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Green Car Journal 1/03

March 7, 2003 11:59 p.m. EST

Hydrogen Fuel May Be Clean; Getting It Here Looks Messy


On the afternoon that President Bush proposed a $1.7 billion, five-year federal subsidy for hydrogen research in a speech last month, he was photographed smiling in front of the "HyWire," a prototype car from General Motors Corp.

The car is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, a device the auto industry and the U.S. government are heavily promoting for its potential to clean the air, curb global warming and reduce reliance on foreign oil.

Four days later, GM invited reporters to a leafy park in Sacramento, Calif., to take the bold new test car for a spin. But when the HyWire arrived in the California capital -- rushed from Washington inside a diesel-powered truck and a plane -- there was a snag. For more than an hour, it wouldn't start.

The auto industry, big oil companies and the U.S. government are touting hydrogen as an environmental savior. But the road to a hydrogen economy is riddled with potholes. Even its boosters estimate that, if it ever materializes, it won't be for a decade to a half-century. Hydrogen, which requires less of a spark to ignite than gasoline does, presents such tricky safety issues that some technicians wear antistatic lab coats when filling a tank. What's more, the process of obtaining hydrogen will emit carbon dioxide even if the cars running on it don't.

Perhaps the toughest question of all is: Who will pay for the giant network that will carry hydrogen to the nation's gas stations? That raises a chicken-or-egg dilemma: Which should come first? A clean car or the clean fuel? Even if auto companies figure out how to make fuel-cell-powered cars durable and reliable enough to satisfy drivers, no one will buy those cars unless they know they'll be able to fill them up conveniently.

Publicly, the auto and oil industries say they're working to untie this knot. This week, GM and Royal Dutch/Shell Group said they plan to launch a fuel-cell-demonstration project in the Washington area. Shell will configure an existing gas station to dispense hydrogen to six GM fuel-cell-powered minivans. The companies hope that if politicians get behind the wheel of a fuel-cell-powered car and watch it being filled up with hydrogen, they'll push for subsidies the companies say would help jump-start the hydrogen future.

Larry Burns, GM's top technology guru, says the auto maker already has spent nearly a billion dollars trying to get its fuel-cell prototypes ready for the road. Though experts say no more than 100 fuel-cell-powered passenger vehicles are on the road around the world today, Mr. Burns says GM hopes to sell a million of them a year by the middle of the next decade, which would be about 10% of the company's total production. He says he's impatient that oil producers aren't moving faster to get hydrogen flowing to consumers. "I'm not convinced they're investing enough," he says.

The oil companies, for their part, aren't about to abandon petroleum for hydrogen until they're convinced they can make money from such a shift. Having seen the auto industry fail to deliver on past promises to roll out large numbers of alternative-fuel cars -- from battery-powered electric vehicles to diesels to fuel-cell models -- some oil producers are leery. "The verdict is still out on whether hydrogen will ever become a mainstream fuel," says Buford Lewis, manager of fuels development for Exxon Mobil Corp., which is working with GM on research.

None of these doubts are mentioned in the marketing campaigns that the industries are rolling out to trumpet hydrogen's potential. Toyota Motor Corp., for instance, advertises in full-page newspaper and magazine ads that it's offering vehicles whose "only emission is water. That's right -- water." The cars are "now on the road and ready-to-drive," the ad says. In fact, Toyota has six fuel-cell-powered vehicles on the road in California and Japan, and they're in tests.

President Bush conceded in his speech that the hydrogen push will be tough. But he said the effort is worthwhile because the promise of fuel-cell-powered cars is so great. "It won't be easy to get there because there are obstacles," he said. "But we'll achieve this. It's going to make economic sense to do this, it's going to mean that our air is cleaner and our national security is more secure. It's going to happen."

But for all the talk about taxpayer subsidies, the auto and oil industries still will have to pony up billions if a hydrogen infrastructure is to take shape. When that might happen is anyone's guess. "This is a marathon, not a sprint, and frankly the race has just begun," says Don Huberts, chief executive of Shell Hydrogen, a Shell unit looking at how to turn hydrogen into a consumer fuel. "I cannot predict whether we will reach the finish line in 2030 or 2050."

In one clean chemical reaction, fuel cells combine hydrogen with oxygen from the air to produce electricity that could power everything from cell phones to buildings to cars. The only thing they spit out as exhaust is warm water.

But that's only half of the story. Though it's one of the most common elements on the planet, hydrogen has to be pried from other substances that contain it. Today, the likeliest source of hydrogen for fuel-cell cars is natural gas. Stripping the hydrogen from natural gas, called "reforming," emits carbon dioxide, the chief suspect in causing global warming.

While there are a variety of options for making hydrogen available as a motor fuel, companies say none are viable yet. Many are focusing on the idea of outfitting gas stations with machines that would tap into the existing natural-gas pipeline, and reform the natural gas into hydrogen on-site.

A conventional gas station costs about $1.5 million to build. To outfit a station with a machine that would convert natural gas to hydrogen would cost about another $400,000, according to oil giant BP PLC. Some companies, particularly GM and Honda Motor Co., are talking about bypassing existing gas stations altogether. They suggest letting consumers buy or lease special hydrogen-fueling machines at home. That option would require satisfying regulators that it's safe -- a question that's still under discussion.

No place has been working harder to figure all this out than California, famous for its dirty air and its attempts to clean it up. Since the late 1990s, spurred by state and local regulators, auto makers, oil producers and fuel-cell-related companies have been working here to try to get a pilot hydrogen economy up and running.

The corporate participants in the California Fuel Cell Partnership have about a half-dozen hydrogen stations in operation. Aided by state and local government subsidies, more than a dozen others are planned in the next few years. Oil companies estimate that, to catch on with consumers, a new fuel has to be available at about 30% of the gas stations in a given area. There are about 180,000 gas stations in the U.S.

For a look at the challenges facing hydrogen, consider California's attempt to roll out a less-esoteric alternative fuel: natural gas, which burns cleaner in an internal-combustion engine than gasoline or diesel fuel.

Prodded by regulators and aided by public subsidies, California has thousands of taxis, buses, garbage trucks and other vehicles running on natural gas. It also has about 140 natural-gas stations open to the public where they can fuel up. But that's not enough to be convenient, says L.A. taxi driver Jun Il Han, who has learned the hard way.

He keeps a pamphlet listing all the natural-gas stations on the front seat of his Ford cab. When he's near one, he usually darts in to top off his tank so he won't sputter to a stop in the middle of a fare. "This is very, very important to me," he says, filling up one recent afternoon at a station near the Los Angeles International Airport.

He doesn't always succeed. At times, he has had to apologize to a customer and detour to a natural-gas station to fill up. When the airport station hasn't been working, he has had to decline fares. When his planning has failed, leaving him stuck on empty, he has had to call a tow truck.

Yet 140 stations are more than the California Fuel Cell Partnership envisions for hydrogen anytime soon. In the back of its headquarters are eight garages, each used by a different auto maker to test its prototypes.

Because of safety concerns about hydrogen, which burns without odor or color, each garage has small red-and-blue discs on its ceiling, sensors installed to detect hydrogen leaks. It also has special ducts snaking up its walls, part of a sophisticated heating and air-conditioning system that pulls in fresh air if the sensors detect a hydrogen leak.

In the parking lot outside the garages is a hydrogen-fueling station, one of the first to be built in the state. Blocked off from the public by a tall chain-link fence, the station consists of a maze of tubs and tubes. Its hydrogen is trucked in from a factory that makes it from natural gas. The station stores the hydrogen as liquid and gas and then sends it to pumps that dispense it to the test cars.

A Necar fuel-cell-powered test car from DaimlerChrysler AG fuels up with hydrogen at a station in Sacramento, Calif.

When an employee of DaimlerChrysler AG's Mercedes-Benz unit drives up to top off a prototype's tank, the first thing he does is pop the rear hatch and don a gray lab coat he keeps in the cargo area. It's made from antistatic material -- a precaution to minimize the chances of a spark. The company says it's being cautious, and consumers won't need to do this when fuel-cell powered cars are in production.

Then he takes from the pump what looks like a circular electrical plug and inserts it into an outlet in the car. That "communication cable" detects the pressure and temperature inside the car's hydrogen tank throughout the fill-up and sends that information to the pump. The pump uses the data to regulate the speed at which it's dispensing hydrogen -- all in an effort to fill the tank as quickly as possible without causing a leak.

An experiment in a cleaner way to produce hydrogen is under way at a station in Richmond, Calif. It's tucked behind a cement wall and a chain-link fence in the back corner of a city-bus yard where the air is heavy with diesel fumes. One reason for the location: No one was eager to put it in a public place, given concerns about hydrogen's flammability.

A DaimlerChrysler technician wears an anti-static coat to guard against a spark while refueling a different version of the Necar.

This station takes water from a city pipe and breaks it into hydrogen and oxygen, venting the oxygen into the air and piping the hydrogen to a rack of pressurized tanks and ultimately to a pump.

There are two problems with this method, called "electrolysis." Both result from the amount of electricity needed to break apart the water. One is that it's expensive. Another is that it isn't as green as it appears, because here, as in much of the world, electricity comes from burning fossil fuel, a process that itself emits carbon dioxide.

The green dream is to produce hydrogen from water using electricity made from renewable sources such as the sun or wind. That's what Honda is doing at a futuristic station at its U.S. headquarters in Torrance, Calif.

The station sits behind locked gates and is dominated by a long bank of solar panels. They capture the energy to make the electricity to crack the water to isolate the hydrogen. But the solar panels take up a lot of space, and produce only enough hydrogen over a year to make one fuel-cell-powered car go about 10,000 miles. It's also not cheap, says Ben Knight, head of Honda's research operations in the U.S. He declines to specify how much the station cost.

Honda has leased the first of what it says will be five fuel-cell-powered cars to the city of Los Angeles. Toyota has put one fuel-cell-powered test car into the hands of a California driver. He is Gregg Kelly, chief executive of Orthodyne Electronics Corp., and he's an enthusiastic fuel-cell guinea pig.

The Toyota is a far cry from Mr. Kelly's Audi A6 station wagon. For one thing, Toyota executives told him not to park it in his garage, a precaution to avoid a potential hydrogen fire. For another, because the car was developed in Japan, its steering wheel is on the right side, and a dashboard video screen that shows Mr. Kelly how much hydrogen he's using at any moment displays the information in Japanese.

About twice a week, Mr. Kelly stops on his way home from work at a Toyota-funded station on the campus of the University of California, Irvine, and fills the tank. Then he drives the six or seven miles to his house, parks in the driveway and leaves it overnight. By the next morning, the fuel gauge often no longer registers full. "It's like, who drained my tank?" he says.

The answer: nature. The pressure of the hydrogen gas inside the tank dropped as it, along with the air outside, cooled. When Mr. Kelly needs to make sure he has a full tank, he drives back to the station and tops off again.

Now California is scaling back its fuel-cell dreams. This week, a state agency cut back on a plan that would have forced auto makers to put cleaner cars on the road.

In 1990, the California Air Resources Board proposed requiring car companies to introduce about 20,000 non-polluting vehicles in the state each year. In January, it dropped the proposal to 10,000. This week, its staff proposed cutting the number to 250. Given the estimated cost of about $1 million per car, a spokesman said, "the feeling was that fuel cells cost so much you clearly can't demonstrate thousands of them."

Federal officials are getting a similar message. Last summer, DaimlerChrysler engineers drove a fuel-cell-powered Mercedes-Benz from California to Washington, where they displayed it on the Capitol steps. In a press release, the company likened the trip to Charles Lindbergh's 1927 trans-Atlantic flight, saying both "conquered landmark endurance challenges that signaled entirely new transportation possibilities to come."

But DaimlerChrysler's view was less enthusiastic last month in a written response to the Bush administration, which has proposed toughening federal requirements for automotive fuel economy starting in 2005. According to the company's comments, technologies such as fuel cells "have no hope, in the near term, of reaching high volume or of making a significant impact" on the average fuel economy of the U.S. auto fleet.

Write to Jeffrey Ball at [email protected]

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Updated March 7, 2003 11:59 p.m. EST


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