Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


HYDROGEN IS extremely flammable (“Oh, the humanity!”). However, this is one reason why it’s a much better energy carrier than, say, potatoes, which are not flammable. And while hydrogen fuel cells are making all the news these days, it’s also worth considering hydrogen as a fuel in the more traditional internal-combustion setting. In fact, this is Part 1 of 3 on the topic.

This 2013 Cadillac internal-combusiton engine could run on hydrogen, not gasoline. It has been done before; see the Billings Seville below.

One reason for this hydrogen application is shared with compressed natural gas. The gaseous nature of both hydrogen and CNG translates into excellent distribution of the fuel/air mixture into the combustion chambers. By contrast, liquid fuels like gasoline or, worse yet, heavier diesel need to vaporize as their first step toward combustion.

An engineering mentor of mine, Prof. Geoff Goddard of Oxford Brookes University in England, once spoke of ignition in a poorly designed gasoline engine as akin to tossing a lighted match down a drainpipe.

Another reason for H2 I.C. is to act as a bridge toward fuel-cell electric vehicles. One of the daunting challenges of FCEVs is establishing their hydrogen refueling infrastructure.

Your author fills an F-Cell Mercedes-Benz at his local Shell station. More hydrogen cars, fuel cell or I.C., would encourage more of these stations.

Having a mixed fleet of I.C. cars and FCEVs both using H2 spreads out the cost—and increases the utility—of this developing infrastructure. In a sense, it helps solve the “chicken or egg” problem by increasing the number of chickens.

There’s nothing new about H2 I.C. With no claim of finding its earliest use, I first read about it in the May 1976 issue of R&T, which described the efforts of Roger Billings and his Billings Energy Research Corp. Billings converted a Cadillac Seville of the era to run on hydrogen; the company was also converting other cars as well as a passenger bus donated by Winnebago.

Billings Energy Research had this hydrogen-powered Cadillac Seville on the road in the mid-1970s.

Roger noted that problems of hydrogen preignition and backfire had been solved through modifications of the propane-fuel carburetors of the time. Another key to what Billings saw as commercial readiness was on-board hydride storage of the hydrogen.

Billings chose hydride storage of its on-board hydrogen. Image from Road & Track, May 1976.

The hydride fuel tank contained particles of an iron-titanium alloy that adsorbed hydrogen onto their surface (as opposed to absorbing it into the stuff). The hydrogen stayed in this benign powdered form until liberated on demand by an application of heat.

Whatever happened to on-board hydride storage? It’s still around, but not today’s choice because of its extreme weight as well as the complexities of transforming hydrogen from adsorbed to gaseous state when needed (and the reverse in refueling). Liquid hydrogen at cryogenic temperatures is another storage option (to be mentioned in H2 I.C. Part 3), though most specialists today prefer the hydrogen in compressed form.

Whatever happened to Billings? An Internet search on the matter shows that Roger Billings is still very much active in technology, everything from wideband communication and other Internet business to hydrogen fuel cells.

I recall one oddity of the original company’s Provo, Utah, phone number: a final sequence of 0000. I’ve lost the rest. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2012

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This entry was posted on October 7, 2012 by in Driving it Tomorrow, Sci-Tech and tagged , .
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