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Q&A: Why cars aren't running on hydrogen

Honda FCX Clarity, named as 2009 World Green Car, is a hydrogen fuel cell-powered sedan currently available on a limited lease basis. The vehicle’s only emission is water.


Honda FCX Clarity, named as 2009 World Green Car, is a hydrogen fuel cell-powered sedan currently available on a limited lease basis. The vehicle’s only emission is water.

Why cars don't run on hydrogen

I was reading an article from Modern Mechanix dated December 1935 about G.H. Garrett inventing a car engine that ran on water. It says he used an electrolytic carburetor that broke up water into gases and then forced the hydrogen into the combustion chambers for fuel. It also says the only thing that needed to be changed on the engine was adding an oversized generator. Is this just a hoax, or is this real? If it's real, why aren't the auto manufactures expanding on this?

Hydrogen has been used for years in the transportation sector. Astronauts used it to visit the moon; buses chug through today's cities powered by it; and the Hindenburg used it to float (though we know how that ended).

G.H. Garrett did get his device to work, and he reportedly rode it around his hometown of Dallas. But splitting hydrogen from water requires power, and the power output from this device is usually equal to the power needed to get the hydrogen out of the water.

In other words, you'd need just as much energy to power your car as you do now. You'd just have a slightly different type of engine, and you'd have to bring along some water.

Today, the closest thing to Garrett's invention is likely an HHO generator, which splits a combination of water and other chemicals into a type of gas — mostly hydrogen — that can supercharge an internal combustion engine's efficiency.

Car owners can outfit their engines with the devices using any number of kits, most of which are available on the Internet.

The physics and chemistry of the process, though, tend to be inefficient and some users report they do little to improve a gasoline engine's performance. That's why major automakers haven't used the technology more. (Be careful if you decide to install one of these devices, as tampering with your engine could void your car's warranty.)

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and it's a great energy source. That hasn't been lost on automakers, which have been actively developing a fleet of cars powered just by hydrogen, bypassing Garrett's design altogether.

The latest technology uses fuel cells, and mixes hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity for a motor. The only emission is water.

Hydrogen isn't found alone on Earth, and it's best separated from other elements commercially and in large batches. Hydrogen refueling stations, akin to gas stations, have popped up in some states, most notably California.

The difficulty of getting more hydrogen cars on the road is not just the lack of a distribution network, or the high cost, but also public perception. Most Americans can't shake the image of the Hindenburg exploding, and are reluctant to use the same fuel that led to the dirigible's demise.

Automakers such as Honda, Nissan, Daimler and Hyundai are working on hydrogen-powered cars but right now, most hydrogen cars are available only in demonstration models or in a lease in limited numbers.

Q&A: Why cars aren't running on hydrogen 05/07/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 7, 2009 4:31am]
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