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European Space Agency working on using rocket fuel in cars

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November 8, 2012

MaganStyer hydrogen fuel handling system (Image: MagnaSteyr Aerospace)

MaganStyer hydrogen fuel handling system (Image: MagnaSteyr Aerospace)

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At first glance, hydrogen seems like a brilliant alternative fuel for motor cars. It burns so clean that all it produces is water, it’s the most abundant element in the universe and it doesn’t need all those rare earth elements and heavy metals that electric vehicles depend on. The only trouble is, it’s very difficult to handle. In an effort to make hydrogen cars practical, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Austrian automotive manufacturer MagnaSteyr are adapting technology developed for the Ariane rockets so that it can be used in cars, as part of ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme.

Hydrogen has a few problems as an alternative to petrol. It has a very low energy density, which means you need more of it to do the same job. Though it burns remarkably clean, most of what the world uses comes from fossil fuels, and there are currently only ten fueling stations worldwide. The two biggest problems, however, are that hydrogen molecules are so small that they can easily slip through seals, and the most efficient form of hydrogen is as cryogenic liquid. True, you can refuel a hydrogen car in minutes, but handling a fuel that's cooled to 33 degrees above absolute zero and won’t stay where it should is the definition of “tricky.”

Hydrogen fuel tank for the Hydrogen 7 (Image:  Magna Steyr Aerospace)
Hydrogen fuel tank for the Hydrogen 7 (Image: Magna Steyr Aerospace)

In 2006, BMW unveiled its hydrogen car, the Hydrogen 7. It was based on the 670 Li and could run either hydrogen or petrol in its untuned six-liter twelve-cylinder engine, that accelerated the car from 0 to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 9.5 seconds. The hard part wasn't altering the engine. It was how to handle the 114 liters (30 gal) of liquid hydrogen.

This is where MagnaSteyr came in. MagnaSteyr was responsible for the systems used in ESA’s Ariane rockets, which burn liquid hydrogen. The company developed tightly-sealed fuel lines and double-walled storage tanks as well as the technology needed to feed fuel to the engine. The latter is particularly important because a tight curve in a pipe can heat fuel as it passes through, with disastrous results.

An Ariane rocket (Image: ESA/CNES/Arianespace/Optique Video du CSG)
An Ariane rocket (Image: ESA/CNES/Arianespace/Optique Video du CSG)

“It’s a technical challenge to handle that correctly,” says Gerald Poellmann, the head of Magnasteyr’s Hydrogen Center of Competence. “The tolerance areas are very small, the sealing needs to be tight, the materials can’t have any cracks, you need to prevent evaporation through the materials.”

This technology not only allowed BMW to adapt the engine to use hydrogen, but also to make a fuel tank that was small enough to fit in the boot, yet could store the fuel for up to two weeks.

The Hydrogen 7 (Image: BMW/Magna Steyr Aerospace)
The Hydrogen 7 (Image: BMW/Magna Steyr Aerospace)

After several million kilometers of driving, the strengths and limitations of the technology have become apparent, such as the tendency of the cryogenic fuel to boil away. The difficulty in handling the fuel also suggests that hydrogen fuel cells may be more practical, though liquid hydrogen would still need to be handled in any supply system.

Only 100 Hydrogen 7s were built and some are still used by BMW for shuttling VIPs, but many problems still remain. Still, the potential of a fuel medium that can be moved about and handled like natural gas, yet burns much cleaner, means that whether in an internal combustion engine or a fuel cell, hydrogen may make the practical jump from rockets to motor cars. ESA believes that its technology transfer policy will be part of this jump.

Source: ESA

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
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10 Comments

Whilst hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements in the universe it is highly reactive and does not exist in its natural state. A great deal of energy needs to be expended in order to produce gaseous hydrogen and even more to cool it to a level where is exists as a liquid. Hydrogen and a viable alternative to fossil fuels, in my opinion, will only occur when we can create a system of interconnected energy production devices that allow us to utilize otherwise wasted energy to produce hydrogen. I am sure that advances are being made in this technology also.

Mark Digby
9th November, 2012 @ 01:36 am PST

They don't consider hydrogen storage in metallic zinc or magnesium,and producing H2 on demand in the car.The reaction is simple: Mg + 2 H2O -> Mg(OH)2 + H2. The oxidized Magnesium or Zinc oxide can be reduced to metallic form in a solar furnace.The resulting Mg or Zn powder is perfectly stable,and can be shipped safely to it's point of use.

The Israelis were working in collaboration with the Swiss to produce a solar furnace,but I haven't heard anything about it lately.

michael_dowling
9th November, 2012 @ 06:30 am PST

Hydrogen, like natural gas, should be used to compress air and charge batteries for hybrid vehicles. That is the highest and best use of these two abundant and low pollution (in the holistic sense of that word) fuels. They are both better suited to stationary power production, in part because of their relatively low energy density. More to the point, existing gas stations could easily be converted to alternative "filling" stations; some even offering standardized exchangeable "power cells" for vehicles as diverse as rental cars to transport trucks. Its well-tested model and one that will not disrupt an already efficient series of people and product distribution systems...

Mirmillion
9th November, 2012 @ 07:17 am PST

couldn't direct electrolysis i.e. just before the fuel injectors work?

separate the H2 and the O2, hydrogen goes into fuel induction system, introduce pure oxygen (no dirty pollution), and voila, water vapour exhaust!

maybe supercharge or turbocharge the exhaust, and add another 25 - 70 % energy out

i am not an engineer so i don't know the feasibility of such a system, or if it would end up weighing as much as the car, or causing any vehicle fitted to have to grow in size to accommodate.

surely that such a system would be feasible in maritime applications at least.

water (H2O) has a mass of 1.0, compared to petroleum at - 0.71. but not a serious disadvantage

Vito
9th November, 2012 @ 07:30 am PST

Burning hydrogen in an internal combustion engine makes use of just one-half the energy carried by the H2, when compared to feeding the H2 to a fuel cell.

Fuel cells have plenty of problems of their own (cost, durability, etc), but throwing away one-half the energy is a big factor to consider when assessing the idea of using H2 in piston engines.

Stuart Brown
9th November, 2012 @ 08:46 am PST

Hydrogen may be the most abundant fuel in the universe, but unless you are harvesting it from the universe in a cost competetive manner, that fact is the very definition of "irrelevant"

. If one wishes to use hydrogen in an engine, I would suggest a Stirling Cycle engine.

I am often reminded that because hydrogen is so difficult to contain, Stirling engines are not practical. Somehow the 93% output (compared to hydrogen) of a Stirling using helium as the working fluid is deemed impractical(!?!)

Burnerjack
9th November, 2012 @ 12:24 pm PST

Use hydrogen peroxide instead-

now,that's some proven rocket fuel for cars!

If you use a level of distlled purity that is moderately safe to handle,

you can PERHAPS further distill it on board

(as required)

into a readily yburnable level.

The issue here is that whatever you use,

you are turning it loose on the general public.

Public transportation,railroad and other fleet users are the only place something like this is likely to gain expedient usage,

especially at first.

CALTRANS burned up some experimental buses trying to get this going.

They gave that up.

Oregon won't even let citizens fill their own gasoline cars-

mandatory assistance is required instead.

It's pretty much that way everywhere

concerning the handling of propane re-fueling.

That's why exchanges are so popular.

What do you think this will be like?

How much&how long will it take to convert gas stations?

Honestly,

more should be done with Natural Gas-

it is MUCH farther along and requires

MUCH less infrastructure adaptation.

Of course,

there's always bicycles and cyber commuting for more people

than are actually doing it.

If we're all broke and on welfare we'll just be walking anyway if we have anywhere to go.

At least obesity should become less of a problem,

especially if food stamps are cut back.

Then we'll have other problems....

Oh,well,

as far as energy goes,

A proper Neighbourhood Electric Vehicle is my personal answer

with charging by a combination of alternative energy sources.

THE MAIN THING IS:

effective use of miles traveled.

Since I really only need to go about 15 miles 2-3 times a week,

it is totally do-able.

I go on 150 mile round trips 2-3 times a month and I use diesel for that.

Wasted miles and inefficient vehicles are the real problem.

If we all had free energy and cars that ran on water and everybody could just go on sufficient welfare at the same time,

what would society really become like?

Not better,

I'd imagine.

In theory,

everything would shiny with wishful thinking but what would actually happen?

Yes,

we need cleaner fuel but anything that is too complicated or expensive to transition to

is not likely to happen-

especially in a timely fashion.

This is all just stalling for time and showing illusions of progress.

More usage of natural gas and more efficient part-time electric vehicles are a better immediately accessible response,

as far as I'm concerned.

Biomass fuel systems are even better but they tend to run dirtier as far as

"greenhouse gases" go.

If the extreme alternatives were available TODAY,

how long would they really take to implement?

Griffin
9th November, 2012 @ 12:54 pm PST

After an accident the clean up crew has less work than with regular fuel.

Robert Filzbock
10th November, 2012 @ 02:02 pm PST

There are three requirements for Hydrogen (H2) vehicle utilization, making it, storing it and delivering it to power vehicle. Storing: tanks exist which hold over 10 kpsi (700 bar) pressure and ~11,400 psi holds the SAME energy equivalent as the liquid form of H2 (LH2), macht nichts. Delivery: powering fuel cell electric drive is ~35% efficient at best. Powering ICE (internal combustion engine) in air could benefit by direct injection (DI) of H2, since compressing the air/(H2) fuel mix changes the autoignition temp to limit the compression ratio (C/R). Same is true for natural gas (CH4), so diesels running on CH4 are compression limited. However, if DI of CH4 with small % of H2 in it benefits would abound. Or, just DI of H2. Making: I like the photovoltaic DC and H2O feeding an rPEM (reverse Proton Exchange Membrane). Process pressurizes product H2 in one collector and O2 into the other. Now if one jazzes up the ICE with DI H2 and DI O2 you have DI ICE water out the tailpipe. Two strokes and tall gears are all you'll need!

Oxirane
13th November, 2012 @ 12:25 pm PST

"doesn’t need all those rare earth elements and heavy metals that electric vehicles depend on."

Not sure what these rare earth and heavy metals are, that electric cars need. Lithium in batteries is the third lightest element and is abundant. Motors are made out of aluminum and copper, also neither rare earth or heavy. Maybe there's a tiny amount of neodymium if the motor is a permanent magnet synchronous motor but that's about it. Oh, and all the metals used in an electric car, including the lithium in the batteries remains in the car for the life of the car are are 100% transferable, reusable or recyclable.

-dphiBbydt
17th November, 2012 @ 08:37 pm PST
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