Forget hydrogen -- just inflate your tires if you want to save the environment. Readers respond to Katharine Mieszkowski's "Hyping Hydrogen" and Patrick Di Justo's "Spaced Out."

Published February 11, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

[Read the story.]

Another point not often mentioned is that there really is no convenient and safe way to store hydrogen, since it is extremely volatile and has to be in a tank and under pressure, and there is no infrastructure for filling up cars. (Technically, you can probably make a strong-enough tank that will withstand impact from a car collision, but is anyone really going to feel safe riding with their own personal potential bomb, not to mention the attitude we have toward transportation devices that might be easily converted to terrorist weapons.)

So the focus for the convenient source of hydrogen is gasoline, a complex hydrocarbon, which is in a form that is easily transportable (gas tanks), whose volatility is acceptable, has the infrastructure for delivery (gas stations) and is supposed to be easily broken down into hydrogen. The car will basically carry gas, which will be broken down by a mechanism in the car to release the hydrogen for the fuel cell, and the result from this process will be the hydrogen, but the byproduct of this process? "Presto!" Carbon dioxide, which is the evil greenhouse gas.

No doubt this process will avoid many of the emissions related to smog, which are the result of burning the gas, as opposed to breaking it down without burning, but it will not substantially improve carbon dioxide emissions.

Only way to avoid that is to use less gas, also known as better gas mileage. Cut gas consumption in half and you cut carbon dioxide emissions in half.

Currently we own two cars, one 2001 model and the other a 2002 model, which basically cut carbon dioxide emissions in half due to doubling of the mileage per gallon of gas. In addition, these cars cut smog-producing emissions by approximately 90 percent.

This is current technology that has been on the market since the fall of 1997, which we have used for over 30,000 miles in our family. With no mechanical problems whatsoever.

The car? The Toyota Prius.

So much more could be done if the $1.2 billion proposed for hydrogen research was given as a $2,000 tax credit for a hybrid vehicle purchase. This would basically result in 600,000 credits being available. A credit at that range makes the hybrid competitive with conventional technology. Oregon gives a $1,500 credit and you should see how many hybrids are on the streets here. With an additional $2,000 federal tax credit, they would probably be the bestseller in the state.

That would make a difference in the short term, with tremendous cumulative benefits over the long term.

Besides, once that level of production is reached, all of the hybrid technology will move over into the conventional fleets of automakers. We see it now occurring with Toyota's hybrid minivan in Japan and the Lexus they will introduce in the U.S. later this fall. Honda moved their technology from the original Insight into the Civic.

And if the improved mileage from hybrid technology were coupled with stricter CAFE standards, so that the improved gas mileage didn't result in bigger cars or worse gas mileage with other cars in the car company's fleet, you could make a real difference with no pain.

Speaking of having gain with no pain, if everyone who owns an SUV or a pickup truck just made their second car a hybrid like a Prius or Civic, great strides would be made.

In reality, to make hydrogen cars eventually work, all of the technology that has been developed, and will be developed for hybrids, will need to be used too. The fuel cell car will be a hybrid, but instead of the gas engine as the source of the electricity that runs the electric motor, it will have a hydrogen fuel cell generating that electricity. But it won't have the extra power of the gas engine, which is also used directly to move the car to rely on, so it will have to depend solely on the electric motor for its movement. Therefore, all technology that minimizes the use of power (electricity) will be important, otherwise the fuel cell and the storage and processing components for the hydrogen will need to be oversized.

Fact of the matter is that what I drive now is pretty much as clean as any hydrogen fuel cell car that will probably be commercially produced in the next 15 years. Wasn't there a slogan out there "Tomorrow's Technology Today?" I guess Detroit didn't mean it.

So now you know why Bush likes hydrogen cars.

These are strange times.

-- George Mardikes

One important point left out of your recent article on the hydrogen economy was the infrastructure required to support it.

America has a lot of cars. And to support those cars, there is a ratio of approximately 350:1 of people to gas station/convenience stores. It's very easy to get a fill-up and a six-pack in the States.

Where are all the hydrogen fill-ups going to come from? Hydrogen is notoriously difficult to store (it "leaks out" through the structure of most construction materials) and maintain (remember the Hindenberg?). Further, a universal storage and dispensing scheme has not been devised so that "one pump fits all."

It will require a lot of hydrogen-burners on the road to create a business model for companies to build the fill-ups. I'm not holding my breath for the day when I can silently roll up to my local 7-Eleven, with my car puffing water vapor from its tail pipe, and get six liters of H2 and a six-pack.

-- J.P. DeFord

There's an old saying that, in war and politics, opponents come to resemble each other.

Bush, with his hydrogen fuel cell program, is dealing with the critics of his petroleum and environmental policies in the same way that Saddam Hussein is dealing with the United Nations and their demands for disarmament and weapons inspections -- by obfuscation and deceit.

-- Jim Martino

What about natural gas? It is my understanding that it burns much cleaner than gasoline or diesel oil. Many school districts run their school buses on natural gas; why can't natural gas motors be offered to consumers?

One problem is infrastructure, but how hard would it be for gas stations (at least in urban areas already piped for natural gas) to install natural gas dispensers? And would it be that hard to come up with some sort of device one could have in one's garage that would allow one to refill one's tank from the house's natural gas supply?

I have also read that cooking oil can, with minimal re-processing, be converted into a diesel fuel which burns much cleaner than standard petroleum-based fuel. Could some program not be instituted to collect used frying oil from fast-food restaurants, snack food factories, and similar mass users of vegetable oil, reprocess it, and then sell it as fuel?

And what about agricultural waste? Could we not give farmers assistance and/or incentive to build methane plants to process the manure to extract the methane? The gas could be burned to generate electricity, with any surplus the farmer does not use sold to the local electric co-op/company. The residue could be used for fertilizer.

I'm not an engineer or scientist, and there may well be problems with the above solutions that I don't know enough to see -- but still, they are (I think) worth investigating. If they have been investigated and found wanting, what are the problems? (I've not been able to find any explanations.)

-- Bruce Alan Wilson

Katharine Mieszkowski hit it on the head, exposing Bush's hydrogen initiative for the window dressing that it is. She correctly suggests the proper focus: things we can do now. But even before we achieve valuable milestones like integrated starter generators, or clean diesel electric hybrids, there is something we can do this afternoon: inflate our tires to the right pressure. If the President asked each gas company to support our troops by providing motorists with free air, like in the old days, we'd all be more secure and richer, to boot. Then he could boost the gas tax, say a penny per gallon, and reward drivers who support the troops, were he so inclined.

-- Mark Shapiro

An article about how Bush is not doing enough to support alternative fuel sources is sponsored by the Infiniti FX45? I have to say, I love the irony.

-- Lesley Waxman

[Read the story.]

How can we now question whether sending people into space is truly "necessary"?

Humanity has lost enough people already, who died believing that exploration is necessary.

If we turn away from this now, we will profane their memories, and they will have died for nothing.

-- Kevin Wright

Patrick Di Justo's article, while interesting and curiously sentimental, is ultimately unconvincing. He does not -- and possibly he cannot -- produce any reason why manned (as opposed to unmanned) expeditions are necessary or desirable, except perhaps to encourage scientific enthusiasm among an extremely small gaggle of lucky schoolchildren. He admits that manned space travel is "solely to gather scientific data," but this can be done (and is done) without humans aboard, nearly always with much better results.

As Paul Krugman pointed out this past Monday in his excellent New York Times essay, until a major breakthrough in propulsion technology occurs, manned space exploration is little more than a public relations endeavor. NASA should focus instead on achieving such a breakthrough and in the meantime should discontinue the construction of spacecraft that rely on engineering that, with relatively minor advances, is basically 40 years old. Until then, we will be much better off -- and learn much more -- with space exploration that is unencumbered by the distractions of manned missions and their inevitable disasters.

-- David Cloyce Smith

The only reason to go to space given in the article "Spaced Out" by Patrick Di Justo was to "gather scientific data" as per Captain Cook. Guess what. We can gather a great deal more scientific data by machine, rather then by humans. The author knows this. He even mentioned it earlier in the article. The article is self-contradictory. Why would you publish such a poor excuse at intellectual discourse?

-- Peter Wlodarski

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------