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At long last, a do-it-yourself hydrogen fuel-cell kit

Hydrogen fuel-cell cars eventually will eliminate U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

With a fuel cell, hydrogen produces electricity to propel vehicles.

No gasoline, no emissions.

But automakers say it could be 10 years or more before they can produce hydrogen-powered vehicles for the masses.A company called United Nuclear says it can speed the process. It sent an e-mail stating that it will produce hydrogen conversion kits for "individual owners to adapt their gasoline internal combustion engine vehicles to burn hydrogen."

Of course, converting your gas engine car to run on hydrogen is one thing ... finding a station that pumps hydrogen to fill it is quite another.


United Nuclear said each kit "will include a device for making hydrogen at home."

Can't wait.

As soon as we get the VCR to stop blinking 12:00 since the last time the power went out, the next item on the to-do list is going to be convert the car and start producing hydrogen in the garage.

But before proceeding with haste, we called on Mr. Webster, the dictionary guy, to learn whether gloves have to be worn when producing hydrogen.

According to Webster, hydrogen is a "colorless, odorless, highly flammable gas."

Colorless and odorless fine, but highly flammable means ignites and burns easily--cause for concern.

So back to United Nuclear's sales pitch.

The e-mail says you can produce hydrogen at home very simply by replacing the shingles on your house with solar panels to create the electricity needed to make it.

If you'd rather not re-roof the house, you can acquire a wind turbine to produce electricity to make hydrogen.

Once produced, you have three choices to store hydrogen in your vehicle, United Nuclear says.

- As compressed gas, though by doing so United Nuclear warns, "you'll be driving a giant bomb" and "in a collision expect to die in a huge fireball/explosion."

General Motors, for one, disputes the bomb charge, saying compressed hydrogen is 20 times lighter than air and escapes in a narrow, vertical plume if the tank is ruptured whereas gasoline pools and could engulf a car in flames.

- As a liquid, though, United Nuclear says hydrogen must be kept at "400 degrees below zero." That would mean if you spill some on your shoe when filling the tank, say goodbye to your shoe--and the toes inside.

- The third option, the one United Nuclear advises, is to store the hydrogen in a tank filled with hydrides, a chemical that bonds with hydrogen and releases the fuel after you heat the hydrides.

And you thought this would be difficult.

But a call to United Nuclear burst the bubble.

Bob Lazar, co-owner and chief researcher for the Sandia Park, N.M., firm, said there's no set price for the kit as yet because "we have no kits available now."

There's no one kit that fits all vehicles, he said of a kit now being tested on a Chevrolet Corvette and Mitsubishi Endeavor sport-utility.

"You'd have to custom-tailor the kit to each vehicle, and as it now stands, you'd have to be a mechanic to do that."

Another teeny problem.

"It takes two days to fill [the car's tank]."

Editorial Notes: Jim Mateja stumbles into a few of the technical problems associated with hydrogen fuel from the consumer's end, and a few of the problems associated with producing it. One he missed was the so far uselessly short life of automobile fuel cells. [20 Feb 05] United Nuclear as it turns out is a small business supplying scientific equipment including radioactive isotopes to hobbyists. The following comments were made at the time somewhat brashly on the assumption that the company had a greater interest in the nuclear industry. So the speculation is undoubtably false however I've levet the comments here as it is possible that some part of the nuclear industry might adopt the tactics discussed: We might ask why a company called United Nuclear is distributing solar panels? Most likely, United Nuclear would like to see hydrogen cars on the road because using renewables, while it makes a good sales pitch, would be hopelessly inadequate at producing enough hydrogen to sustain the suburban way of life as we know it. With lots of hydrogen vehicles sold, and fossil fuels depleting fast, the pressure would soon be on for nuclear to provide the electricity to make hydrogen. Nuclear energy has a less than impressive Energy Returned on Energy Invested ratio once decomissioning of the plant is considered. The extra energy transformations required to produce and burn hydrogen could make the whole nuclear/hydrogen enterprise a net energy loser, whilst leaving behind a toxic legacy. United Nuclear are betting that at least the hype will be enough to rejuvenate the nuclear industry, but we're not so sure that hydrogen powered cars will ever get past the hype stage. -AF

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