The hydrogen car finally takes shape

In his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 2003, President George W. Bush proposed $1.2 billion in research funding so that America “can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles.”

“With a new national commitment,” the president added, “our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom, so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free.”

That child, now an adolescent, still has another 4 and a half years before obtaining a driver’s license, so that dream of his or her first car being hydrogen-powered is well within reach. After almost a decade of talk and promises, the first hydrogen cars are now making it from the drawing boards into showrooms.

Hyundai was first out of the box last spring with the introduction of the hydrogen fuel-cell Tucson. The company now claims to have 71 cars on the road, all of them in California. But it will be soon joined by Toyota, which is treating the introduction of its Mirai (the word means “future” in Japanese) like the arrival of a new baby. Only 3,000 are to be sold during the first year, only in California, and potential buyers are being screened like 3-year-olds applying to an exclusive preschool. “To buy Toyota’s new hydrogen car you’ll need to pass an interview,” read one headline. Deliveries will start in October.

“We’re looking for the bold and the few,” Toyota says on its marketing video, making ownership sound like joining the Marines. Potential buyers are being vetted very seriously to make sure they are prepared for the challenges and not just seeking novelty. And there will be challenges: The car will only be sold at eight dealerships in California. The $57,000 car has a driving range of 320 miles, putting it right next to gasoline engines and well ahead of the 200-mile range of electric vehicles. Its 67 miles-per-gallon puts it in a class by itself. Refueling takes no longer than an ordinary gasoline car. BMW, Honda and Mercedes will also have entries in the next few years.

But refueling stations will be few and far between. There are only eight in the state right now, with 48 more in development, according to this locator operated by the California Fuel Cell Partnership. Toyota has pledged to build more, including a bunch in Connecticut, but that is still far in the future. “Marketing this car is the reverse of selling,” says Mike Sullivan of Toyota Santa Monica, one of the exclusive outlets. “We’re going to turn people down if this car isn’t for you.”

Hydrogen cars run on fuel cells, which are entirely different from the combustion process. The hydrogen is fed into a “polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM),” which separates the molecule’s electron from its proton. The proton passes through the membrane, but the electron is routed around it in a way that creates an electric current. The electron is then reunited with the proton on the opposite side, where it joins oxygen from the air to produce the fuel cell’s only “exhaust” — water vapor. No carbon dioxide is emitted during the process.

The process is ideal for replacing traditional auto exhausts from the combustion process. The only trick is producing the hydrogen, which does not exist freely in nature. Most hydrogen is now being derived from natural gas (methane), although that process produces carbon dioxide. (Toyota shows that livestock manure is one source of the hydrogen that can power the Mirai.) Various experiments have been tried in producing hydrogen from food wastes and other organic materials, but the carbon dioxide remains. The other method is splitting the water molecule through electrolysis, but this is very energy-intensive and expensive. (Fuel cells are often described as reversing electrolysis.)

Although fuel cells have been slow in coming in the automotive sector, they have been making rapid progress in other uses. A good portion of the nation’s forklifts now run on hydrogen, since it is relatively easy to keep a refueling station on-site. A company called Plug Power in upstate New York has had success in selling fuel cells as backup power in businesses and residences. And Bloom Energy, a California company, has made a business of selling fuel cell systems — the “Bloom Box” — to power data centers.

Setting up a network of fueling stations around California and the rest of the country may prove to be more of a challenge, however. A story in Green Car Reports last month said complaints are mounting among hydrogen car owners that even the few refueling stations around California are not working properly. “The stations are frequently inoperative, drivers say, closed for days or weeks at a time,” wrote reporter John Voelcker. “Moreover, even when the stations are functioning properly, there is often an hour-long wait after the first one or two cars – and some stations can only fuel cars to half-full.”

An entire Facebook group of disappointed owners has emerged, and the caustic comments are abundant. “The expectations that were being portrayed — 15 stations being up by the end of 2014 — fell woefully short,” wrote one Hyundai Tucson owner. “There are eight so-called active consumer stations, with three currently working. I would say my wife and I are HUGELY disappointed as we firmly believe in this technology. … But if someone does not plant a huge boot in the behind of the people who are in control of delivering the fueling infrastructure, this will be an epic fail.”

This will be the problem that Toyota and the others will be facing as they prepare to enter the hydrogen race.

More William Tucker posts about alternative vehicles:


Hydrogen-powered cars steal some sex appeal in Detroit

Visitors to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this week likely were awe-struck, along with critics, at the sight of the new high-powered Acura NSX and the Ford GT.

But this might be the show where hydrogen-powered vehicles finally graduated from the drawing board to the public consciousness.

Much buzz was created in the Motor City when Honda unveiled its FCV (for fuel-cell vehicle) concept car, which is expected to go on sale in the United States in 2016. The car is an answer to Toyota’s Mirai FCV, which is expected to be available in the U.S. later this year (Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe became the first person in the world to get one last week.)

The cars join the Hyundai Tucson and the Mercedes F-Cell in the hydrogen ranks. Hyundai reportedly has decided to lower the price of its vehicle (said to be about $139,000) to increase its competitiveness with its rivals.

Cost could be a big issue with consumers: The Mirai costs about $62,000, roughly the same as the Honda FCV.

Refueling access is another issue: There are only 13 hydrogen stations in the U.S., 11 of them in California. But the state is investing more than $46 million to build 28 new stations.

FCVs combine hydrogen, from a tank or cell, with oxygen that powers an electric motor. The key benefit is the short refueling time: Honda said its FCV could be fueled in about 3 minutes (at about 10,00 pounds per square inch). The vehicle has a range of roughly 300 miles, an improvement over the 240 achieved by Honda’s first-generation fuel-cell vehicle, the FCX Clarity. The Mirai also has about a 300-mile range.

One person unimpressed with all the attention hydrogen-powered cars were getting in Detroit was Tesla founder Elon Musk. As MLive reported:

“I just think they’re extremely silly,” he told reporters at Automotive News’ annual World Congress.

Musk argued that hydrogen acts as an energy storage unit, not a source of it, making it impractical for powering vehicles. He called drawing hydrogen from water “an extremely inefficient” process.

“If you’re going to pick an energy storage mechanism, hydrogen is just an extremely dumb one to pick,” Musk said.

Toyota is undaunted, saying it will share the 5,680 patents that went into its hydrogen fuel cells. Musk announced last year that Tesla would make its patents available to other carmakers.

Time reported:

“Hopefully by sharing these patents with others, these new fuel systems can be refined and improved,” said Toyota Senior Vice President Bob Carter, “to attract a larger market of buyers.”

The Mirai is starting with a small batch of 700 vehicles in 2014 with the goal of growing to tens of thousands by the 2020s. “We believe hydrogen electric will be the primary fuel for the next 100 years,” Carter said.

(Photo: Honda FCV, via

Southeast Alternative Fuel Conference & Expo set for October

The Southeast Alternative Fuel Conference & Expo is set for Oct. 22-24 at the Raleigh Convention Center in Raleigh, NC. Hosted by the N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center, the event will feature plenary and breakout sessions with national and regional leaders.

Toyota Embraces Hydrogen

Toyota is the world’s most successful car company. The Prius is the most popular gas-electric hybrid ever, with 3 million sold in 80 countries worldwide. Toyota can be said to have pioneered the first vehicle that has challenged the traditional internal combustion engine.
So why is the Japanese giant now moving away from hybrids and placing its bets on the hydrogen fuel cell?
It’s a tough question. Not many analysts can see the sense of it. Elon Musk dismisses the whole idea as “fool cells” and says it can’t succeed. Yet, Toyota maintains that there are inherent advantages in the technology that will eventually emerge. Most of all, the decision by Toyota, Honda and Hyundai to go with hydrogen instead of electric vehicles has set off a fierce debate on which technology — if either — represents the better route to replacing the internal combustion engine.
It is not as if this is a snap decision for Toyota. In 1992, the company set up two task forces — one to investigate the gas-electric hybrid and one to pursue the hydrogen vehicle. In 1997 the Japanese giant introduced the Prius, which has gone on to become one of the most successful models of all time. But work never stopped on the fuel cell project. Now, as company officials reportedly believe hybrid technology may have reached the point of diminishing returns, they feel it is time to move on to something new. “Of all the advanced power train systems we have in our portfolio,” Toyota Senior Vice President Bob Carter told Green Car Reports, “we see hydrogen fuel cells as being the no-compromise, primary-option vehicle for the next 100 years.”
All this is happening, of course, at the moment when Tesla seems to be proving that electric vehicles can go head-to-head with gas-powered cars. So the question is, what does Toyota see in hydrogen that can’t be achieved by following up with electrics?
Range is one answer. Toyota is still convinced that electric vehicles will never get beyond the 150-200-mile range that most EVs now achieve — although Tesla is already pushing toward 300. The new Toyota Fuel Cell Vehicle (FCV) that will go on sale in California next summer will have a range of 300 miles, with hopes of future improvement.
Even more important than range is refueling time. A fuel-cell vehicle can fill up at a hydrogen pump in ten minutes — still significantly longer than gasoline — but an EV takes from four to six hours. Even the new “superchargers” that Musk is installing around the country take 20 minutes to give a half-charge. But Musk is also working on a battery-pack replacement that would be faster than a gasoline fill-up.
Of course all this is predicated on having “filling stations” available, and on that score, hydrogen is even further behind. There are only 60 such facilities in the entire country. Tesla just announced its 100th supercharging station in April and that’s just a small part of the action. Most EV owners recharge at home and the electric grid is everywhere. Providing hydrogen around the country would require a whole new infrastructure.
Joseph Romm, who once promoted hydrogen cars as Assistant Secretary of Energy under Bill Clinton and later wrote the book, “The Hype About Hydrogen,” remains one of the fiercest critics of the technology. “Hydrogen is the smallest molecule and escapes almost any container,” he wrote in his blog, ThinkProgress. “It makes metals brittle. It is almost impossible to transport. These are physical barriers that will be very difficult to overcome.”
Another surprising aspect of hydrogen is that it is not particularly cheap. Unlike EVs, ethanol or methanol made from natural gas, hydrogen does not offer consumers any financial incentive. At the J.P. Morgan Auto Conference in New York last week, Senior Vice President Carter admitted that a full tank of hydrogen needed to carry the driver 300 miles will cost $50, slightly higher than ordinary gasoline. By contrast, the owner of a Prius only pays $21 for the same trip, and the owner of a Tesla Model S would pay $9.60 at off-peak rates. It’s hard to see how there is going to be any appeal to consumers.
Now it must be admitted that much of the fierce debate taking place on the Internet concerning fuel cells vs. EVs revolves around reducing carbon emissions rather than freeing ourselves from foreign oil. EV advocates imagine a grid running on wind and solar energy while H2 partisans envision windmills and solar collectors turning out prodigious amounts of hydrogen. Other environmental critics have argued that without a larger component of non-fossil-fuel sources generating the electricity, converting to electric vehicles will do nothing to reduce carbon emissions, although some people disagree with all this.
It sometimes seems as if we are trying to accomplish too many things at once. Putting more FCVs and EVs on the road would definitely move us toward energy independence. The source of the hydrogen or electricity can be sorted out later, and the same goes for methanol and ethanol as a liquid substitute for gasoline. These fuels might originally come from natural gas, but renewable sources such as landfill gas and manure piles could be substituted later.
The important thing is to keep moving forward on all fronts. No one knows when some vast new battery improvement or an entirely different method of extracting hydrogen may prove to be a game-changer. Toyota is doing this by pursuing the fuel cell vehicle — even though for the present the odds seem slightly stacked against it.

“Toyota FCV-R Concept WAS 2012 0629″ by Mariordo – Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Garage filling stations — are we getting close?

One of the greatest appeals of switching to an alternative-fuel vehicle — electric, compressed natural gas or hydrogen — is saving money and freeing yourself from the clutches of foreign oil. But another is being able to supply your own fuel from a garage filling station where you may even be able to generate some of it yourself.

All this takes on a certain air of necessity when you realize that most of the infrastructure for recharging or refilling is not yet in place. In many cases, the garage may be the best option right now. So let’s run down some of the different options available and see how they stack up as being economical and practical.

Let’s start with the easiest one — electric cars. There are three types of chargers available to owners of a Prius, Leaf or Chevy Volt. The first is a Level 1 “trickle” charger, which is just a basic 120-volt line that plugs into any three-pronged outlet. This is the standard plug-in for all EVs. The problem is the amount of time it takes for a complete charge. For the Leaf, it takes close to 21 hours, which means that you can’t even do it overnight. For hybrids there’s some leeway since you can always revert to the gas motor and do some brake recharging as well. But if you’re planning to rely completely on a home outlet, you’d better have a second car.

More favorable is a Level 2 240-volt circuit. If you have an electric clothes dryer in your house, you’re already equipped. If you don’t have a 240-volt system at home, installation is easy enough. It will require a 40-amp circuit breaker, which may need a permit from the local building department, but the job is simple enough. Recharging time will be cut to less than eight hours, enough for an overnight. puts the price at $600 -$700, although vendors such as ClipperCreek lists some for less.

If you really want to go really high-tech, you can move up to a Level 3 480-volt power supply that can give you an 80 percent charge in half an hour. The whole package costs $30,000, but with federal tax breaks and some help from the car companies, you can get it down to $10,000. Nissan offers a unit for $9,900. You could probably recoup some of the costs by recharging EVs for your neighbors, but you might need a zoning variance.

So how about compressed natural gas? What are the options there?

The Honda Civic is the only CNG passenger vehicle being sold in the United States. (Most of the progress has been with delivery trucks and long-haul trailers.) There are currently 1,000 CNG filling stations across the country, but half of them belong to companies that are using them for their fleets. Only about 500 are available to the public. So, unless you’re traveling along an Interstate and can make it to one of Clean Energy Fuels’ new truck stops, you’re going to have a hard time.

Refilling at home, however, isn’t all that impractical. More than half the residences in the country are equipped with natural gas for home heating, cooking or hot water. The trick is to get a device that can compress this household gas to be used in your car.

Honda originally offered a home refueling kit, the Phill, which costs $4,500 and could do a refill overnight. Honda stopped making the offer after 2012; however, due to concerns about the widely varying quality of non-commercial gas and the possibility of home devices allowing moisture to collect in the fuel system. For those willing to take the chance, the Phill is still available from its manufacturer, BRC FuelMaker. The question is, “Why is it so expensive when the same pump would cost 10% if it filled air bottles?” There is a regulatory review needed to reduce the cost.

Seeking to promote the technology, the Department of Energy (DoE) handed out grants a few years ago to encourage companies to develop affordable home systems. Now one of them may have come through. The Eaton Corporation of Cleveland, already prominent in the field of electrical charging stations, announced in 2012 that it plans to market a CNG home refueling device by 2015. “The system will use liquid to act as a piston in compressing the gas,” says Chris Roche, vice president at Eaton’s Innovation Center. “We have also developed an innovative heat exchange technology that will improve efficiency and cut costs dramatically.” Eaton is aiming at production costs of $500, which means the device could sell for less than $1,000. GoNatural, a Salt Lake City company, has also promised to have a product available by 2015. “It could be a game changer,” said New York Times reporter Paul Stenquist, in profiling CNG home compressors last October.

So, what about hydrogen? Is there anything available there? Hydrogen is very difficult to deal with. It is the smallest atom and will leak through just about anything. It’s hard to store and transport and must be kept under high pressure.

The upside, however, is the possibility of generating your own hydrogen, particularly from renewable resources. This can be done with simple electrolysis of water, which only requires an electric current. If you can generate that current with wind or solar energy, then you are essentially powering your car for free.

Making it happen is probably a long way off, although people are working on it. HyperSolar, Inc., a Santa Barbara company, has announced “proof of concept” of a method for generating solar hydrogen. “Using our self-contained particle in a low cost plastic bag, we have successfully demonstrated our ability to mimic photosynthesis to produce renewable hydrogen from virtually any source of water using the power of the Sun,” said CEO Tim Young while making the announcement. Horizon Fuel Cells, a Singapore company, released a “desktop” hydrogen generator in 2010 that generates hydrogen through electrolysis from any power source. It sells for $250 on Amazon. Although the company is targeting much smaller fuel-cell devices, it could eventually scale up to handle quantities needed to run a hydrogen fuel cell car

Altogether for cutting loose from the local gas station, electric vehicles are the best bet for now. But natural gas in its many forms — including methanol — are moving up and renewable hydrogen may be on the horizon. With home-generating devices proliferating, it is not hard to see all this eventually making a dent in our consumption of fossil fuels.