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Hydrogen: Just a Lot of Hot Gas?
Peter Lehman drives up the California coast in Humboldt State University’s new hydrogen car, emblazoned with the words “Hydrogen Powered” on the sides. “If it didn’t say so, you wouldn’t know it’s a hydrogen car,” says Lehman, director of Humboldt State’s Schatz Energy Research Center. Indeed, the only problem Lehman has during a 30-minute test drive is finding the defroster.
Humboldt State received the Toyota Prius, converted to burn hydrogen, in September as part of a California initiative to promote hydrogen transportation. Hydrogen, which emits no global warming emissions when burned, was once viewed as a miracle fuel that could power the nation’s vehicles. No longer.
“Hydrogen was over-hyped in the early days,” says Lehman. “Hydrogen won’t be the silver bullet to solve our energy problems.”
There are more than 200 hydrogen vehicles on the nation’s roads, according to Patrick Serfass of the National Hydrogen Association. Honda began leasing its FCX Clarity sedan in Southern California in 2008, and the San Francisco Bay area’s AC Transit agency operates a small fleet of hydrogen busses. Other universities with hydrogen vehicles include the University of California-Irvine, UC-Davis, Ohio State, North Dakota State-Minot and the University of Delaware.
There are two types of hydrogen vehicles. Some have fuel cells, which convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity to run an electric motor. But the high cost of fuel cell vehicles has led to the development of hydrogen internal combustion engine vehicles such as Humboldt State’s.
Lehman drives up to a modern structure that vaguely resembles a gas station. “Welcome to Humboldt State University’s new hydrogen fueling station.” Opened in September, it is the nation’s 61st hydrogen station and the 70th in North America. Graduate student Andrea Allen, the station manager, opens the car’s gas cap, inserts a nozzle, locks it to create an air-tight seal and pushes a button. Fill ‘er up.
The vehicle’s reinforced tanks hold 2.5 kilograms of fuel, enough for 100 miles. HSU makes its hydrogen on-site, though most stations have the fuel delivered. Making hydrogen is simple, requiring only water and electricity. An electrolyzer splits H2O into oxygen, which is vented to the atmosphere, and hydrogen, which is compressed and stored in steel tanks. It costs about $5 to create a kilogram-equivalent to a gallon of gasoline.
While hydrogen’s backers envision a day when renewable energy is used to create hydrogen, to date this is cost-prohibitive. Most hydrogen is made using fossil fuels.
“Hydrogen makes no sense if it adds to climate change,” says Joseph Romm, author of “The Hype about Hydrogen.” Romm, who oversaw hydrogen research as acting assistant director of energy in the Clinton administration, says hydrogen is an expensive boondoggle. “There are too many technical obstacles to ever make it a viable mass-market fuel.”
Critics say automakers and politicians including President Bush (who said in his 2003 State of the Union address that children born today would have a hydrogen car as their first vehicle) have pushed hydrogen research to the detriment of more cost-effective transportation options, such as plug-in electric cars, which can be charged directly with renewable energy without wasting electricity to create hydrogen.
Lehman partly agrees: “We should only use hydrogen to the extent we need to.” One beneficial use is as a storage medium for renewable energy. Wind and solar power produce spikes of intermittent electricity. When these sources generate more power than can be fed into the grid, excess electricity could be used to make hydrogen, an alternative to batteries. This locally produced hydrogen could fuel vehicles in rural areas with limited access to the power grid, Lehman says.
The Missouri University of Science and Technology, located in rural Rolla, Mo., began operating two internal combustion hydrogen shuttle buses in 2007 with this goal in mind. “We want to help demonstrate the viability of hydrogen as a transportation fuel in a rural setting,” says spokesman Andrew Careaga.
Hydrogen fuel cells are also a promising source of heat and power for buildings, so-called stationary uses, because hydrogen can be produced on-site without the space constraints of vehicles. Fuel-cell power units have been installed on buildings including a Verizon telecommunications center on Long Island, a Whole Foods market in Glastonbury, Conn., and the First National Bank of Omaha, among dozens of others. “They provide a reliable source of power if the grid goes down,” says Peg Hashem, spokeswoman for UTC Power, which manufacturers fuel cell power units.
Trains, subways and long-haul trucks could also potentially use fuel cells because they likewise have room for hydrogen storage, and fuel cells provide a longer transportation range than plug-in electric vehicles, Romm says.
While the Bush administration has committed $1.2 billion to hydrogen research over five years, it remains to be seen how the Obama administration will treat hydrogen. “Hydrogen isn’t free and it isn’t cheap,” Lehman says. “It’s just one part of the nation’s sustainable energy future. This car is part of what that future will look like.”