The Science of Sustainability

QUEST TV: Highway to Hydrogen

  • share this article
  • Facebook
  • Email

 

Bill Holloway loves showing off the sporty metallic sedan he uses to brave a150-mile commute to his job or while running errands around town. The 62-year-old resident of Alameda, California, will even hand over his keys — as he did with me — to individuals curious about the car and how it handles on neighborhood roads and busy highways. But what really makes his Mercedes a conversation starter is the fuel it uses: compressed hydrogen gas that gets converted into electricity to power the car’s electric motor and travel roughly 200 miles per fill-up, with water vapor as the only tailpipe emission.

Bill Holloway, a 62 year-old resident of Alameda, California, thinks his Mercedes hydrogen fuel cell car is the best city car he has ever owned. Photo by Sheraz Sadiq / KQED Science

Bill Holloway, a 62 year-old resident of Alameda, California, thinks his Mercedes hydrogen fuel cell car is the best city car he has ever owned. Photo by Sheraz Sadiq / KQED Science

When I took his hydrogen fuel cell vehicle for a spin, I had to agree that it was fun to drive and had that Ninja-quiet, electric car feel to it, much like a Toyota Prius. The comparison is apt, considering that in 2015, Toyota will release a new hydrogen car that can travel roughly 300 miles per fill-up, a range that is on par with conventional gasoline-powered cars. In spring 2014, Hyundai will release the Tucson Fuel Cell, an SUV that runs on hydrogen,  for Southern California motorists willing to put down $2999 and pay $499 a month for a three-year lease, fuel and maintenance included.

If the commercial roll-out of new hydrogen cars is successful in California, the nation’s largest car market, the cars may then expand to other markets where concerns about CO2 emissions and climate change resonate among voters and consumers. In October 2013, for example, seven other states joined California on an ambitious initiative to place more than three million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025, presenting both a challenge and an opportunity for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Even the federal government is showing renewed interest in fuel cell technology and the infrastructure the cars desperately need to take off. In May 2013, the Department of Energy launched H2USA, a public-private partnership that includes the American Gas Association, automakers and other industries working together to make the production and delivery of hydrogen fuel cheaper and more efficient.

Filling up a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is similar to filling up a conventional gasoline-powered car. Photo by Sheraz Sadiq / KQED Science

Filling up a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle takes a few minutes, much like refueling a conventional car with gasoline. Photo by Sheraz Sadiq / KQED Science

But as Holloway told me, “If someone wants a fuel cell car, I would give them a rousing thumbs up for their decision as long as they can find somewhere to fill it.” Currently, there is only one public hydrogen refueling station in Northern California where he can fill up his Mercedes B-Class F-Cell, which he leases from Mercedes for $950 a month, hydrogen included. At the time of our filming, only a handful of other drivers were leasing a Mercedes F-Cell in the San Francisco Bay Area, and only one other auto maker — Honda — was also leasing its fuel cell sedan, the FCX Clarity, to motorists based in Southern California.

With only 300 to 400 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the nation’s roads, according to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, the lack of hydrogen refueling stations has been a major stumbling block. A decade after former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s failed plan to build hundreds of hydrogen refueling stations up and down the state,  the California Fuel Cell Partnership is today promoting a “road map” to prioritize the construction of 68 new hydrogen refueling stations in five geographic regions, such as Silicon Valley and Santa Monica/West L.A.

Even with 19 new hydrogen refueling stations already in development, which are being built with the help of public dollars, thanks to recent legislation signed by Governor Jerry Brown, it’s far from certain that drivers will enthusiastically get behind the wheel of hydrogen cars that already have some catching up to do with Nissan Leafs, Chevy Volts, and other zero-emission vehicles.

A glimpse under  the hood of the Mercedes F-Cell hydrogen fuel cell car. It looks like a conventional vehicle, except for the green "H2" gas sticker. Photo by Sheraz Sadiq / KQED Science

A glimpse under the hood of the Mercedes F-Cell which uses hydrogen instead of gasoline for fuel. Photo by Sheraz Sadiq / KQED Science

But in a state where the Toyota Prius was the best-selling car in 2012 and 2013, hydrogen cars may still have a chance among drivers concerned about the environment and tech-savvy motorists like Bill Holloway, who leased his fuel cell car because it appealed to his inner geek.

Back at his house, with his car parked in his driveway, Holloway lifted the hood to reveal a pretty conventional-looking array of car parts, such as a battery and an air compressor. “You open the hood and it’s a normal car,” he said. “You put the key in, you put it in drive, and away you go.”

Just don’t make a road trip out of it or you may hit a dead end trying to find a place to fill up – for now, at least.

Additional footage and imagery used in “Highway to Hydrogen” QUEST video courtesy of: American Honda Motor Co., Inc.; California Fuel Cell Partnership; Hyundai Motor America; KQED Newsroom; Lun So; Marc Marshall, Schatz Energy Research Center, Humboldt State University; Mercedes-Benz USA; Toyota Motor Corporation; University of California- Davis News Service

Related

Explore: , , , , , , ,

Category: Energy, Environment, Television, Video

  • share this article
  • Facebook
  • Email
Sheraz Sadiq

About the Author ()

Sheraz Sadiq is an Emmy Award-winning producer at San Francisco PBS affiliate KQED. In 2012, he received the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism award for a story he produced about the seismic retrofit of the Hetch Hetchy water delivery system which serves the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to producing television content for KQED Science, he has also created online features and written news articles on scientific subjects ranging from astronomy to synthetic biology.
  • Chris Howell

    Electric cars are clearly the future. The only question is how to store the energy. We don't need to build a new grid for hydrogen – we already have a wonderful grid for electricity. We don't need fuel cells, we just need better batteries. Whose interests are being served by creating a new dependency – on hydrogen?

    • pmaier

      An electricity grid is like a water distribution system that delivers water all the time, even when nobody needs it. If one would compare the energy content of the fuel used to generate electricity with the actual labor done by the equipment using electricity, the efficiency would not be higher than 10 to 15%.
      Convenient? Yes, extremely wasteful ! Of course nobody will ever mention this.
      Hydrogen could generate the same convenient electricity, but only when one needs it and one probably could use the existing natural gas distribution system, except that when there is a leak, hydrogen will disperse so fast that there will not be an explosion. So many advantages, but the public is kept in the dark, until all fossil fuel is squeezed out of the earth.

  • Erocker

    Infrastructure for Hydrogen cars will some day be seen as a huge waste of public money.

  • Jerry Azzaro

    Hydrogen is the fuel of the future, and it always will be.
    Where does hydrogen come from? From steam-methane reforming? That's fossil fuel … may as well stay with gas, diesel and propane.
    From electrolysis (water)? That takes tons of electricity … may as well just put the electricity in batteries and drive electric cars.
    Oops, I forgot. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared that hydrogen fuel was a good idea.
    [Never mind.]

  • http://KJPaul.com KJ Paul

    A battery is a closed fuel cell. The big difference between a battery and a fuel cell is in a battery the electrolysis is happening inside the system and with a fuel cell it is done outside the system. With batteries they typically use very environmentally unfriendly chemicals and in a fuel cell it is typically water.

    The thing the energy industry does not like about hydrogen is anyone can produce it. The power grid itself is old and inefficient and is a huge waste of energy. You can store the excess energy from solar panels in hydrogen right now and anyone can make it, so you don't need the grid at all, all you need is a fuel cell to get the electricity back. This is now, not the future. Water electrolysis is a clean and efficient process.

    One of the biggest problems is how to store the hydrogen. It is not easy to pressurize it to the level needed for the high pressure tank, which is why researchers have been looking into low pressure nanotube and hydride storage options etc. Material science will eventually win this battle so until then there will be losses in efficiency do to the need to pressurize.

    One of the options is to use methane as the storage medium. Digestion of farm waste, algae and trash can produce methane,.but someone needs to invent the equivalent of a cow stomach first. The methane can be used to produce hydrogen or the fuel cell could be tailored to use methane. The entire cycle would be 100% carbon neutral.

    What we need RIGHT NOW is something to push the process along and having the hydrogen pumping grid IS what will allow it to happen. Sure, the hydrogen pumps will become mostly obsolete when the efficiencies and technologies allow people to get their hydrogen from their trash, but that is a long way off. Telephone wires are obsolete now, does that mean they should have never been installed?

    About Tesla, leaf etc. They can replace the batteries with a fuel cell. They may want to keep a few batteries for burst power so the fuel cell can be smaller. This technology does not make them obsolete; on the contrary, they are forerunners.

    On an industrial scale, algae and farm waste will eventually produce the hydrogen. The big roadblock to all of this is and has been the oil industry.

    Don't discount the fuel cell, it is the answer for the near and long term. Cheap oil is the only thing that has been and is slowing down the progress. Fuel cells were invented in the 19th century, but oil is monopolizable and the industries around it have a huge vested interest in keeping it that way. That is where the problem has been and may very well always be if we don't fight for a hydrogen grid.

  • pmaier

    When decades ago global warming came in the news and was caused by fossil fuel burning, the solution was obvious, hydrogen, the same energy process nature has used for millions of years. So California and Norway started to built a hydrogen highway. It was the moment those depending on fossil fuel realized that this indeed was the only solution, so they immediately started a misinformation (fear) campaign and sponsored all other types of alternative energy solutions. Now the hydrogen solution is hardly considered, while the earth is squeezed out of all its fossil fuels.
    In the process the public is confused, not knowing who to believe. We desperately need an analysis first of all the advantages and disadvantages of each solution. After the best solutions are identified, they should be subject to a cost/benefit analysis. In our present discussions we first consider cost, while we should realize that this cost will change when a certain goal is established. When oil was solely used in lamps the cost was very high and its price only dropped when people start driving cars.
    To set up a simple table with all advantages and disadvantages for form of energy, would be something for science kqed and start a sensible discussion.