Malibu laboratory spearheads research on hydrogen-powered vehicles

HRL scientists, including John Vajo (pictured), in collaboration with scientists at General Motors and leading academic and scientific institutions, are investigating and developing new materials to meet the challenging requirements of hydrogen storage fuel cells. Photo courtesy of HRL Laboratories

HRL Laboratories continues its quest to find the most effective means of solid-state hydrogen storage.

By Stephen Dorman/ Special to The Malibu Times

In the not-so-distant future, hydrogen-powered automobiles are expected to replace hybrid vehicles as the most environmentally friendly, consumer conscious cars on the market. This year alone, four major auto manufacturers-DaimlerChrysler, Mitsubishi, Suzuki and General Motors-have introduced prototype hydrogen cars. The Toyota Quantum Toyota Prius H2 Hybrid, a hybrid electric vehicle converted to run on hydrogen, is already commercially available.

Behind the hydrogen-powered future is local Malibu-based HRL Laboratories, which is spearheading research on how to expand hydrogen fuel capacity in cars.

One of the main benefits of using pure hydrogen (usually obtained from decomposition of methane, and sometimes from water using electrolysis) as a power source is that it uses oxygen from the air to produce only water vapor as exhaust, helping to significantly reduce the source of atmospheric pollution.

While not a new concept-different variations of hydrogen-fuled vehicles have been in existence for decades and many high-speed race cars, submarines, buses and space rockets already run on hydrogen in various forms-it appears as if the technological development of the vehicle and rising consumer demand are on a collision course.

According to a late-May article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, during a recent speech to the Automotive Press Association in Detroit, Ballard Power Systems Chief Executive Dennis Campbell predicted that commercially viable fuel cells could be on the market by 2010.

“The fact that hydrogen fuel cells will and must replace the internal-combustion engine is no longer a question,” Campbell said. “There is a gathering storm that will fundamentally change our way of life, and we believe hydrogen fuel cells have the power to change the world.”

Cleaner cars, greater fuel efficiency, less dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil; there are a great deal of reasons the government, automobile manufacturers and consumers are excited about the possibilities of the new hydrogen car. But there is also still a great deal of research and application that needs to be done before hydrogen cars can be converted into practical forms of transportation.

Helping lead the development of the hydrogen car is HRL Laboratories, a Malibu-based research company that is investigating solid-state hydrogen storage. For more than a half century, HRL has been at the forefront of research in fields such as microelectronics, phototonics, and information and system sciences. Opened in Culver City in 1948, and originally named Hughes Research Labs for its founder Howard Hughes, HRL relocated its facilities to Malibu in 1960, where it now encompasses 72 acres of land in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains.

HRL Chief Executive Officer Matthew Ganz, Ph.D., said roughly 60 percent of the laboratory’s funding comes from its three parent companies-General Motors, Boeing and Raytheon-with the additional funding coming from commercial and government contracts.

“GM has internal research capability,” Ganz said. “I believe we are the only external entity that is officially affiliated with GM … and, as far as I know, we are the only jointly owned research and development corporation. It turns out to be a very unique model.”

In one of its many ongoing projects, HRL is currently working with GM to improve and expand existing hydrogen fuel capacity in GM vehicles. According to E: The Environmental Magazine, GM’s latest fuel-celled vehicle prototype, the Sequel, can carry eight kilograms of hydrogen and travel as far as 300 miles on a single trip. The researchers at HRL are optimistic their findings over the next few years can nearly double the hydrogen fuel-carrying capacity of the Sequel.

“The Holy Grail has always been to make a solid-state sponge that would take up hydrogen and could release hydrogen,” HRL lab director Leslie Momoda said. “That would be how you supply fuel to your fuel cell.”

In order to produce desired results, HRL scientists have narrowed the focus to storing hydrogen in metal hydrides-basically letting the metal absorb the gas as opposed to the current systems of storage in large, onboard gas or liquid tanks. By bonding the hydrogen with the metal in a solid state storage process, researchers can greatly expand the amount of hydrogen being stored on the vehicle.

The hydrogen tanks being used at the present time must be expanded in size in order to store more hydrogen. Adding more bulk to a vehicle already small in stature can limit the car’s power and effectiveness, making the need for alternative storage solutions all the more important.

“[Metal hydride storage] has the best shot at meeting the Department of Energy’s specifications and requirements for fuel-celled vehicles,” Momoda said.

To make the research worthwhile, she added, the scientists must test to make sure enough fuel can be stored for trips exceeding 300 miles, and the tank has to be able to be refueled in an adequate amount of time.

“We think the metal hydrides have the best shot at meeting all those goals,” Momoda said.

Hydrogen storage research at HRL is nothing new. The company has been affiliated with GM since 1985 and has been working on a variety of hydrogen-storage systems for seven years. GM Vice President Larry Burns has said his company is committed to supplying market-ready, fuel-celled vehicles by 2010. Momoda, meanwhile, believes HRL can produce the best possible storage capacity solution needed to make the vehicles practical for the everyday driver before GM’s targeted date.

But the future of hydrogen-powered cars does not end with the development of solid-state hydrogen storage. There is also the question of having an adequate number of refueling stations available to the general public. During his election campaign, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed the creation of a “hydrogen highway” with a fueling station located approximately every 20 miles. The governor also eyed 2010 as a target date for the creation of the hydrogen highway.

“It is still dependent on how we store the hydrogen,” Momoda said. “Are we talking about compressing a gas? Are we talking about swapping out a cartridge? Are we talking about pumping liquid? Those issues still have to be [addressed]. We have to figure out how we’re going to store the hydrogen first, and then the infrastructure becomes another issue.”