Hydrogen is a bad car fuel, but maybe a decent boat fuel?

Thursday, February 13th, 2020

Hydrogen is a bad car fuel, Toyota has learned from the Mirai hydrogen experiment, but it may make a decent boat fuel, as it hopes to demonstrate with its Energy Observer, a former racing catamaran with some new additions:

The Energy Observer uses a pair of wind turbines and a vast array of solar photo-voltaic cells to both propel the vessel and provide power to its on-board hydrogen-creating electrolysis process. Sea water is essentially zapped into its component parts and the isolated hydrogen is captured to be expended inside the Toyota fuel cell generator. The process emits nothing but oxygen and water out the “tailpipe”.

Toyota Energy Observer

In optimum conditions, the boat is propelled entirely by wind and solar. A rack of lithium cells onboard keep the thing running when it’s cloudy or calm winds, and Toyota’s fuel cell system takes over to produce the boat’s propelling energy at night.

I’m thinking it might be a better airship fuel.


  1. Alrenous says:

    Nuclear power is safer; perceived to be more dangerous.

    Hydrogen lifting gas, while not actually safer than helium, is probably negligibly less safe.

  2. CVLR says:

    Okay, I laughed.

  3. Dave says:

    Solid-fuel nuclear reactors are reasonably safe when watched over by capable white male engineers, the hiring of which is now illegal. Liquid-thorium reactors could be made inherently safe, just run it until it breaks. But environmentalists shut down all permits for new reactors decades ago, so nothing will happen until the USA breaks up.

  4. Dave says:

    As for carbon-neutral shipping, why not just use sails?

  5. Kirk says:

    End of the day, the best and highest use for hydrogen is as an easily stored hydrocarbon, preferably one created to minimize pollution.

    There really isn’t a good way to store or transport hydrogen, period. Every single alternative falls down on the amount of waste you get from leaks, and how it tends to break down the containers it is stored in.

    If,however, you put it into a benzene ring, guess what? Easily stored, easily handled with existing infrastructure, and much more energy-dense than anything else we have at the present time.

    TBH, I think the IC engine has a lot of life in it, and the eventual advent of man-made low-pollution hydrocarbon fuels will keep them around for a long, long time. Do it right, and there won’t be any really significant pollution, because all that’s going to be in the fuel will be carbon and hydrogen. Hell, you could probably sell it as a way to get carbon out of the atmosphere, if you played your cards right.

    All that’s really needed is cheap electricity, which you could get from things like thorium reactors, or fusion. Only thing missing is the will, and the common sense to guide us.

    Electric and anything fueled by hydrogen are a huge waste of time, due to lack of energy density with anything we can make, and storage issues.

  6. TRX says:

    “The process emits nothing but oxygen and water out the ‘tailpipe’.”

    That’s something that’s widely repeated across the media, and even in some SAE and IMechE papers, but it’s simply not true. Given the politicization and fund-mongering usually driving those papers, it might be termed “a lie.”

    Hydrogen and oxygen, burned together, will do as described. But air is mostly nitrogen, and hydrogen and air burn down to, among other things, a class of compounds known as “oxides of nitrogen”, which are not just EPA-regulated pollutants, but the big wazoo; NOx was what was responsible for the brown and yellow smog some cities used to be covered with. And it’s a real bastard to deal with; it forms at low-ish temperatures and pressures, and it took the 3-way catalysts to do much about it. And now the EPA is going after the Diesels, which formerly got a free pass, but also make it as part of the combustion process. Hydrogen burns hotter than either, and makes proportionally *more* NOx than hydrocarbon fuels; it burns “clean” in places like California for the some reason Diesels used to; legislative decree, not chemistry.

    The chemistry of hydrogen combustion is covered in Glassman’s Combustion, which is the bible for people who want to kill things with fire.

  7. Sam J. says:

    Dave,”As for carbon-neutral shipping, why not just use sails?”

    Too slow. Time is money.

    I wonder if we could not turn all our water reactors into thorium reactors. If you lined the walls with ceramic it would keep the steel from reacting I believe. There are many castable high temperature materials that could work.

  8. Dave says:

    Sam, time isn’t money when you’re unemployed. Cargo ships often reduce speed to save fuel, especially when there’s a slowdown in global trade — your receivers are happy to delay your arrival because their warehouses or storage tanks are full of unsold inventory, and your next cargo called to cancel.

    Sails do however require masts, and retrofitting existing cargo ships with sturdy masts might not be feasible.

  9. Sam J. says:

    I didn’t add a more lengthy explanation because I assumed it wasn’t need but…the ships cost money, the cargo cost money the crew cost money. The faster they deliver the faster all these resources make more money doing what their prime function is, delivering goods. I’m not saying I don’t like wind driven ships or that it wouldn’t be nice to have them. It’s just the way it is. They have to pay for these ships and to do so they must move faster than the wind. The very fastest sailing ships ever the Clipper ships just could not make enough profit compared to a ship that no matter what made steady progress with fueled engines. A shame but that’s the way it is.

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