Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars

In the western corner of West Sacramento, in a promontory of light industrial buildings that runs along the south frontage of Interstate 80, is the home of the California Fuel Cell Partnership. They are a depot for most of the hydrogen fuel cell powered cars in North America. In a new building on Industrial Boulevard, are spaces for auto makers and other partners from all over the world. When we visited last week, in front of the building the flags of eight nations snapped in the Pacific breeze, and across the street the vast floodplains of the Sacramento Delta stretched away to the south.

Although the facility opened up on November 1st, most of the suites are still vacant. Only Daimler-Chrysler and Honda actually have cars and crews on site. According to Linda Ortiz, the office manager, the California Fuel Cell Partnership has eighteen partners, they are auto manufacturers, energy and fuel providers fuel cell companies and governmental agencies.

There are eight suites for auto manufacturers, two of them occupied already by Daimler-Chrysler and Honda, as well as vacant ones for Volkswagon, Ford, Nissan, Hyundai, Toyota, and General Motors. Cars delivered here will be demonstrated from this site and will be open to the public. The cars won’t stay there all the time, they’ll be moved around on a regular basis to go to shows and events around the US and around the world.

So where are these cars? We headed into the back of the property, where the bays for the auto makers faced onto a back lot that looked out onto the freeway. On our way, we ran into the Chief Engineer for Honda, Shiro Matsuo, standing in the parking lot behind the building, watching for incoming cars while his team tested a fuel cell car. The car was doing laps across the length of the back lot.

We asked him what the car was doing, going in circles around the lot, and his answer indicates the cars are still very much in a development stage, “This fuel cell is not very good at lower temperatures, so we do not want to start the fuel cell system on a public road.” The car in question, Honda’s V-3, is one of the most advanced hydrogen fuel cell cars in the world, but it can not run on the open road before being warmed up for at least 5 minutes. So much for a quick start.

Honda’s other models of fuel cell cars are the V-1, which uses a metal hydride fuel tank, and the V-2, which runs on methanol using a reforming device to convert the methanol to hydrogen. The systems on these cars are so big, particularly the reformer on the methanol car, that both versions are only able to have two seats. Matsuo mentioned that California is building another depot, probably in the Bay Area, that will house new cars that use reformer technologies, such as Honda’s V-2.

Honda Concept Car
Shiro Matsuo
Chief Engineer, Honda

From a technological standpoint, methanol cars are further from being ready for the road than hydrogen cars because of the weight added by the reforming system. But there are technical obstacles to be overcome before hydrogen cars will be seen on the roads. In addition to the problem of slow warm-up, hydrogen fuel cell cars have a short range. Honda’s V-3 only has a range of 110 miles, a defect which can only be partially offset by designing a larger hydrogen tank into the car, since a bigger tank adds weight and takes up more space. A higher efficiency vehicle is still in development and won’t be ready for another year. Moreover, progress is incremental, so next year’s model will not be a breakthrough, just an improvement.

When asked about diesel cars, Matsuo had definite opinions, since it turned out he had a background in diesel engineering. His comments were interesting: “The efficiency of the diesel engine is very good, but the bad point is that it can’t get rid of some of the pollutant material, especially the particulate matter. The newest carburators produce precise high pressure injection into the cylinder which greatly increases combustion.”

Like others we talked with that day, Matsuo’s comments reflected a perception that the U.S. market, and California in particular, is more committed to zero-emissions than the rest of the world. When asked how close the new diesel cars have come to complying with ultra-low emissions standards, Matsuo wasn’t sure. He said “there are new catalysers being developed to absorb more particulate matter, it’s getting better year by year.”

Hydrogen Fuel Station
Hydrogen Fuel Station
West Sacramento
California USA

Toxins from methanol leak into the soil from bad tanks and accidental spills, particles from diesels foul the air, even methanol reformers emit some pollution, about 20% of what a typical gasoline automobile produces. Nothing is perfect, except hydrogen, which can be made from electricity and water and can be produced in limitless quantities using nothing more than solar energy and water. If hydrogen burns, it leaves no trace in the air, except for a bit of water vapor.

This pristine appeal to environmentalists, combined with the fact that fuel cells really aren’t technologically ready to power a car on any fuel but hydrogen, is why California built this facility before any others and why the major auto makers of the world are trying to make sure they keep their foot in the door. Opposite the back parking lot, just in front of the wire fence that separated us from the whizzing eastbound traffic on I-80, was a giant hydrogen fuel station. Hydrogen is stored under great pressure, 3600 and 5000 PSI in the big tanks, 7000 PSI in the smaller distribution tanks.

Hydrogen may be ecologically and technologically the logical fuel right now for fuel cell cars, but there is no consumer distribution system in place. While methanol, a liquid, can be piped, trucked and stored in the existing network for gasoline with minor conversion costs, hydrogen will require an entire new fuel distribution infrastructure. Partly for this reason, fuel cell vehicles even in California, where government subsidies and regulations are the most favorable to fuel cell development in the world, fuel cell vehicles are not expected to be on the road in significant numbers until 2004. Even by that time, most of them will be in commercial and government fleet use, where they will have a hydrogen station on site. Don’t expect to see hydrogen stations on the freeway off ramps for the next several years, if ever.

But hydrogen retains its appeal, and the prospect of gas stations that require no fuel deliveries, just solar electricity and water to convert to hydrogen to recharge their storage tanks, is a seductive vision. On vehicles that can be refueled often or have low range requirements, setting up a fleet that would run on fuel produced in limitless quantities at an on-site station will probably be a competitive economic investment within five years or sooner. Fleets of buses, which can tolerate a bulky power system, will probably be one of the first places hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will be strongly competitive. As Matsuo said, “in the long run, fuel cell vehicles will gain a percentage of the market but I don’t know if they will ever dominate.”

What will be the next generation car? Diesels, hybrids, or ultra-efficient & ultra-clean gasoline or methanol powered cars using combustion engines? The answer is all of the above. Will one type dominate? The correct answer to that question will make a lot of people rich, but it’s probably safe to bet it will not be fuel cell vehicles that dominate. What about hydrogen combustion engines, since they burn so clean?

We talked with Richard Tuso, an Electrical Technician at Daimler-Chrysler. He reiterated that the fuel cell vehicle is preferred because it “does a molecular conversion of hydrogen to electricity which causes zero emissions to the atmosphere.” He noted that methanol vehicles use a reformer which catalyses the methanol to separate the hydrocarbon from the hydrogen, but the reformer puts out emissions that are still at about 20% of an internal combustion engine. Richard acknowledged that “Methanol is easier for the fuel infrastructure, but where we’re heading for in the long run is zero emissions, not low emissions.”

When asked about the possible dangers of distributing and stockpiling huge amounts of hydrogen, which is highly pressurized and explosive, Tuso downplayed the dangers. Most of the supposed problems with hydrogen are based on a public perception that it is much more dangerous that it really is. “The perception is evident when you take into account the precautions we take here,” said Tuso. “The fueling station we built here cost five times what a comparable station cost in Germany. We have hydrogen alarms and air ventilation systems that are constantly running.”

In reality, said Tuso, “The only real problem is the pressure that’s involved, and that’s not a problem with proper tanking systems.” He showed us pictures of cars that had been dropped from 45′, then from 90′, and in all these test cases the hydrogen tank did not explode, in spite of being under pressure. Moreover, he said, “the tanks are designed to blow up, not out. If, for example, that tank back there exploded,” said Tuso, referring to the hydrogen station in the lot behind the building, “90% of the debris would fall within the fence around it.”

The danger from accidental hydrogen fires was even less of a problem, according to Tuso, because “Hydrogen is a very clean fuel, it would ignite easier than gasoline, but the likelihood of it igniting is still slim. If it did ignite, the flame doesn’t put out much heat. Gasoline fires usually consume the whole car.” He cited tests where hydrogen gas tanks were exploded and ignited, and invariably the flame went upwards and didn’t burn very hot. The back windows, for example, would not typically be damaged in a hydrogen tank fire, whereas in a gasoline tank fire, the back windows usually melt.

Notwithstanding the cost of building an entire fuel infrastructure for hydrogen, the biggest problem hydrogen fuel has may end up being a public perception that it is too dangerous to handle. “People here think of the Hindenberg and Hydrogen bombs,” said Tuso, “Some people think we have a hydrogen bomb back here.”

We left that day not sure whether or not we’d found the car of the future. Hydrogen fuel cell powered cars will be part of the market, but they probably won’t sit in everyone’s garages, owning the car market the way gasoline powered cars do today. Hybrids have better range and overall performance, and they’re already cheap to manufacture. Expect to see more of them in the near future. What will emerge in the long run is anybody’s guess. Outside the U.S., cleaner burning cars using conventional fuels such as diesel and gasoline will probably stay on top of the market. How clean can they get? How clean is clean enough? Stay tuned.

California Fuel Cell Partnership
3300 Industrial Blvd., Suite 1000,
Sacramento, CA 95691.

16 Responses to “Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars”
  1. K says:

    The last thing we need to do if we truly want “safe” energy is to just shift our energy dependencies from one stranglehold to another. That ain’t safe, that is just inviting the same poison into our life.

    Hopefully there are an unlimited amount of deities, entities, and individuals who have access to land, resources, and nature who are in no way tied to the regimes of the USA who let our lives be in the hands of people whose egos are more important than human life.

    If your ego is more important than human life and you put people in some stupid death grip because the threat level to your ego has exceeded the threat level to terror, then this is not a safe environment, and HDP should not be wasting time and income with such people.

    So, if you know of those in the energy business who want to create peace economies that reward wealth and freedom to those who resist the violent regimes who often use the USA and elsewhere as a bastion for their hegemonic and/or subjugative agendas then you are welcome to let me know.

    Those who want to take economic and politicool action today towards making sure our lives are free from such regimes are the only people that I should be spending time and income with.

  2. 4634 says:

    Hydrogen and Fuel Cell project started Callux

    Instead collector on the roof: hydrogen power plant in the basement. Federal Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee, the pilot project “Callux” for domestic energy supply before.http://www.hydrogen-motors.com/hydrogen/

  3. Kimberlee says:

    i like your pics can we make them larger…………

  4. Electric Car Man says:

    FABULOUS. GMC stopped making the EV-1, and Honda and Toyota destroyed their electric vehicles in 1990. In 2009 we will be dependent upon foreign oil, AND 19 years after reasonable electric vehicles were PHYSICALLY removed from the streets, we still have no option but petroleum fractions( GASOLINE).

    Bring on hydrogen and we can have “HINDENBERG” catastrophies every day. The California fuel Cell partnership appears to be a waste of space and time and money. 19 years and no result..

    The Oil Companies must be pleased.

  5. Eddie King says:

    I have read a lot of articles about lithium ion batteries, some other fuel
    cells, hydrogen as fuel for cars. First, will it last long ? 2nd, how about
    the maintenance ? 3rd, is it economical ? Some of the companies such as Valence Technology , Inc. Umicore, H.C. Starck,Eaton,Hydrogenics,
    who manufactures a lot device. Is anyone can find a real green fuel which is not very expensive for the consumers to buy it affordable ?
    After purchased, will it be safe to drive, less maintenance ? All those will
    have to face the final purpose. I try to find the correct answer. Help me. Thank you for your kind advice. Eddie King

  6. RR says:

    In consideration to the technology of Hydrogen having a small range compared to gas cars you fail to realize the comparison of a cleaner and on location produced fuel.

    While Gas is at basically $3 – $4 a gallon Hydrogen can be made available for under $1 since it’s an on location made fuel. There is no importing of any kind just processing and maintenance. This low price will make up for the range of about 110 miles per full tank. Not to mention the average traveled mileage is about 20miles a day. The only inconvenience is the amount of times you have to pump compared to now. But technology only gets better. If people buy and support products companies in light of competition will invest in improving their products.

    To think the current technology and performance of cars were available since the cars introductions is ignorant and foolish. Cars got this way after decades of investing brilliant minds into the business of creating more efficiency. Hydrogen has had weeks, months and a few years… far from half the time today’s cars have had. The only way to get these new technologies out and about would require investments in the current ones they have, for better or worse.

  7. Conor says:

    some of you Americans really are thick…

    petrol… gasoline as you call it… is just as dangerous as hydrogen… the hydrogen fuel cell only has one moving part and only produces water… this makes for less car problems and cleaner travel. Also hydrogen cars go for hundreds of miles on one tank. Watch top gear maybe? Hydrogen is cheaper to make than petrol and the only reason it isn’t abundantly available is because there are no pumping stations to supply hydrogen.


  8. Rob says:

    Im an auto tech and i think hydrogen is the direction everyone should be heading in its virtually free to produce ( cost of fuel just goes to fuel station upkeep) and for all the die-hard enviornmental people it produces NO polution. Now for all of u that are so concerned about hydrogens explosive nature, and like to refer to the hindenberg as your argument, you really need to open your eyes. First of all the hindenberg happened what? 60-70 years ago ( not sure of an exact year) and it was sent over by nazi germany who, some believe, sabotaged it to blow up. Regardless of what you belive, considering the explosion of technological advancement in the last thirty year, that might as well have been Davinci with his first atempt at flying machines ( ancient history). The fact of the matter is we have tanks, planes, and ships that carry thousands of pounds of explosives while taking heavy fire and withstand without blowing up. So i think you probably are at a higher risk of having a plane drop out of the sky and land on your head, then having your car turn into a hydrogen bomb from being rear-ended,

  9. Igor says:

    Instead of building hundreds of thousands hydrogen gas station or millions around the world, with the same amount of money can be made incentives for the electric cars, solar collectors, hydro power plants…

  10. timothy says:

    i think that hydrogen fuel cells will be a breakthrough and very popular if you can work out all the kinks. also i believe that this technology will be very helpful in eliminating grenhouse gasses . all around this coul be very helpful to our enviroment no matter the cost.even though 1,000,000 is way to much i say try to get it down around 30,000 and more people willl want it.

  11. Sabrina says:

    After ten years or so the cost is eventually going to fall, considering that there will be way more hydrogen vehicles on the streets. The more more we avoid gasoline, the less the greenhouse gases and all the pollution, which means hydrogen cars are going to be one of our best options for vehicles. Eventhough theyre talking about all the danger having a hydrogen bomb at the back of your car, it can be considered as a weakness that can be easily covered by all the other benefits… Dude, people need to see that hydrogen is like one of the best and only options available and suitable for the future, and I think we all need to face it.

  12. Jen says:

    We all need to think before we absorb everything written here. Let’s face it; it’s only an opinionwritten by another human being. If you actually consider the fact that everything around you can seen in two ways: good and bad, this whole idea of hydrogen vehicle can be superb idea but only written in a different perspective by someother person. The truth is, hydrogen might be an only option that is the best for the future, maybe not now, but more or less way more useful in the future. Less greenhouse gases, good for the environment, and the whole DANGER sign isn’t described right. It is dangerous in some way, but comparing to the gasoline tanks, it’s way less dangerous. The way you see it can affect what comes out of the facts, and what we should correct from this passage is the fact that
    we are going to need to use those hydrogen vehicles pretty soon.

  13. jen says:

    We’re not switching our energy “dependence” from one entity to another. Our goal is to not be dependent on anyone. In the book “Winning Our Energy Dependence” by S. David Freeman, a government energy advisor and former utility president, the technology for us to switch to an oil and fossil-free nation exists and is actually very easy to implement, if we could pass all the policies that would allow us to do it. The Silicon Valley in CA is making major strides to enhance and make less expensive the initial costs of solar power. They have developed a paper-thin solar panel that is as effective and provides as much energy as its thicker counterparts. Freeman even says that if we took 1% of the land in the U.S. (about 20% of our deserts), we would have enough energy to replace gasoline and diesel in the U.S. In addition, to not “put our eggs in one basket”, we can also take advantage of sources like ethanol, waste conversion, and wind power to add to our supply. This would reduce our need for foreign sources od energy – we would be a self-sustained country. Vehicle companies all differ on their views of which type of vehicle will prevail in the nxt decade: hydrogen fuel-cell, hybrids, or 100% electric. But the bottom line is, all are cleaner for the environment, are raved about by the EPA, and are all the companies’ effort to contribute to a cleaner, healthier environment and civilization. Hats off to the research! Keep it up.

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