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Hydrogen Power

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High School Kids Claim Hydro-Solar Powered Car


By James Donahue


When I worked for the White Mountain Independent in the late 1990s, I wrote stories about some great competitive meetings among Arizona high school automobile mechanic groups.


Encouraged by the schools and local merchants that donated worn out old cars for the students to tinker with, they sought to rebuild these vehicles into innovative redesigned cars powered by non-carbon based fuels.


Even in those days these whiz kids were proving that electric, methane, and natural gas engines were within our grasp. This year the Arizona Republic in Phoenix reports that students at Central High School took the top prize with a pickup powered by an engine operating on solar panels that drew hydrogen from tap water.


If this is true, and there is no reason to believe a prestigious newspaper like the Republic would generate a false report about something like this. these kids, operating on a shoestring budget and throw-away junk automobile parts, did something the top engineers for all of the auto companies combined have been struggling with for years.


It isn’t that hydrogen engines were hard to build. The infamous German Zeppelin Hindenburg was powered by a hydrogen burning engine when it went down in flames in the late 1930s.


The problem lies in the generation of enough hydrogen gas to run all of the engines we have powering all of the automobiles of the world. Hydrogen is not a natural fuel that can be simply mined from pockets in the ground, or pulled out of the air. It is plentiful in nature, but only in minuscule amounts. It must be separated from the other elements.


As the students at Phoenix Central found, the easiest place to get hydrogen was by using electrolysis to split water. With the help of an alkali like potassium hydroxide, a current is passed through the water to generate bubbles of hydrogen that collects at the cathode, and the oxygen gathers at the anode. A simple generator running off the engine and/or a few solar panels like the ones used on their pickup might be enough to power the electrolysis device, or hydrogen generator.


Cory Waxman, the student’s instructor, made it clear that the student-built car is only a demonstration project and not a practical vehicle. It has four solar panels and a hydrogen-generating system that makes only enough fuel in a day to move the truck a few miles.


Waxman said his students worked on the project for four years before bringing it to life. He believes it is the only self-sustaining hydrogen vehicle in the world that runs on a conventional internal-combustion engine.


“Nobody has ever made a car that runs on sunlight and water,” he said. “There are other cars that run on hydrogen, but they don’t make their own fuel.”


So are the Phoenix students onto something, or is their exhibit just a fluke? While hydrogen is an ultra clean burning fuel, and is sparking a great deal of interest among people as an alternative fuel, opponents argue it is too costly to produce enough of this gas to provide for the world’s needs.


The problem is quite simple. It takes energy to separate hydrogen. The current method of collecting this gas as a fuel calls for burning hot fossil fuels. There is debate over whether solar panels will ever be adequate to be a suitable substitute.


That the Bush Administration is encouraging the development of new and improved methods of generating hydrogen may be a step in the right direction.


German inventor Rudolf Erren was among the first to study the use of hydrogen in combustion engines in the 1920s. He developed a successful method of conversion and built what is remembered as the Erren engine. It was said he put that engine into an estimated 2,000-3000 cars, busses and trucks.


Unfortunately it was hydrogen that inflated the Hindenburg when it went down in flames in New Jersey. The tragedy pointed to the dangers of using hydrogen as a fuel and led to the thrust toward gasoline engines. At the time, crude oil was cheap and many thought there was going to be an endless supply.


Of all the car makers, BMW has apparently been leading the pack in the contemporary development of combustion engines that use hydrogen.


That band of high school students in Phoenix apparently have proven the concept of running a vehicle on hydrogen generated from energy from the sun works. Now the engineers at the big automakers need to use their magic to make the concept work in ways that will benefit everybody. 


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