Eureka! Hydrogen Generators Actually Work... Some of Them.

By Bill Moore

Posted: 15 Dec 2009

Picture this: two identical 2006 GMC Canyon pickups. One averages 13-14 mpg, the other 22 mpg. Same engine, same transmission, same chassis, same gasoline. Why the difference in fuel economy ratings? The one getting 22 mpg has an on-demand hydrogen generator installed. [See above photo].

I just got off the telephone with Dan Lutz, who manages Beloit, Wisconsin's municipal vehicle fleet, some 350 cars and trucks from police squad cars to garbage haulers. For the last couple years he's been experimenting with on-vehicle hydrogen generators: the good ones and the bad; and he provided some interesting insights on what he's learned.

I contacted Lutz after reading about his joint research project with students at the University of Wisconsin - Madison to integrate a scaled down version of a hydrogen generator for operation on a Vespa scooter. [See Students Run Vespa Scooter on Electrolyzed Hydrogen].

Like a lot of people, I am both skeptical and curious about claims that you can install what is, in effect, a "reverse fuel cell" on an internal combustion engine and see any appreciable performance gain, certainly nothing like the 57% increase Lutz is seeing in that 2006 GMC Canyon. Lutz admits that there's a fair amount of shoddy product being touted and sold to gullible buyers on the Internet. But there are also reputable firms with products that work and he's installed on a number of his fleet vehicles.

"People claim this is easy to install, but it isn't; not if you want it to work right," he says. But fortunately for him, his first experiment on his own personal vehicle exceeded his expectations. He installed a "hydrogen booster" on his Dodge Hemi pickup some two years ago and saw his average fuel economy literally double from 11 mpg to 22 mpg. Impressed, he asked his boss if the city would mind trying the system on some of its own fleet; his boss agreed.

That decision eventually led Lutz to begin designing and building his own prototype "fuel cells," as he refers to them. He started with a traditional "wet cell" in which the positive and negative electrodes are immersed in the mixture of distilled water and a solution of sodium or potassium hydroxide, creating a simple electrolyzer. Electric current from the vehicle's alternator, or in the case of the Vespa scooter, stator causes the water to separate into hydrogen and oxygen, both of which are fed directly into the engine. Not only did the engine's fuel economy improve, but its emissions are cut as well. Lutz says that the Vespa's emissions are almost undetectable.

In fact, the scooter is now equipped with Lutz's latest "dry cell" design, which is similar to a PEM fuel cell stack in concept, only it works in the reverse. Instead of hydrogen and oxygen combining to make electricity, you use electricity to make hydrogen and oxygen from water. He points out that on the average automobile or light truck, the alternator is typically sized to generate 110-115 amps of current, but usually only needs 40-60 amps of it under normal driving conditions, leaving a surplus that can be used to power the hydrogen generator. On the Vespa, the energy from the stator is routed through the head lamp circuit, which acts like a governor of sorts on the generator. When the scooter is idling, the stator puts out about 9 volts. As the engine speeds up, the voltage increases to above the battery's nominal 12V, in effect regulating the amount of hydrogen being produced.

Surprisingly to me, at least , not only does it work in 1/2 ton pickups and motor scooters, but Lutz says the technology also works on heavy diesels, which may be a fortuitous turn of events, he explains. Diesel engine manufacturers are having a very hard time meeting the new Tier IV diesel emission standards set to take effect January 1, 2010. Caterpillar has already dropped out of the business, Lutz told me, and John Deere is struggling, as are other manufacturers. The only accepted solution to reducing diesel emissions is to inject urea into the exhaust. Hydrogen generators, he suggests, also might be a way forward.

However, the generators are subject to freezing and Lutz has ordered all the systems on his fleet shut off and drained until Beloit emerges from Winter. While he's tried many approaches to solving the freezing problem, only a 60% solution of denatured alcohol seems to work, but safety concerns forced him to abandon it. He and the University of Wisconsin - Madison are experimenting with some other approaches, one being a stronger solution of sodium sulfate, something akin to the acid in your average car battery that keeps it from freezing in winter.

For him the bottom line is this: hydrogen generators -- the better ones (and he's promised to email me a list) -- work better than expected. They do increase fuel economy and reduce emissions, but they are not, in his words, "gramma-proof" yet. There is still lots of room for improvement and he continues to experiment and research and now has one of the most respected universities in alternative vehicle R&D collaborating with him.

Stay tuned. I have a feeling there is more of this story yet to be told.

Dan sent me the below photo of the reverse fuel cell stack he co-developed with the University of Wisconsin-Madison that is used to generate a mixture of gaseous hydrogen and oxygen. He reports that recently the scooter engine ran entirely on this mixture without using any gasoline.

Dan Lutz U of Wisconsin developed dry cell reserve fuel cell stack for Vespa motor scooter

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