Burton Richter, the Paul Pigott professor of the physical sciences and a Nobel Laureate, is clearly not going to line up to buy a hydrogen car anytime soon.
"The present hydrogen fuel cells are losers... Losers," he said. "They have to go back to the R&D lab."
Richter spoke at the Almaden Institute taking place at IBM's Almaden labs, but I ran into him at lunch. So while he ate fajitas, I pestered him with questions. Here's what he had to say:
• Fuel cells fail in a variety of ways. Hydrogen is expensive to produce. The membranes inside the fuel cells don't last long and the membranes also require lots of platinum to generate the electricity-producing reaction.
"The entire world production of platinum isn't large enough for 10 million cars," he said.
• Electric cars, or at least plug-in hybrids, are a lot closer economically than many believe. In California, electric cars cost about 3 cents a mile to operate. Gas cars cost around 12 cents a mile at $3 a gallon gas. Plug-in drivers thus can save about $1,000 a year or more in fuel costs.
Consumers also want electrics. "They will snap them up. It will be like the Prius. It will start off slow but then take off," he said.
In his presentation, he showed the efficiency of electric cars in another way. It only takes about 3.3 kilowatts to get an electric car to 40 miles an hour and 10.8 kilowatts to get it to 70 miles per hour. It takes a Prius 4.8 kilowatts to hit 40 and 16.8 kilowatts to hit 70. Meanwhile, a Ford Expedition needs 10.3 kilowatts to hit 40 miles an hour and 38.1 kilowatts to get to 70 miles per hour.
• Still, battery costs for electric cars will have to come down by about 50 percent.
"At $10,000 to $15,000 [for the battery] it will not pay off," said Richter. At $7,000, electrics start making a lot more sense. Right now, batteries for electric cars cost around $900 to $1,000 a kilowatt/hour. The general industry goal is to drive it to $500 a kilowatt hour in the next few years and $300 to $150 a kilowatt hour in the long term.
• Look out for the hybrid hybrid, which would be a car that contains batteries, a gas engine and ultracapacitors. Some car makers are already studying ways to insert ultracapacitors into gas cars for better mileage and acceleration.
• The PV industry needs to look at new materials. Silicon solar panels are somewhat mature in many respects. The cost reductions, as a result, will likely slow. "People should be looking for new types of PV," he said, adding that, no matter how you slice it, solar remains expensive electricity.
Image of Burton Richter courtesy the National Science Foundation.