From rocket fuel to hydrogen-powered clean cars

Nov 05, 2012
The M25 motorway in UK near Heathrow Airport. Credit: Arpingstone/Wikipedia

(—Austrian manufacturer MagnaSteyr has adapted technology developed for the Ariane rocket to build clean-burning cars that can use hydrogen instead of petrol for fuel. 

Hydrogen is the smallest molecule in the Universe. That makes keeping it in one place very, very difficult. To tap its tremendous potential as a , spacecraft must be able to store at extremely low temperatures, then feed it smoothly to .   

When ESA was developing its hydrogen-fuelled Ariane rockets, it turned to Austria's MagnaSteyr to build tightly sealed fuel lines and double-walled storage tanks capable of trapping and holding liquid hydrogen and oxygen.

"It's a 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."

"The expertise developed working with ESA on gave MagnaSteyr a wealth of experience," says Andrea Kurz from Brimatec, ESA's Technology Transfer Programme partner in Austria.

"It made it possible for the company to enter a new business area. To apply the same technology to a very different high-performance engine, designed for the autobahn rather than outer space."  

MagnaSteyr worked with German carmaker BMW to develop hydrogen storage tanks small enough to fit in the boot of a BMW 7 Series saloon.

The succeeded in creating a production car in 2007 that burned hydrogen as fuel, dubbed the BMW Hydrogen 7.

Ariane flight VA209 in the launch zone. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace/Optique Video du CSG

Space tech fuel tank for ultra-clean motoring 

Years of working on Ariane rockets gave MagnaSteyr critical knowhow, Dr Poellmann says: "We used the experience of designing components for hydrogen to apply the technology in this BMW tank."

It was a significant . For decades, manufacturers have been trying to figure out how to use hydrogen to power cars.

Plentiful and clean-burning, the element has tremendous promise as a green energy source.

"Hydrogen is the cleanest fuel available," he says. "It's a very future-oriented way of generating energy without any pollution."

Essentially the only emission from a liquid hydrogen-powered combustion engine is water vapour.

Magna Steyr Aerospace has developed and produced the tubing system for liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen from tank to Ariane Vulcain engines since 1990 and the seamless welded fuelling tube system for Ariane 5 upper stage ECS-A since 1996. Credit: Magna Steyr Aerospace

The challenge for carmakers is working out how to make use of it. To store as a liquid, hydrogen must be kept at –253ºC, which usually requires constant refrigeration.

BMW Hydrogen 7 cars store 114 litres of liquid hydrogen in highly-insulated fuel tanks instead. The equivalent of 17 m of Styrofoam, the tanks' insulation can keep the hydrogen cold for almost two weeks.

BMW eventually built 100 of the hydrogen-fuelled cars, which also use regular petrol. The luxury sedans are still used to shuttle VIPs at special events.

"We learned a lot with those cars," says BMW spokesman Ralph Huber. "Several million kilometres were driven with them."

Even if the project proved the worth of liquid hydrogen as an almost pollution-free car fuel, it also highlighted some limitations for which technical solutions need to be found before liquid hydrogen driven cars are to be seen everyday on our roads.

The BMW Hydrogen 7 car with its liquid hydrogen-powered combustion engine and a fuel tank developed based on space technology from the European Ariane rocket. Credit: BMW/Magna Steyr Aerospace

One is that as the liquid hydrogen warmed, it boiled into a gas, and was slowly vented off. That meant a driver leaving the car at the airport for two weeks would return to an empty .

And liquid hydrogen can't be found at just any filling station: there are fewer than ten pumps in the world equipped to fuel the cars.

Car companies are also looking at fuel cells, which generate electricity from hydrogen and are easier to work with than liquid hydrogen, though not as powerful.

Even so, liquid hydrogen needs storage and the MagnaSteyr 'space-technology' tanks is a first step along the way.

Whatever form it takes, BMW's Ralph Huber is sure that "In the long term, hydrogen will be one of our solutions for sustainable mobility."  

ESA's Technology Transfer Programme Office (TTPO)

The main mission of ESA's Technology Transfer Programme is to facilitate the use of space technology and systems for non-space applications, and thereby also further demonstrating realising the benefit of the European space programmes to the citizens.

ESA TTPO is responsible for defining the overall approach and strategy for the transfer of space technologies and systems, including the incubation of start-up companies at ESA business incubation centres and related funding.

The office has transferred over 260 technologies since the programme start and is supporting directly and indirectly around 100 new start-ups a year. TTPO has also initiated as a limited partner the Open Sky Technology Fund, a €100 million venture fund which invests in start-ups using space technology.

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not rated yet Nov 05, 2012
Other problems:

-the fuel tank with its insulation takes all the space at the back, so you're left with little room for luggage.
-poor crash safety due to spilling of large amounts of cryogenic liquids, which also happen to be particularily easy to ignite over a very large range of mixing ratios with air. Hydrogen burns extremely violently.
-High fuel consumption and short range, because liquid hydrogen at its boiling point has a density of 2.36 kWh/l compared to gasoline at 8.76 kWh/l which means you need four times the fuel to drive.
-free hydrogen in the atmosphere is a greehouse gas. Yet, you cannot stop the venting because there is no container able to hold the pressure of boiling hydrogen.

Hydrogen (H2) is similar to carbon monoxide in that it acts as an indirect greenhouse gas through its effect on hydroxyl (OH) radicals. By reducing the levels of OH in the atmosphere, hydrogen increases the lifetime of some direct greenhouse gases, such as methane.
5 / 5 (1) Nov 05, 2012
BMW Hydrogen 7 cars store 114 litres of liquid hydrogen in highly-insulated fuel tanks instead. The equivalent of 17 m of Styrofoam, the tanks' insulation can keep the hydrogen cold for almost two weeks.

Woha. That is pretty cool (no pun intended). I wasn't aware that insulation technology was THAT good.

That meant a driver leaving the car at the airport for two weeks would return to an empty fuel tank.

Not the most pressing of scenarios. Still: creating hydrogen isn't rocket science. So it may well be possible to rig up a small contraption that just needs a power outlet and some water to generate enough H2 to get to the next filling station.

The brittleness issue also seems on the verge of being solved as graphene is vacuum tight. So a few layers of graphene on the inside of any containment structure should make it proof against embrittlement.

poor crash safety

Which of the two would you rather sit in?
1 / 5 (1) Nov 05, 2012
free hydrogen in the atmosphere is a greehouse gas.

Apples and oranges. Yes: hydrogen is a greenhouse gas. But it's only the accidental release that would be put into the atmosphere (not as with current motors where 100% of all carbon put in ends up as a greenhouse gas). And with the necessity for containment/tightness of seals for hydrogen even that spillage is minimal.
The only thing that really remains is the "2 weeks at the airport" problem. But if we have filling stations then there should be the possibility to dump excess hydrogen at those filling stations if you're planning to not use your car for such a long time.
Then again we'd have to look at projected volumes and effects. Not all greenhouse gases are "created equal". H2 and OH produce H20 (a greenhouse gas) but it stays in the atmosphere only a short time (hours to days). CO2 stays for a century on average.
not rated yet Nov 05, 2012
Which of the two would you rather sit in?

Of course I'd sit in the car with the gas flare piped safely and deliberately out of a hole through the trunk. What happens though when the car is sideways in the ditch, with all the piping ruptured and the liquid spilling everywhere?

Explosive limits (% in air).
gasoline: 1.4 - 7.6
hydrogen: 4 - 75

Hydrogen burns explosively even at very rich mixtures, whereas gasoline normally just flames, and that's why cars only explode in the movies.

But it's only the accidental release that would be put into the atmosphere

It's not accidental that about 5% of all the hydrogen produced in the world is lost through venting, because you cannot build a container that can physically hold it in. The smaller the container, and the more of them, the more venting.

The venting happens steadily and continuously, because the fuel is always boiling slowly to keep the liquid liquid. Leave the car standing for less than a day, and it must vent.
not rated yet Nov 05, 2012
H2 and OH produce H20 (a greenhouse gas) but it stays in the atmosphere only a short time (hours to days). CO2 stays for a century on average.

The fact that H2 and OH create water is completely irrelevant in terms of the greenhouse effect.

The -OH radicals are needed to remove methane and other similiar GHGs from the atmosphere. When you release hydrogen, it slows down the breakdown of methane by consuming the ions that would otherwise react with methane, and as a consequence the concentration of methane in the atmosphere increases.

not rated yet Nov 05, 2012
A little numbers exercise:

If 100 liters of hydrogen will vent out of a tank in two weeks, that means we are losing about 7 liters of liquid hydrogen per day just standing still. Given the energy density of hydrogen, and the efficiency of a fuel cell, that represents about 8-9 kWh of useful energy at the motor, which means that you must drive at least 35 miles every day or else the pressure in the tank will rise and some of the hydrogen will vent out.

It's impossible to contain the pressure, because hydrogen has an expansion ratio of 851. The pressure inside the tank would quickly rise to 10,000 PSI and more.

I think I remember BMW stating that their hydrogen tank can go a maximum of two days without venting, but that's obviously subject to how full the tank is to begin with. Fresh from a refill, the hydrogen won't have any room to evaporate into.