Hydrogen powered car leaves Bristol for Arkansas

November 2, 2010 Michael Owens

Professor Cliff Ricketts preferred the fuel efficiency of a 1994 Toyota Tercel when compared to other used cars. That's why he gutted its gas tank and fuel lines in favor of water tanks and solar cells.

On Monday morning, the Middle Tennessee State University professor of agribusiness and agriscience started from Bristol on a roughly 550-mile trip to West Memphis, Ark., without a single drop of gas. Powering the car instead was the hydrogen extracted from the water by the solar energy.

"I wanted to show that we had a system in place, in the case of an energy crisis, that every commuter in the country could drive just fine and dandy," Ricketts said.

His goal was to complete the journey with only a single pit stop to refuel. That stop was 287 miles down the road in Murfreesboro, Tenn., where a makeshift service station of pressurization tanks and water awaited.

Tailing the professor in a van was 2008 John S. Battle High School alum Nick Booher, who monitored the jury-rigged Tercel's computer readouts. He is in Ricketts' alternative fuels class.

"It's pretty neat that we're ... burning hydrogen, basically, in a gas motor," he said.

Booher, an animal science major at Middle Tennessee, usually relies on holidays to time his return home. This time, it was a class project that reunited him with his parents for the weekend.

"I'm not sure why (Ricketts) picked Bristol to start," Booher said. "It was just a convenient place for me and him, I guess."

It's not the first time someone has powered a car with water, Ricketts said. And it's not the first trip in a car fitted with solar cells. But it might be the first time both energy sources have been combined under the same hood, the professor said.

Past versions of Ricketts' alternative fuel experiments include engines run on ethanol, soy bean oil, solar power, and each energy source, including gas, at once.

Alongside the converted pickup trucks and Toyota are a few 1970s-model Corvettes.

"The pickup truck really doesn't grab that much attention like the Corvettes do," Ricketts said.

Converting the Tercel cost roughly $4,500. But Ricketts estimated the price would drop dramatically if produced on an assembly line and sold on the mass market.

Ricketts, when asked about the chemical conversion process in the Tercel, discussed cascading systems, electrolysis units, and hydrogen pressurized at thousands of pounds per square inch, all done during a 10-minute stop.

Roughly translated, it means the sunlight filtering through the squeeze enough energy from the hydrogen to drive all day, while at the same time storing enough reserve power to continue through the dark of night.

Retired mechanical engineer and power cell expert Joe Borck, who trailed behind in the van with Booher, retrofitted the Tercel with the water tanks and fuel lines.

"The only noticeable difference ... is we took out the back seat for the tanks," Borck said.

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2.5 / 5 (2) Nov 02, 2010
That's very nice.

Knowing the energy density of hydrogen, 33.3 kWh/kg, and an engine that runs at 20 kW output, and 33% efficiency, and the fact that the mass of hydrogen in water is 1/9th of it, we can calculate that one would have to electrolyze over 4 gallons of water per hour.

Assuming the car is travelling at 60 mph, by the time they reach the 287 mile point, they would have converted approximately 20 gallons of water into fuel.

There's just one niggling problem: the solar panels give them about 100 Watts per square yard, and they need more than 60 kilowatts to run the thing, so the solar panel they must use would actually be the size of someone's yard.

1 / 5 (2) Nov 02, 2010
5 / 5 (1) Nov 02, 2010
That is a good point. They probably are relying an alternator and modified battery to help them convert some of the combustion/mechanical energy back into electrical energy. I'd imagine if you used something like filtered or distilled water and a smaller engine 4 cylinder engine you'd probably be able to get upwards of 50%+ conversion rate for the electrolysis.
5 / 5 (1) Nov 03, 2010
I wish there was more information here, even a picture. My impression is that there are no solar cells mounted on the car -- the hydrogen is produced via electrolysis using electricity produced in stationary photoelectric cells, and then transferred to the car which has been converted to run on hydrogen rather than gasoline.
5 / 5 (1) Nov 03, 2010
That is a good point. They probably are relying an alternator and modified battery to help them convert some of the combustion/mechanical energy back into electrical energy. I'd imagine if you used something like filtered or distilled water and a smaller engine 4 cylinder engine you'd probably be able to get upwards of 50%+ conversion rate for the electrolysis.

Running power back from the engine to the electrolyzer would only make the engine consume more fuel because it has to move the car AND run the alternator, thus requiring more water to be electrolyzed, thus requiring more power, more fuel, more water... etc.

In simpler terms, the engine can't make energy that isn't already there. It all has to come from the solar panels.
4 / 5 (1) Nov 03, 2010
Even if we are assuming a 100% conversion efficiency on all stages from solar to motion, the best there can even theoretically be, you would still need about 200 square meters of solar panel, which, if you lay it on a trailer that was 2.5 meters wide, would be 80 meters long.

There is no plausible way a normal car could carry solar panels as a power source.
not rated yet Nov 03, 2010
But you could easily use your yard at home to make the hydrogen and fill up once/week.

And it appears that they are not holding solar cells on the car. They have a solar field making hydrogen for them halfway to the destination.

It appears to me they are burning hydrogen as fuel and not carrying water in the car.
5 / 5 (2) Nov 03, 2010
This article is extremely cryptic and confusing.
Other information on the internet make it clear that the hydrogen is made separate from the vehicle, and is transferred over at the fuel stop. The car has no solar cells; only pressurized tanks of pure hydrogen which it burns in a modified engine.
not rated yet Nov 07, 2010
In any case, the news is that in case of fuel emergency, some rich dude can put down $100 000 for solar panels to break enough water to drive one car, pretend that it works for everybody by using a cheap clunker to do the actual driving.

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