Where the heck are our hydrogen-powered cars?

Getty Images
Getty Images

In the new issue of mental_floss magazine, Ethan Trex answers The Biggest Questions of 2009. All this week, he'll be answering additional questions of various sizes here on the blog.

As climate-saving plans go, few sound quite as appealing as cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells. They don't need any petroleum! They're low on emissions! They're"¦not in our garages. Why not?

Although most of us might not have seen one, there are hydrogen-powered cars out there. There just aren't very many of them. Honda began production of its FCX Clarity in 2008. The little car runs on hydrogen fuel cells and can travel up to 270 miles on a full tank of hydrogen. The car can get from 0 to 60 in 9.2 seconds—about the same as Honda's Accord. Sounds perfect, but there are a few hitches.

First, the hand-assembled car is tricky to put together; Honda can only crank out 200 of them in the first three years of production, and mass-production probably can't start until 2018. On top of that, fuel-cell cars are mind-numbingly expensive, and not just by the standards of Honda's Accord-buying public. According to Honda, just building a single 134-horsepower FCX Clarity costs several hundred thousand dollars, which is part of why the company only leases the cars instead of selling them.

Finally, there's the problem of our lack of hydrogen fueling infrastructure. (When was the last time you saw a hydrogen station as you cruised down the highway?) Until there's a nationwide effort to build an infrastructure for producing, distributing, and retailing hydrogen, the cars might be little more than a pleasant daydream. When Honda announced its plans to start leasing the Clarity in 2008, only Southern California residents were eligible to drive one home, and even they had to live near one of three existing hydrogen fueling stations in the area.

Although GM, BMW, and Hyundai hope to have hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles of their own in showrooms within the next five years, some experts estimate that it will take decades before the American fleet can convert to hydrogen. If hydrogen cars can't really take off in significant numbers until 2050, it might be too late for the technology to make a meaningful impact on how we drive.

Bonus Question: Why are there different types of gas (premium, regular, and super) but it seems like there is only one gas tanker?

You can't judge a tanker truck by its shiny metallic covering. Although from the outside these trucks look like one gigantic tank, they're actually divided into a series of compartments. Each compartment contains a certain grade of gas so one truck can stock a station for all three grades of fuel.

You can pick up mental_floss wherever brilliant/lots of magazines are sold. Or you could just subscribe.

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Smart HVAC Systems Promise the Perfect Temperature—and Energy Bill Savings


Smart home technology is often touted as a luxury convenience. What if you could turn on your lights with your voice, or see who’s knocking at your door using your phone, or play online quizzes in your kitchen while you cook? But smart home technology has the potential to do far more than just give us new gadgets to mess around with. It can help save energy and solve some of the issues that have plagued homeowners for decades. Like, for instance, the problem of an air conditioning system that works better in some rooms than others. Alea Air, a new smart HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) system, does just that, as Fast Company reports.

Keeping your environment at just the right temperature in every room isn’t exactly a sexy issue, but it’s one that touches just about everyone. Try to find an office that stays at a comfortable temperature throughout the day, year-round, in both conference rooms and cubicles. You probably can’t, because there are so many factors that go into keeping a building with many rooms—like an office, apartment building, or house—at just the right temperature. Variables such as how many vents there are, where they’re placed, how much sun the windows get, how big the room is, and how many people are in that room can all affect how much heating or cooling power a particular area needs.

A black vent sits on the floor before installation.

Whereas most HVAC systems only have one temperature sensor to track the environment of the whole house, Alea Air features WiFi- and Bluetooth-connected smart vents that can be installed in every room to track temperature, air quality, room occupancy, and other factors to keep houses at the right temperature no matter what room you’re in. The vents have 11 sensors to track air conditions, including infrared temperature sensors, humidity sensors to track the real-feel of the temperature, air quality sensors, UV and ambient light sensors, audio sensors that can detect if your system is emitting those loud whooshing sounds, and more.

That means the system can tell that your kitchen with its giant south-facing windows and active oven is always way too hot, or that your guest bedroom never has anyone in it. You can use the app to adjust your bedroom to be cooler than the rest of the house, so you can snuggle up under your giant comforter at night, but still keep your home office toasty enough that your fingers don't freeze while you work.

Screenshots of the Alea app showing temperature monitoring and adjustment functions

You don’t have to install a totally new heating and cooling system. If you have a central heating or heating/cooling system, you can replace your old vents with the Alea Air vents and plug into your old system. You can use your existing smart thermostat, too.

Though you will no doubt save money on your energy bill with your newfound ability to micromanage your household heating and cooling, there’s a hefty pricetag that comes with being an early adopter—especially if your house has more than three rooms. A kit of three vents and one Airhub costs $379, with additional vents starting at $119 each.

The vents come in black or white and are available for pre-order here.

[h/t Fast Company]

Italian Scientists Created a Robot Toddler and It's Kind of Terrifying

Oli Scarff, Getty Images
Oli Scarff, Getty Images

Scientists have already given us creepy headless dog robots and robots that squirm around like eels. Now, Futurism has spotted a different kind of robot to haunt our nightmares. Meet iCub, a humanoid machine that's designed to look and move like a toddler.

Created by scientists at the Italian Institute of Technology, iCub was designed as a tool for researching child development. It's made to study embodied cognition, the theory that cognitive function is directly influenced by our physical experiences. In particular, iCub can help researchers study how interacting with the physical world can influence how children's brains develop.

With iCub, researchers can recreate the motions of a toddler in a controlled environment. The first prototype of the robot debuted in 2009, but recently, researchers developed a technique that lets them control iCub's movements and see through its eyes in virtual reality [PDF]. (You can see it at work in the video below.)

The science sounds intriguing, but to a layperson, iCub looks like a bit of a horror show. It walks with outstretched fingers and an awkward gait that's more zombie than toddler. The face, which has a huge set of eyes but lacks a mouth, also fits snugly in the uncanny valley.

iCub's design is open source, so if any roboticists out there think they can tweak the design to make it less unsettling, they're welcome to do so.

Behold the nightmare in action:

[h/t Futurism]