New stop on the hydrogen highway

Sarah Gardner Jun 15, 2006


MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: California officials will celebrate the opening of a filling station in Santa Monica today. This one doesn’t sell gasoline, it sells hydrogen. State clean air officials have been pushing hydrogen fuel cell technology as a potentially cleaner alternative to gas-powered cars. But as Sarah Gardner tells us from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, there are some major roadblocks in the way.

SARAH GARDNER: Imagine driving from San Francisco to L.A. in your hydrogen fuel cell convertible, filling up at hydrogen stations along the way, with nothing dirtier coming out of the tailpipe than water vapor. That’s the vision behind California’s fledgling “Hydrogen Highway Network.” It’s a public-private partnership that’s building hydrogen fueling stations along California’s freeways. BreAnda Northcutt is with the state’s Environmental Protection Agencya€¦

BREANDA NORTHCUTT: Currently the California Hydrogen Highway Network has about 22 stations that are fully operating. By 2010 the governor’s vision is to have 50 to 100 stations.

But good luck buying a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. There are only about 200 of them in the whole world right now and they’re custom-made demonstration cars like this sport utility vehicle made by Toyota.

[ Sound of Highlander quietly turning on. Josh Mauzey: “That’s it. It’s ready to run.” ]

That’s senior research engineer Josh Mauzey starting a hydrogen fuel cell-powered Highlander hybrid. It’s at the National Fuel Cell Research Center in Irvine, California.

JOSH MAUZEY: It’s very quiet, very smooth. It’s a real pleasure to drive. No complaints.

The fuel cell under the hood of this car mixes hydrogen with oxygen and then converts it into electricity which powers an electric motor. But Joseph Romm, author of “The Hype about Hydrogen,” says the technology’s not market-ready.

JOSEPH ROMM: Hydrogen is a long way off from being a plausible transportation fuel.”

Romm says researchers still haven’t figured out how to fit enough hydrogen on board an automobile so it gets as much mileage between fill-ups as a gasoline-powered car. And then there’s price: Even if they were mass-produced, fuel cells would still cost three times as much as an internal combustion engine, according to a government report.

ROMM: That has to come down in price otherwise these things will never be competitive, particularly since internal combustion engine cars are starting to get a lot more efficient and cleaner with the introduction of hybrid vehicles.

Scott Samuelsen, who directs the research center at UC-Irvine, is calling for more federal money for basic research to solve these and other problems, including an environmental one. Extracting hydrogen from various sources consumes energy. And right now most of the hydrogen for these cars comes from natural gas.

SCOTT SAMUELSEN: In producing the hydrogen we produce pollutants so we have to evolve strategies that will be pollutant-free or at least minimize pollutant emission.

Samuelsen says that kind of research is still in an embryonic stage and deserves more funding. He believes once scientists overcome these technical hurdles, hydrogen fuel cell cars would hit the mass market within a decade.

In Irvine, Calif., I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

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