PORTLAND, Ore.—Hydrogen fuel can power the internal-combustion engines in today's automobiles with a simple conversion, according to Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), which embarks this weekend on a coast-to-coast demonstration run.
Using hydrogen fuel produced by splitting water molecules with electrolysis, a converted Toyota Tercel will make the 2,600-mile coast-to-coast journey without using a single gallon of gas, according to MTSU.
"We want to show America that it does not have to pay up to $5 a gallon for gasoline from foreign oil," said Cliff Ricketts, a professor at MTSU. "In fact, if a crisis came in the Middle East, we could very quickly install the hydrogen infrastructure along our interstate highways to fuel all our cross-country vehicles."
Today, a vehicle can be converted to hydrogen for less than the premium buyers are already paying for electric vehicles--about $7,300 from services like Quantum Fuel Systems Technologies Worldwide Inc. (Lake Forest, Calif.) or about $5,500 for the do-it-yourselfers like MTSU. Then you can produce your fuel at home using a commercial electrolysis unit, either powered from the grid or for free from a solar-panel array.
Commercial electrolysis units can cost thousands of dollars, too, but this week the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) presented to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS, Alexandria, Virginia) a roadmap for increasing the efficiency of electrolysis by combining the photovoltaic (PV) cells with the electrolysis unit by coating them with specially developed catalyses. Improved efficiency would bring down the cost of electrolysis, but MTSU counters that making hydrogen with PV cells can actually turn a profit today.
Professor Cliff Ricketts inspects his Toyota Tercel converted for hydrogen fuel in the coast-to-coast demonstration planned this weekend.
For instance, the Tennessee Valley Authority pays 20-cents per kiloWatt to users putting power on the grid from PV cells during the day while the light shines, but charges as little as eight-cents while drawing power at night to spit-water molecules with electrolysis. As a result, in Tennessee at least, you can make hydrogen essentially for free.
"We have produced all the hydrogen we need for the coast-to-coast trip using power from the grid, but because they pay us more to put power on the grid from our solar cells than they charge us when we use grid power for electrolysis, we actually have a surplus in our account," said Ricketts.
Ricketts' trip this weekend—with backup driver Terry Young—will require a pit crew following in a truck with the hydrogen fuel on-board, since today there is no hydrogen-economy infrastructure. Following in the support truck will be Ricketts' pit crew, including MTSU students Arad Alexander, Travis Owen, Mike Sims, and Paul Ricketts as well as Ricketts' youngest son, Owen, who is now a student at the Tennessee Technology Center (Murfreesboro).
The trip from Tybee Island, Georgia, near Savannah, will proceed down Interstate 40 through Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and finally to the shores of the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach, Calif.. By ending in California, where gas has soared to as high as $5 per gallon, MTSU intends to demonstrate that all the U.S. needs to get off the foreign-oil addiction, is the the motivation to convert its vehicles and energy infrastructure to clean burning hydrogen fuel.