler slates a 20 percent-more-efficient Dodge Durango hybrid for 2003, and shows a doubled-efficiency luxury fuel cell SUV. Ballard's chairman confirms several automakers will start 2003 low-volume production of fuel cell cars.
  • November. BMW reports a carbon fiber concept car, saying that it is "absolutely feasible" that production could start within five years. -C.J.L.

Do you contend that parked cars with fuel cells will actually displace central power stations?

There are many other competing ways of providing electrical services. Most of the electricity now sold could be more easily displaced by end-use efficiency. ... I'm speaking to you from a 4,000-square-foot house, for example, whose household functions use five bucks a month worth of electricity. ...

Then there is competition from improved grid efficiency, which buys you a few percent, and from, of course supply-side resources. I think there, we will see—and we're already seeing—a dramatic shift toward distributed resources. ... Plug-in Hypercar vehicles would, of course, be one of the competitors, and I think they would be a pretty effective one because the car is already paid for as a means of mobility, the hydrogen production will already be largely paid for for other purposes like running fuel cells in buildings ... and the infrastructure necessary to connect parked cars to nearby hydrogen sources and to the grid is the only significant marginal investment, and it's pretty small. ... Of course you'll be providing the electricity at the time and place where it's most valuable, so with real-time pricing and locational rents, it should be a very attractive part of the automotive value proposition.

... [A] full Hypercar fleet in, say, the United States would represent about five or 10 times the generating capacity that all power companies now own. So, it doesn't take many people accepting the value proposition of earning back maybe up to a third or a half the cost of owning their car this way to put at least all the central stations out of business, and I think it would give the other distributed resources a run for their money.

Once we manufacture hydrogen right at the gas wellhead, as you suggest, would converting natural gas pipelines for hydrogen transport leave downstream gas users out in the cold?

I think some of the gas pipelines would continue to carry natural gas, but others would gradually shift over to hydrogen. Basically, the newest gas pipelines often have metallurgy and seals that are suitable for carrying hydrogen. The old ones, typically at an intra-city and distribution level, often do too, because many of them are used to carry town gas, which has a high hydrogen content. The bulk of the [middle-aged] trunk pipelines would require conversion which can apparently be done at reasonable cost ... and of course the compressors would have to be changed. ...

Could power producers convert their natural gas turbines to run off hydrogen?

Yes, in fact, there is a lot of aerospace work on hydrogen turbines, and Boeing among others has done a lot of work on a liquid hydrogen fuel aircraft concept, which could be quite advantageous because although the liquid hydrogen is moderately bulky, it's much lighter per unit of energy than aviation kerosene because you're not carrying the carbon. ... So you could use hydrogen in everything from domestic cooking—which they did in the days of town gas, more or less—to both micro- and macro-turbines.

However, if you have a choice, you probably would be happier with a fuel cell than you would with a turbine. ... It's the most reliable generating technology we know because it has no combustion and no moving parts.

... One other wild card likely to emerge in this decade is the reversible fuel cell, which can convert electricity into hydrogen or hydrogen into electricity with equal ease, and comparable efficiency. Proton Energy Systems in Connecticut is already shipping early models. ...

I think [reversible fuel cells] could turn out to be the method of choice for distributed systems like residential photovoltaics. Having affordable local storage changes everything, and it makes intermittent renewables like photovoltaics and wind far more attractive because you can make them a firm dispatchable resource.

How has the recent gas price run-up affected your strategy?

[Assuming the present spikes stay up], which I think is not very likely—this brings out a strategic advantage of the hydrogen approach: You're not depending on any single fuel. You can make hydrogen just as easily and cheaply out of off-peak retail electricity [through electrolysis.]... In addition, and not often talked about, there are two other classes of options for making hydrogen. One is non-electric renewable approaches, using biomass or direct photolysis—that is, sunlight plus a catalyst splitting water-that works in the lab, and people are trying to scale it up. ... [Another] option is to reform liquid hydrocarbons. ... If the carbon were sequestered and the hydrogen sold, then you'd have that option.

In the beginning, how would cars "gas up" with hydrogen while sitting in an employers' parking lot?

It's not difficult to pipe hydrogen around safely. ... You piggyback at first on the miniature reformers that you put in buildings to run their fuel cells for cogeneration and trigeneration, because the reformer will typically be sized to peak building loads that seldom occur, so the rest of the time it has some spare capacity that can be used to produce hydrogen for storage and resale to nearby vehicles.

You say that fuel cell prices must drop first. What's new on this front?

The factories for early volume production are now built or are being built, and this year you should see some very interesting products entering the market. I think the first applications will be in buildings and buses. (And we're talking here about PEM [proton exchange membrane] fuel cells. [Others] have been on the market for several years and there are hundreds of them in the field.)

I think the most important argument about fuel cell cost is that you can afford to pay several times more per kilowatt if your car is so efficient that it needs several times fewer kilowatts to make it go. That's exactly what Hypercar vehicles do.

Why not put the converter right in the car, as many automakers have attempted?

A Hypercar vehicle, being so efficient, needs much smaller hydrogen tanks, which are small enough to package conveniently within the vehicle. ... [Hydrogen tanks] wouldn't fit conveniently in ... an ordinarily inefficient heavy steel vehicle. That's where the automakers started thinking about fuel cells, and they said, "Oh dear, the tanks won't fit."

So the only way to be able to get decent driving range is to take compact liquid fuel ... and reform it into hydrogen on board. Almost all the problems that people talk about with fuel cells are actually reformer problems, not fuel cell problems. ... By the time you get through, a good gasoline reformer fuel cell car is probably no more efficient, and maybe less efficient, than an efficient internal combustion engine gasoline car. So by going to the reformer you gave up most of the reasons for wanting the fuel cell in the first place.

How will fuel cell cars compete with today's hybrids?

[The Honda Insight and Toyota Prius hybrids] are very good cars. ... But I think engine hybrids starting in 2003 and accelerating rapidly over the next two years after that will be leap-frogged by fuel cell hybrids. At least eight major automakers have announced volume production of fuel cell cars starting between 2003 and 2005. I think it also actually offers interesting possibilities for the [vehicle] fleet that utilities themselves operate.

Do you have a message for the utility industry?

It behooves utilities that are modernizing and automating their distribution systems to design them for bidirectional flow. ... In the future, with or without plug-in Hypercar generators we will certainly have a lot more distributed generation so it's important that your distribution system be designed and built to handle gracefully power flows in any direction.

Articles found on this page are available to Internet subscribers only. For more information about obtaining a username and password, please call our Customer Service Department at 1-800-368-5001.