Internal Combustion Engines

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Internal Combustion Engines: Full-Text Essay Sample

The internal-combustion engine was used as a synonym with automobile in the 20th century.  Today, in the 21st century, it faces competition from fuel cell engines which attract investments and media attention.  Internal-combustion engines are more efficient and advance today than they were twenty years ago.  Hydrogen internal combustion engines are rapidly gaining market acceptance and are planned to be in mass production by 2010.  Moreover, economists predict that within the next five years, hydrogen engines will be installed in 95 percent of all new vehicles.  Environmental concerns regarding greenhouse gas emissions and heavy dependence on energy contribute to acceleration of internal-combustion engine development.  Governmental reforms favor development of alternative technologies such as hydrogen engines; however, the adoption by consumers remains the key factors.  Automobile industry is shaped by consumer choice – consumers pay close attention to the fuel, its cost efficiency, safety, durability, and environmental impact.  There is a need to provide closer examination of the three factors impacting the development and usage of hydrogen engines.  These factors are technology, infrastructure, and emissions level.  Other factors, such as freedom of styling and safety, may eventually become important, however, as research indicates, the above three issues are fundamental. 

The automobile industry was not focused on improving the technology until early 1970s when the pressure for improved efficiency and reduced emissions rose.  The U.S. Clean Air Act of 1970s demanded stricter emission rules.  The subsequent oil embargoes drove the need to develop more efficient engines.  By 1986, the engine of a car accounted for more than 20% of its total production cost (today the percent is only 8) (Ealey and Mercer, p. 41).  Typical hydrogen fuel cell contains a proton exchange membrane which converts hydrogen and air into electricity and water.  Electricity is used to power the car’s motor and accessories.  High efficiency of hydrogen makes this type of engines cleaner as well as fewer resources are needed.  In addition, hydrogen engines cause less noise, have cheaper maintenance, and are characterized by instant-on torque response.  The development of hydrogen internal combustion engines was forged by technological advances, resource constraints, and socioeconomic demands.  Hydrogen is virtually limitless flow of renewable energy and is one of the most abundant elements (Flavin and Dunn, p.167). 

As Christopher Flavin and Seth Dunn have noted, a central challenge is to develop a system for storing and transporting hydrogen (p. 174).  Hydrogen can be derived from the natural gas - taking advantage of the natural gas pipelines and other infrastructure which is already existent.  In the long-run, small-scale units converting gas into hydrogen could be placed in service stations and even at homes.  The carbon dioxide released in the result of conversion could be turned into plastics.  From economic perspective, usage of natural gas allows rapid transition to hydrogen energy system.  Churchill was among the first to position oil as a strategic military incentive.  The prime minister of Iceland in 1997 revealed his plans to transform the country into hydrogen economy.  Hydrogen was believed to be too costly; however, economists realized that it was the only way to meet Kyoto commitment (Flavin and Dunn, 175).  Germany opened the first commercial hydrogen gas station for automobiles in 1999, and Iceland was and is a key supplier of hydrogen in Europe. 

The hydrogen usage is also supported by automobile producers.  Chrysler, in particular, announced in 1997 its intention to launch automobiles with technical ability to generate hydrogen on board (Ross, p. 99).  The key advantage of this approach is a focus on the already existing gasoline infrastructure.  In addition, hydrogen engines make cars quicker and more practical to use.  Hydrogen can be produced in large quantities at petroleum refineries.  Hydrogen has the potential to contribute to the high fuel economy.  In addition, hydrogen internal combustion engines makes automobiles cleaner, with lower energy requirements, and reduced emissions into environment. 

Hydrogen engines have the potential to mitigate security threats, reduce dependence on imported oil, and stop climate destabilization.  Hydrogen economy is especially beneficial for developing world countries where people are bypassed by the conventional energy economies.  New hydrogen economy creates economic rewards and transforms the roles of government in the energy sector.  Hydrogen might broaden the geopolitics of energy and shift the emphasis from preoccupation with conflict over scarce resources to the environmental cooperation.  Moreover, hydrogen engines bring social benefits.  Intensification of urban air-quality issue has led to the need to develop more energy efficient cars.  Hydrogen internal combustion engines can eliminate the need for complicated end-of-pipe emission control technologies (Steinbugler and Williams, p. 102). 

Unlike batter-powered vehicles, automobiles with hydrogen engines are more costly per unit of energy.  Hydrogen-powered engines provide good acceleration at high speeds.  Automobiles fueled with hydrogen do not omit oxides of nitrogen and carbon as well as no unburned hydrocarbons and particulates.  Nevertheless, hydrogen is considered to be unsafe:  it requires very little energy to ignite hydrogen mixed with air.  Compared to gasoline which can also be easily ignited with such sources as electrostatic discharges, hydrogen is flammable in air.  In case of leak, hydrogen will disperse quickly while gasoline will puddle (Steinbugler and Williams, p. 103).  General public is convinced that hydrogen can be used safely, however, hydrogen is currently not widely distributed and the governmental requirements remain the key obstacle to hydrogen commercialization. 

How does hydrogen works?  Hydrogen gas is fed to the cell and passed through an electrolyte.  Electrons cannot travel in hydrogen through electrolyte, therefore, they are redirected through a wire and produce electric current.  At the end, hydrogen is reconstituted and combined with oxygen.  One cell generates one volt, however, the volts can be easily grouped (Motavalli, p. 36).  Emissions are non-existence in a pure hydrogen fuel cell, even though when applied to automobiles, some level of pollutants release is inevitable.  If modern car engine generates noise, heat, and contains rapidly spinning parts, hydrogen engine is simply an enclosed box without moving parts and noiseless. 

It is worth to mention that technology for producing hydrogen is already mature.  Renewable routes to hydrogen are more expensive than conventional steam reforming of methane, and until natural gas prices are higher than they are now, hydrogen will be derived from biomass rather than coal.  Nevertheless, lack of hydrogen fuel infrastructures possesses a dilemma:  cars are not produced because fuel is unavailable and, therefore, there is no market for hydrogen cars.  In addition, hydrogen storage devices are heavy while hydrogen itself accounts only for 1 percent of total storage system weight (Steinbugler and Williams, p. 104).  As Steinbugler and Williams have noted, the development of a reliable fuel processor poses a technological challenge; however, “show-stoppers” have not been identified.

From historical perspective, all alternative automobile fuels have failed for two reasons:  they brought no private benefits and had rather short distances between refueling (Sperling and Ogden, p. 83).  The only evident benefits were fewer emissions and relevant energy security; nevertheless, consumers were not willing to purchase cars only for public-good reasons.  These facts reflect poor understanding of environmental policies and energy innovations.  Oil, for example, turned out to be cheap, gasoline, on the other side, is cleaner, while hydrogen internal combustion engines continuously improve and do not emit harmful pollutants.  Nevertheless, hydrogen will not succeed alone in terms of environmental and energy advantages.  First, hydrogen engines are superior products favored by automotive industry.  Second, hydrogen has the potential to reduce production and distribution costs.  Third, hydrogen might lead to zero end-of-pipe pollution and near-zero greenhouse gases emission. 

There are two constraints to mass production of hydrogen engines.  The first constraint is that hydrogen costs are on a downward slope and remain too high (Sperling and Ogden, p. 83).  In addition, huge amount of engineering is needed to improve production and ensure long-term reliability.  The second constraint is related to hydrogen availability.  Hydrogen can be produced from petroleum and natural gas, however, there is a potential to derive hydrogen from diverse abundant fossil and renewable resources.  The supply challenge is related to flexibility – there are many ways of producing and distributing hydrogen, however, it is hard to determine which way is better.  Moreover, private investment will be directed toward conventional energy resources, and government needs to focus on renewable hydrogen production.  For example, coal is abundant in China and the United States; therefore, hydrogen in these countries should be derived from coal rather than gas. 

Currently, Jadoo is the only company that received approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation to ship hydrogen as air cargo (Potera, p. 42).  Recalling the safety concerns, regulators are skeptical about the future of hydrogen engines.  However, numerous tests showed that canisters can withstand bonfire burning and forcer overfills.  As Potera has noted, there is lack of understanding about the safety of hydrogen and this misunderstanding slows down the development of hydrogen economy (p. 42).  According to experts’ predictions, large-scale environmental gains are not immediate, however, they will follow when hydrogen engines are widely accepted.  Jadoo is working towards driving the price down and making hydrogen technology commonplace.

Hydrogen industry is heavily dependent upon ecosystem and the potential players.  These players are electronics, valve manufacturers, technicians, and even consumers.  The hydrogen market is not paid enough attention to, as Williams and Steinbugler have noted, however, it is one of the sectors which products are available today (p. 103).  Hydrogen can replace the traditional fuels because of its potential to reduce usage of fossil fuels, minimize release of hazardous emissions, and bring benefits to the environment, energy security, and economics.  The potential of hydrogen has already been investigated and researched by numerous companies, and one of the most recent projects has proved the hypothesis that benefits of hydrogen engines are far reaching. 

The so-called “Apollo Project” initiated by the U.S. Energy, Commerce, and Defense Departments was aimed at researching the potential of hydrogen usage (Gresser and Cusumano, p. 22).  The project had to determine the path of smooth transition to hydrogen economy and evaluate the challenges of hydrogen economy.  The two objectives were sought:  immediate energy conservation (reducing dependence on oil) and acceleration of global economy growth based on hydrogen through international and entrepreneurial cooperation.  The following aspects were investigated (Gresser and Cusumano, p. 23):

  • Retrofitting of commercial and residential buildings with energy-efficient systems (lighting, heating, etc.)
  • Reducing oil usage in transportations within three years
  • Introducing tax breaks to consumers purchasing energy-efficient vehicles
  • Delivering meaningful percentage of electricity derived from sustainable energy sources

Among other benefits derived from hydrogen economy, reduced vulnerability to terrorist attacks in terms of oil storage, creation of the new jobs and new opportunities occupy the central roles.  Apollo project is an analogy of Chinese efficiency program (1980s) when the government has successfully reduced overall energy usage by 50% within 10 years.  The United States have doubled the average mileage of automobiles between 1975 and 1985.  Just to mention, the efficiency programs returned $20 for every $1 invested!  (Gresser and Cusumano, p. 23). 

The greatest benefit of hydrogen usage is an emergence of strategic business sector as a prerequisite of global economic growth.  As numerous examples from history indicate, technology has served as an engine of economic growth.  For example, canals, railroads, machine tool making, chemical dye industry, steel production, and other innovations triggered economic breakthroughs.  Florida has recently launched a new program to promote hydrogen development.  Governmental organizations, environmental groups, and universities were united to research internal combustion engines retrofitted to run on hydrogen (Gresser and Cusumano, p. 23).  It was concluded that hydrogen development is economically and environmentally strategic. 

General Motors, in particular, has included the following statement into their mission:  “we believe there are many compelling reasons to move as quickly as possible to a personal mobility future energized by hydrogen and powered by fuel cells” (Lackner and Sachs, p. 12).  The following aspects were outlined as benefits of hydrogen engine development:  reduction in vehicle exhaust, minimization of greenhouse gas emissions, energy security, sustainable economic growth, geopolitical stability, and the potential to design cars that are more excited to operate.  General Motors is the first company to produce Hy-wire automobile operating on hydrogen engine.  The energy efficiency and estimated cost per mile of hydrogen is already close to the gasoline-powered vehicles.  According to analysis performed by General Motors, the creation of hydrogen fueling infrastructure for one million hydrogen-powered vehicles would cost $10 billion (for example, more than $25 billion were spend on Alaskan oil pipeline construction). 

California Air Resources Board had initiated zero-emission vehicle regulations to promote fuel cell automobile production.  DaimlerChrysler, as the only supplier of fuel cell buses, has failed to deliver them, however (Hoffmann, p. 146).  Nevertheless, the situation improved with the emergence of new contenders.  Several companies have formed a team focused on production of hydrogen-powered vehicles with minimal emission level.  Toyota, Honda, and Ford have already produced experimental passenger cars operating on hydrogen.  It is planned to build several hydrogen fueling stations in the region in addition to the existing methanol fueling.  Honda and BMW already operate hydrogen stations in Los Angeles area.  

Despite of the rapid developments on hydrogen market and commitment of major automobile producers to cleaner environment, a number of recent studies raise doubts regarding the benefits for hydrogen cars.  As National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council announced, transition to hydrogen economy would take several decades and the reduction in emissions is likely to be minor (Romm, p. 74).  Hydrogen is highly flammable and it can be ignited by cell phones and even electrical storms located several miles away.  In addition, hydrogen leaks are hard to detect because hydrogen is odorless and burns invisibly.  Hydrogen causes many metals to become brittle and high pressure in storage tank crease a risk of rupture.  The most important thing to mention is that hydrogen leaks occur despite of the special training and protective cloth.  In terms of production, electronic flame gas detectors are provided to a very limited number of workers and production remains very unsafe.  Currently, there is no effective way to manage hydrogen leaks and it slows down hydrogen production. 

The main points of hydrogen-powered engines research can be summarized as follows (Lackner and Sachs, p. 216):

  • Large quantities of energy are essential for development of advance economy while the energy limits are severe
  • Energy resources are fungible (coal can be converted into fuel at low cost)
  • There are no shortages of fossil-fuel supply
  • The main constraints emerge from environmental concerns (increasing concentration of carbon dioxide contributed to greenhouse gas effect)
  • Technological advances can mitigate carbon challenge within a decade at modest costs and ready for application
  • Hydrogen-powered cars can further reduce emissions and be built on existing energy infrastructure
  • Hydrogen transition should be implemented worldwide
  • Current energy technologies have proved to be inadequate and there is an urgent need to improve energy efficiency in transportation. 

Internal combustion engines generate high exhaust and evaporative emissions while hydrogen has the potential to reduce many of them (Mercer and Ealey, p. 44).  Just to mention, hydrogen reduces greenhouse carbon dioxide emission by 90 percent.  Hydrogen-powered cars are safer, cleaner, and more efficient.  BMW and Mazda are investing many funds into hydrogen fuel research and they are planning to adapt internal-combustion engines to use hydrogen.  Nevertheless, the regulatory restrictions reduce capacity of auto-producers to meet reasonable cost.  In addition, the special taxes imposed for vehicles fueled with hydrocarbon.  If California was the first to introduce the bill restricting carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles, today, other states and developed countries have supported this initiative. 

In conclusion, the evident advantages on the internal-combustion engine over other types, can be used to reduce further emissions into the air, to make cars more efficient and convenient to use, and to safe non-renewable energy sources.  The developed countries are investing enormous funds into hydrogen economy development because it is economically viable and environmentally friendly.  Developing countries are also working to embrace the best available internal-combustion technology rather than confront infrastructure obstacles of alternative power.  Hydrogen-powered cars are already produced and bought by customers.  Even though the cost and safety issues slow down the mass production of cars operating on hydrogen, economists and technologists predict that these obstacles will be minimized in the nearest future.  Environmentally friendly cars are no longer a myth, but a reality.   


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