Water-stabilized hydrogen fuel promises twice the range of gasoline at half the price, with zero tailpipe emissions
Israeli-Australian company Electriq Global's new technology stabilizes hydrogen in a recyclable liquid that can be pumped and transported just like gasoline. That's huge news, because it enables long-range electric driving with fast refueling – and it plugs right into the existing fuel logistics model.
Plenty of people want to move on from gasoline and diesel. Some are environmentalists, some want to stop supporting the geopolitics of oil, some like the lightning-quick performance potential of electric motors. Whatever the reason, the fuel that powered the 20th century seems unlikely to maintain its transport lead through the 21st.
But today's alternatives to fossil fuels all have their difficulties. EV batteries, for example, are heavy and expensive, they can struggle with heat, and they take an uncomfortably long time to charge, which many consumers aren't willing to deal with on longer trips.
Mind you, batteries are significantly better than straight-up hydrogen, which is energy-inefficient to produce, difficult to store and transport, and adds explosive potential to crashes. Hydrogen's main selling point is its ability to fit into current fuel distribution infrastructure; you can pump it into a car like gasoline, so if gas stations started carrying it, you'd be able to fill up anywhere.
But Electriq Global, an Israeli-Australian company, claims it's invented a new fuel that combines the best aspects of gasoline, hydrogen and batteries into a cheap, green and recyclable liquid that it believes could be the transport fuel of the future.
Electriq says it has worked out a way to stabilize hydrogen in a liquid form that's around 60 percent water. This makes it simple to transport and store, eliminating the single biggest reason why hydrogen hasn't taken off at this point.
Using a standard sized fuel tank, the Electriq system would, according to modeling, cost less than half the equivalent gasoline price to fill up, and it would deliver around twice the range, while being completely emissions-free – at least, back to the fuel production plant.
Here's how it works. Electriq produces the fuel at a production/recycling center. According to Electriq spokesman Michael Simonetti, the recipe is "surprisingly simple," and doesn't require any rare or expensive elements. When it's fully loaded, the fuel contains about three percent hydrogen and 97 percent supporting material.
The fuel is moved via tanker to gas stations, much the same as happens with gasoline, and drivers fill up their cars at a pump.
The fuel tank in the car, which is about the same size as a regular fuel tank, has a separate module called the "Switch," which releases small amounts of a catalyzing chemical into the fuel tank to release the hydrogen from the fuel.
Once the hydrogen is released, it's sent directly to a fuel cell to be converted into electric energy, which is then used to power an electric drivetrain. Everything from the fuel cell onwards is standard and already on the road in existing fuel cell vehicles.
"If you picked up a Toyota Mirai today," says Simonetti, "and took out the hydrogen tank, and switched it out with this fuel tank and the Switch, which is a single set of componentry, you've got a working car."
Once enough of the Switch catalyst has been used to release all, or most, of the hydrogen, it's time to refill the tank – but one unique feature of the Electriq technology is that the remaining fuel material (comprising some 97 percent of the total volume) is completely recyclable.
Thus, when you go to the gas station to fuel up, it's a dual process, in which your spent fuel is pumped out, and fresh fuel is pumped in. This two-way fuel process goes all the way back up the chain; the gas station would store a tankful of spent fuel, which an Electriq tanker would pick up after dropping off fresh fuel, and take it back to the production facility where it will have the hydrogen put back in.
So what you end up with is a zero-emissions electric vehicle with a huge range, whose liquid hydrogen "battery" can be quickly and conveniently filled up at a gas station for half the price of regular unleaded.
This neglects, of course, one of the strongest features of battery-electric vehicles: if you slow-charge them at home overnight, or while parked at the office, you can do the vast majority of your driving without ever needing to hit a fast-charge station. But you could easily design a hybrid Electriq/electric car that runs on a small, cheap, wall-chargable battery to cover daily use, and that uses the Electriq system to provide a massive range boost and instant recharging on longer trips.
Naturally, we had questions. So we put them to Simonetti, as well as Electriq Global CEO Guy Michrowski.
What's the well-to-wheels energy efficiency of the process?
"The overall thermodynamic efficiency of the process is over two thirds," says Michrowski. "Most of it is during the fuel recycling process. No energy is lost on-board the vehicle. Energy loss in the fuel cell (typically <50 percent) and EV are the same as with EVs using compressed hydrogen."
This information really doesn't affect the consumer, who will be much more interested in the ability to quickly and cheaply refuel their electric car and drive long distances. But in the context of an overall transport ecosystem, you can look at it in terms of energy usage and overall system emissions.
If you have a given amount of energy, let's say 100 kWh, and you put it into a typical lithium-ion EV battery, you can expect somewhere between 80-90 kWh to make it to the electric motors, because that's about the charge-discharge efficiency rate of lithium-ion. If you take that same 100 kWh and convert it into Electriq fuel, you'll have maybe 70 kWh by the time it gets into your car's fuel tank, and you'll lose somewhere around half of that as the fuel cell converts the hydrogen back into electric energy. So you could end up with 35-40 kWh reaching the motors.
So it's about half as efficient as a battery, and any upstream emissions at the power generation plant will effectively be double what you'd get running a battery, even though both an Electriq car and a battery-powered electric car will have zero tailpipe emissions.
Does the Switch catalyst need to be refilled?
"Yes," says Simonetti, "like a filter on a car. Once a year, or whatever it ends up being."
For the distribution model to work you will need petroleum companies to get on board. Why would they dedicate pump space to a competing product?
"It's not a competitive product," says Simonetti. "Yes, the petrol companies own the petrol stations. But if you can offer a bigger margin to them, then it's profitable. And if there's more room to play with the margins … from the numbers we've gone over with the team, the buffers are better. Wholesale to retail pricing margins can be much better, and people are still driving green cars and getting a better price for their fuel.
"Even if that price goes up a bit because, say, Shell won't do it without a bigger margin, well OK, that's part of the negotiations. Maybe it comes at a 1:1 price to start with, who knows? That stuff's all on the table. All we know is the modeling tells us we can produce it a lot cheaper than petrol."
Where are things at with getting manufacturers on board?
"There's a truck builder in China that's been exposed to the end to end process and components, because they're building vehicles utilizing the technology," says Simonetti. "There's a range of applications like that where joint venture partners do have access to the technology.
"[Electriq is making] an incredible claim. It's something now that we all want vetted in a commercial rollout. But the data stacks up. The joint venture partners, they're the ones that are doing the vetting right now.
"Our roadmap talks about a generator, it talks about an unmanned drone, a truck, and there's also a commercial grade production plant in Israel that's being built to create and recycle the fuel on a commercial scale.
"We've pretty much spoken to everybody [in the mainstream automotive world] and what do you expect? You're a startup with unbelievable claims, it's not like you're adding windscreen wipers or a sunroof. And even those things were enormous challenges to get embedded into vehicles. With this, you're changing out the entire ecosystem for the car, and you're the future. So that's a long process and conversation. There's interest, but there's no deal signed. There's no 'we've got Toyota on the dotted line, this is going to happen.'
"It's very early days in terms of outreach but there's a lot of people now knocking on our door thanks to the global launch. We're getting good traction. But it's how quickly can we make that happen.
"One of my goals is to create a community of people that want this technology in their hands. So we can go to manufacturers and say 'not only do we have a technology, we've also got the people that want this. Here's 10,000, or 100,000 people that would buy your car tomorrow if it was available.'"
Anyone who wants to join such a community can do so at the Electriq Global community web page.
What's the shelf-life of the fuel itself?
"The fuel shelf life is five years," says Michrowski, "with energy loss of less than 10 percent for the entire period."
That's even better than the one-year shelf life of regular unleaded gasoline.
We've asked Electriq Global some further questions, and are waiting for responses, but the system certainly seems promising, potentially even revolutionary. It fits in logistically with the current fuel system, and seems to be able to offer a great deal both to consumers and to retail partners. It offers zero-emissions, long-range, high-performance electric motoring that lets you "recharge" your electric car in the same amount of time it'd take you to fill up a tank of gas, and it'll happily work in a hybrid scenario alongside a battery if you want to be able to charge from the wall and enjoy the best of both worlds.
Perhaps the biggest question is, if this system would take five, or 10 years to break through into mainstream use, with large-scale Electriq fuel production and recycling plants in major cities, and full participation from fuel retailers and vehicle manufacturers alike, what technologies will it be competing against in the mid-to-late 2020s?
Will those five to 10 years see the kinds of quantum leaps we keep hearing about in the battery world, delivering us smaller, lighter, hugely energy-dense batteries that charge super quickly, last tens of thousands of charge cycles and remain thermally stable in crashes? If so, will a solution like the Electriq model maintain its appeal?
Either way, this is an exciting and fascinating technology that we'll be looking to keep a close eye on as it develops.
Source: Electriq Global