The Hydrogen Engine That Could

John Koopman, MPE ’83, makes the case for the electric car

John Koopman standing in front a fueling station. Photo: Bob Handelman

John Koopman, MPE ’83, is trying to make the smallest atom the next big thing in cars. As a senior engineering technician at Proton OnSite, Koopman is fine-tuning the conversion of water into car-propelling hydrogen fuel. The process goes like this: In a modular fueling station, electricity splits water into hydrogen and oxygen; the hydrogen is then compressed, ready to fill a car’s fuel cell. When the hydrogen recombines with oxygen from the air in the cell, it generates the electricity to drive the car’s electric motor. The only by-product of the process is water—which is much easier on the planet than your typical exhaust fumes. Below, Koopman makes the case for hydrogen as the fuel of the future. —JULIE BARR

A Flawed Front-Runner

“Electric-only cars use lithium ion batteries, which hold only a limited amount of electricity and take time to recharge. They are practical if you’re simply commuting back and forth for work, but if you’re traveling a long distance, you can’t wait six hours to recharge your batteries before you continue on to your destination.”

The “Greenest” Option

“SunHydro, our sister company, uses renewable electricity from solar or wind to make hydrogen gas at their fueling stations—so you’re completely off the grid. And plus there’s no pollution. It just seems like the logical way to go.”

Gaining Traction

“People think [hydrogen cars] are too far away. I don’t think they realize that we already have a fueling station and cars driving around Connecticut right now running on hydrogen. Or that there are currently more than fifty fueling stations nationwide— twenty-five in California alone.”

The Road Ahead

“Once hydrogen cars start being produced—which all major car makers expect to do by 2015—the next step is to have enough fueling stations. Now, granted, you can’t make it all the way across the US at the moment, but the goal is to get enough stations so you could. With a hydrogen fuel cell car range of about 300 miles, having one every 250 miles isn’t unreasonable. Short-term plans that don’t require numerous fueling stations include municipal use—like a bus route, so that drivers would be coming back to the same terminal all the time to refuel.”

Fueling Change

“It seems like so much in our economy is just driven by oil and it’s always kind of bothered me … I was just driven to find a way to get off this dependence on oil. When I get frustrated—like now, when gasoline prices are going up and up and up—I feel proud that I’m working at a company where I’m part of the solution and not part of the problem. It’s inspiring.”

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8 comments

  1. Antonio L. Balsamo /

    It would have been nice for you to include the energy exchange data (energy in vs. energy out), including the energy that went into generating the electricity used to split the water into Hydrogen and Oxygen. Everything I’ve read so far indicates that this process takes more energy in than out…like so many other alternative fuels (like corn based ethanol).

    Tony Balsamo
    EE ’83

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