Hydrogen Power

It is one of the most abundant elements on Earth. Pound for pound, it packs more energy punch than most other fuels: it has four times more energy than coal, three times more energy than fuel oil, and two and a half times as much as natural gas. When used as a fuel, it produces only clean water vapor and no "greenhouse gases." Some experts call it a perfectly pristine fuel.

What is it?

Well, if you somehow missed the headline of this story, it is hydrogen, a nearly ubiquitous substance that is generating a great deal of interest from the alternative fuel community. And while some may debate the need for alternative fuels, there is little doubt that heat is growing under the hydrogen movement. In fact, some crystal ball seers are predicting a "Hydrogen Economy" powered by an abundant, cheap source of energy that doesn't require drilling and won't despoil the coastlines. They point out that hydrogen is used in many industrial processes to make products we use every day: cooking oils, peanut butter, soap, insulation, metals, drugs, vitamins, adhesives, cosmetics, ammonia, fuels and Benjamin Braddock's favorite, plastics.

One company high on hydrogen's possibilities is Startech Environmental Corp., which is not a transportation company but a high tech waste-recycling firm. Startech is so convinced of hydrogen's promise as a motor vehicle fuel, it uses a hydrogen-powered vehicle at its Bristol, Connecticut, demonstration and training center. Interestingly, aside from the Shell Hydrogen and Sunline Transit Agency logos, the casual observer would see nothing very different about the hydrogen-fueled Ford pickup truck. And that is intentional. Startech believes that keeping the vehicle operation as familiar as possible will help encourage the use of hydrogen.

The demonstration vehicle is equipped with a four-cylinder engine and a standard transmission. Like a typical automobile, the engine both propels the car and generates enough electricity to power ancillary systems like lights, heater, and ventilation. Of course, instead of running on gasoline the truck uses hydrogen as its only fuel, a so-called direct-use hydrogen vehicle. Startech officials are quick to point out that the vehicle does not use fuel cells, nor does it use a hybrid system similar to those used by the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight. According to Startech, the vehicle gets good mileage and is easy to re-fuel.

Perhaps more interesting than the vehicle itself is where its fuel comes from: trash. Startech is a leader in what it calls plasma waste remediation and recycling technology. The Plasma Converter system is a process whereby waste materials continuously fed into the system are safely and economically destroyed, reformed, and recovered by the Startech's molecular dissociation and closed-loop elemental recycling process.

Though we don't suggest that you try it at home, the conversion is said to work this way: the converter ionizes air so that it becomes an extremely effective electrical conductor. This allows the converter to produce a lightning-like arc of electricity that is the source of an intense amount of energy transferred to the waste by radiation. The interior temperature of the lightning arc in the plasma plume within the vessel can be as high as 30,000 degrees Fahrenheit -- three times hotter than the surface of the sun. When waste materials are subjected to the intensity of that energy within the vessel, the excitation of the molecular bonds is so great that the waste materials' molecules break apart into their elemental components (the actual atoms). It is the absorption of this energy by the waste materials that forces elemental dissociation resulting in the complete and total destruction of the waste.

While hazardous waste destruction is Startech's main business, the ability to recover potentially valuable commodity products is becoming more important to its customers every day. One of the principal products recovered is Plasma Converted Gas (PCG), from which commercial-grade hydrogen can be separated.

So instead of drilling for oil, will we soon be nuking our garbage into hydrogen motor fuel? Certainly it could happen, but obstacles still exist in the road to hydrogen-powered vehicles, as we will discuss next week in the second of our two-part series.

Tom Ripley writes about alternative fuels and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.