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Closing in on Fuel Cell Autos
Communications specialist Juan Contreras points to fuel cell stack in automotive unit made by Hyundai. Fuel-cell powered Honda sedan is in the background.

San Francisco, CA — Fuel cells are not only alive and well, they're getting closer to general use, according to Juan Contreras, a spokesman for the California Fuel Cell Partnership. Holding forth at a display just outside the entrance to the North Hall at Semicon West, Contreras talked about the large fuel cell for a Hyundai SUV that was on display, as well as the fuel-cell-powered Honda sedan parked behind it — almost overlooked because it was so ordinary in appearance. The Honda had been driven in from Sacramento (90 miles away) for the Expo, and is one of the lead vehicles in the state's fuel cell initiative. The California Fuel Cell Partnership is a collaboration of auto manufacturers, energy providers, government agencies, technology companies and transit agencies who work together to promote the commercialization of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Low-emission and zero-emission vehicles currently on the road are still far from the totally "green" solution that our civilization ultimately requires. Hybrid cars, while desirable with their excellent gas mileage, still use fossil fuel and have a significant carbon footprint. All-electric vehicles have a limited range per charge, although very costly versions such as the high-end Tesla can offer much greater distances per charge. In any event, electrics also have a carbon footprint left by the power generating plant, since the bulk of our electric power still comes from fossil fuel.

Two Roadblocks
Today there continue to be two major roadblocks to general use of fuel-cell-powered vehicles: high initial vehicle cost and the lack of an infrastructure of hydrogen filling stations. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but in nature, it is always bonded to other elements as water, natural gas and other fossil fuels. Hydrogen can even be found in plants and garbage, and many municipalities today use hydrogen stripped from methane gas that is produced in landfills and waste processing plants to power electricity-generating fuel cells. Other sites simply burn the methane to generate steam to power turbines. The problem here is obtaining the hydrogen, storing it, and getting it into automobile fuel tanks.

While there are already 10 public-accessible hydrogen filling stations in the state of California, most of them get their hydrogen from delivery tankers sent by gas companies like Praxair, Linde and Air Liquide. Typically, this hydrogen has been generated by steam-stripping natural gas which is plentiful in the United States, but this unfortunately leaves a significant carbon footprint at the production facility.

The immediate target is for California to have 100 public-accessible hydrogen filling stations by 2015, a date that is expected to see larger numbers of fuel-cell vehicles available to the general public for the first time. Most of these filling stations are expected to be renewable sources, solar-powered, self-contained hydrogen stations, obtaining the hydrogen through electrolysis of water. Such stations are already in use in Germany, fueling experimental fuel-cell cars from automakers there. Most of these will be clustered around the state's two major metro centers: Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Vehicles are expected to have prices comparable to hybrids and electrics — although for now, their price tag is on the high end. Toyota, for example, has announced its fuel cell vehicle, targeted to be available in 2015, will be priced at about $50,000 — still not quite accessible to the general public. By 2017, industry experts expect the price to drop to the $30,000 range.

Digestive Bacteria at Work
In the meantime, various ways to produce hydrogen from clean energy have been growing in popularity. In British Columbia, Canada, waste hydrogen from a sodium chlorate manufacturing operation is used to fuel transit buses and to power a nearby building. Digestive bacteria add to the cause in a variety of operations. In Chico, California, the Sierra Nevada Brewery converts methane from a wastewater treatment system into hydrogen for fuel cells that provide electricity {?} all as part of the brewing process. The Orange County Sanitation District (Anaheim, Calif.) has an energy station that converts sewage waste into hydrogen for vehicles and electricity for the sewage pumping station. Laboratories and universities all over the U.S. are conducting research that involves collecting hydrogen from sewage treatment plants, bacteria,algae, rice straw and wood chips.

Hydrogen can be made from available natural resources just about anywhere in the world. By using local production, carbon footprints are further reduced, since the fuel is not transported by rail, ship or truck. And finally hydrogen fuel can be made right at the automotive fueling stations, using solar energy to extract hydrogen from water.


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