Hydrogen Heats Up, and the Car Talk Blogger Gets a Long-Term Fuel-Cell Ride

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 31, 2010

Toyota's Highlander-based fuel-cell car. (Toyota photo)I've got exciting news: Through an accident in geography (and maybe the fact I won't shut up about fuel cells) Toyota and Proton Energy have chosen to hand me a practically priceless hydrogen-powered FCHV-adv (based on the Highlander) for a long-term test. That means six months to a year of zero emission driving, with only water dripping out of my tailpipe.

Fuel-cell cars have had a long gestation. The concept of the fuel cell dates back to 1839, when one of those British Renaissance men (a barrister who dabbled in science) came up with the concept during breaks from murder trials. His name was Sir William Robert Grove, and he was so far ahead of his time that the significance of his being able to produce electricity (and water) from hydrogen wasn't fully appreciated for well over a century.

Hydrogen's reputation was blackened (and remains bad in some quarters) following the spectacular 1937 fire that killed 36 people and destroyed the German zeppelin Hindenburg. But fuel cells went into space on the Apollo missions, providing both drinkable water and electricity. And automakers finally got into the act.

In 1999, I went to both Germany and Japan to drive fuel-cell cars. I took a tour of the Fuel Cell Project House in Germany, where the silver-maned Dr. Ferdinand Panik told me confidently that Daimler would have as many as 40,000 fuel cell cars on the road by 2004. "It's feasible," he says. "We have a schedule, and we are sticking to it."

Alas, no. Although Honda, GM, Toyota and Ford and others all pursued fuel-cell programs, the electric car came along and stole their thunder. The main issue is refueling. A bunch of companies are ready, willing and able to put in charging stations for battery cars, but hydrogen is still thin on the ground.

According to General Motors, there are just four hydrogen stations in California that can refuel a high-pressure (10,000 psi) fuel-cell car in three minutes. And there are only 60 in the U.S., with 24 pending.

Tom Sullivan models a SunHydro t-shirt. (SunHydro photo)But all that's changing, and you can in part credit Tom Sullivan, founder of Lumber Liquidators with breaking the logjam--he's proposed, through his new company SunHydro, to create a "hydrogen highway" from Maine to Florida, where he lives. (A Car Talk side note: Lumber Liquidators is an underwriter of Tom and Ray's lousy show, and several good NPR programs.)

As the name implies, his hydrogen-fueling stations will be solar powered where possible. The first one, opening in a month, will be at the Connecticut headquarters of Proton Energy, a company (just bought by Sullivan) that makes hydrogen electrolyzers. That means making hydrogen from water, a miracle that would be even more miraculous if it wasn't expensive and somewhat energy intensive in itself.

Sullivan told Car Talk he asked Toyota for cars, and went calling at GM (the Equinox) and Honda (the FCX Clarity), too, but the FCHV is the one that came through. Some 10 Highlanders will be deployed this fall around the Connecticut station, which is in Wallingford. The second station will be in Car Talk home territory, Braintree, Massachusetts, at the intersection of Routes 128 and 93. That one won't be in place until the fall of 2011, though.

"I can't wait to drive one of the Highlanders when I'm up there," Sullivan said. He's still feeling good about funding the hydrogen highway. "I knew when I started it wasn't going to be an instant walk down the street," he said. "We're not doing this to make money, but to get hydrogen going and do something we truly believe in. Each fuel-cell car means less gas for us to import, and less pollution."

A Chevrolet Equinox takes on Honolulu. (SunHydro photo)Sullivan is also building a hydrogen station at his home in Miami. He's a believer, but then so is Jeff Kissel, who heads Hawaii Gas on Oahu. Aloha to Jeff! His company sells synthetic gas through a 1,000-mile pipeline, and there is significant hydrogen content in the gas. Hawaii Gas' plan is to separate the hydrogen and grab it out of the pipeline to sell at local service stations.

The plan is eminently environmentally friendly, since Kissel points out that the raw material for the syn gas is naptha that would otherwise be burned off by one of Hawaii's two oil refineries. "We convert it to methane, with no big, ugly flares," he said. Remember Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" line about the "gas fires of the refinery"?

The Hawaii Gas plan got GM excited enough for it to send at least 10 fuel-cell Equinoxes to the islands, where the Department of Defense may be the biggest customer. Kissel told me that his company is already producing the equivalent of 7,000 gallons of hydrogen daily (the energy carrier is actually measured in kilograms).

According to Charles Freese, the executive director of GM's fuel-cell activities, because hydrogen is more energy dense (2.3 times more) than gasoline, that's enough to fuel 7,000 fuel-cell cars daily. No wonder 10 cars isn't a big gamble.

"We need to focus and concentrate on the vehicles, and give drivers an unencumbered driving experience," said Freese. "Some 20 to 15 hydrogen stations will completely cover Oahu for fuel-cell cars when it's in a mature state."

There are 119 fuel-cell Equinoxes in GM's ongoing Project Driveway test. The next step for the company is to deliver a "production-intent" vehicle around 2015. The successor to the Equinox, Freese said, will use a fuel-cell drivetrain 220 pounds lighter than the current iteration, and be half the weight. That means future hydrogen vehicles don't have to be big--there could be a range of cars, from a "low-hoodline sedan" to a bigger family vehicle like the Equinox.

It's great to see hydrogen finally getting some attention. Bring on the fuel-cell cars!

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