Tom Sullivan's Hydrogen Highway: Fill-er-Up From Maine to Miami

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Apr 19, 2010

Been on the "hydrogen highway" recently? Neither have I. But what could be cooler than wafting silently down the highway in a fuel-cell Future Car, emitting nothing but a drip of drinkable water?

Arnold Schwarzenegger loved that vision too, which is why he proposed to open his very own hydrogen highway of 150 to 200 stations in California this year. But instead of building a hydrogen energy economy, he ran into a terminator known as the state budget crisis--as unstoppable as Tiger Woods' comeback. Today, there are only 21 stations up, according to a California Fuel Cell Partnership map. And if Schwarzenegger doesn't get moving, a flooring magnate named Tom Sullivan is going to get there first on the East Coast, and with solar power as part of the deal.

Tom Sullivan with his daughter Azza (Quinto Perichon photo)What exactly is a fuel cell anyway? Let's turn back the clock to the 19th century, when the British were churning out Renaissance Men (and women) by the bucketload. Sir William Robert Grove was a famous English barrister (he defended "The Rugeley Poisoner") who in his spare time dabbled in scientific experimentation. Long before Thomas Edison, he knocked out an early filament light bulb. And in 1839, he invented the "gas battery," which produced electricity from the chemical combination of hydrogen and oxygen (with water as a byproduct). Today, we'd call it a fuel cell.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, so we'd never run out of it, or have to buy it from abroad. Fuel cells are basically externally fueled batteries, and we've known about them for a long time. The Apollo astronauts got both their electricity and their drinking water from on-board fuel cells. President Carter's inaugural parade included a hydrogen-fueled Cadillac.

So what's the hang-up? Fuel-cell cars are kind of complicated--Tom and Ray could probably fix one, given 10 years of training and a pair of Ph.Ds. --and they're getting better and better. On a visit to Germany in 1999, Daimler's Dr. Ferdinand Panik told me confidently that the company would have 40,000 fuel-cell cars on the road in 2004. "We have a schedule, and we are sticking to it," he said.

It didn't happen, and there are only a few hundred fuel-cell cars on the world's roads today. Unfortunately, both the cars and the hydrogen pumps we'd need to replace 160,000 gas stations remain very expensive.

And then there's the chicken and her progeny, the egg. Nobody wants to build the cars until the stations are in place (and vice versa), which led to Boston-bred Sullivan looking at the situation and saying, "What the hell, somebody's got to do it." He had the means, since his company, Lumber Liquidators, did $544 million in business retailing hardwood floors last year.

Sullivan says he's spent the last few years working seven days a week on his flooring business, which now has more than 200 stores. But when he finally had time to breathe, instead of "lying around the beach all day going crazy," Sullivan started thinking about how we could end our $1-billion-a-day foreign oil habit. And he says his $15 to $20 million plan for an East Coast hydrogen highway happened very quickly, right after he Googled the phrase "solar-powered hydrogen."

Proton Energy Systems is a nifty Connecticut-based company that makes the "electrolyzers" that produce hydrogen from water. At least it was nifty until 2008, when it got sold to the highest bidder at a bankruptcy auction. Sullivan's Google session was two days before that auction, so he said "what the hell" and became just one of two bidders. The other guy quickly folded, and Sullivan ended up buying the company for $10.2 million. Just like that.

Sullivan is a hands-on guy. Lumber Liquidators was built up one store at a time from a scrap wood business in Stoughton, Massachusetts. So just buying Proton and trying to make it work as a business wasn't enough. He quickly created another company, SunHydro, to use Proton's technology in $2 million commercial-scale hydrogen stations with built-in solar panels. And, what the hell, why not put as many as 15 of them strategically placed between Maine and Miami?

The first station will open at Proton's Wallingford, Connecticut, headquarters in June. In two years, Sullivan hopes to make the first drive down the hydrogen highway. "We're shooting for 2012," he said. "I'd like to take the ride in a fuel-cell Ferrari, but if they don't have one by then I could use one of the hydrogen Toyotas that will be based in Wallingford."

Sullivan says, "I like having a challenge like this. It's exciting. And I'm not planning on spending all of my money on this." No, though $20 million might give pause to someone more risk-adverse. But he can take heart that fuel-cell station investment is tax-deductible. Yea! But the deduction for each $2 million outlet is limited to $200,000. Boo.

Fuel-cell cars are coming: Toyota says it will commercialize one by 2015. General Motors, which has a pilot program with Chevrolet Equinoxes on the East Coast, is also getting closer to market, as is Honda with its totally cool FCX Clarity. The Clarity is already street legal. And in 2008 roadworthy cars were put into the hands of some celebrities, including Jamie Lee Curtis and her husband, world's funniest filmmaker, Christopher Guest.

OK, picture this. It's 2012, and the hydrogen highway is ready to open. Honda has made a special edition of the Clarity with one of Lumber Liquidators' hardwood floors. Sullivan takes the first ride, with Jamie Lee Curtis as navigator and Tom and Ray piloting the chase vehicle, a 1963 Dodge Dart convertible. Stranger things have happened.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One