Simanaitis Says

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THE FEDERAL government appears to be back encouraging fuel cell development in transportation. What’s more, this is just in the nick of time, what with several automakers intent on introducing this technology in 2015.

Washington D.C.’s views on this seem to hinge on subtle signs, like Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu sitting in on his department’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technical Advisory Committee. This time around, cheap natural gas—one of hydrogen’s many sources—appears to be a driver.

The background: Electric vehicles offer clean mobility. However, a battery EV has short range and long recharge time. By contrast, a fuel cell car is an EV that makes its own electricity. FCEVs are already displaying ranges of 500 miles (in 2007, I drove one of Toyota’s fuel cell cars 436 miles on a single fill; see Road & Track, January 2008, for my Fairbanks/Vancouver and Las Vegas/San Diego adventures).

Back in 2007 my 2300-mile trip in a Toyota FCHV covered the Alaska Highway. A week later, I drove another one 436 miles on a single fill, from Las Vegas to San Diego.

The fuel cell produces electricity by combining hydrogen stored onboard with oxygen in the air. Its only byproducts are a little heat and traces of the purest water. Fuel cell refueling time is similar to that for conventional fuels.

A bit more background: Whereas classic internal combustion exploits only about 25 percent of its gasoline’s energy, the efficiency of a PEM (Proton Exchange Membrane) fuel cell is 50 percent or better. In rough figuring, a kilogram of H2 is equivalent to a gallon of gasoline.

Automakers continue to have faith in FCEVs. Honda has 25 FCX Clarity models in 3-year lease programs. Mercedes-Benz has 44 F-Cell cars under lease.  These automakers together with Toyota and Hyundai have announced plans for FCEVs in production by 2015. Indeed, Toyota has even released a photo of the car it’s bringing to market, the FCV-R.

Toyota’s FCV-R is entering production in 2015.

It’s encouraging to see the DOE’s change of heart, including $2.4 million of funding devoted to research of hydrogen infrastructure. As is often noted, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. Alas, it’s also the most promiscuous—in fact, its love affair with oxygen is the key to fuel cell operation.

At the moment, Southern California is the epicenter of an evolving infrastructure. Its gasoline refineries produce and consume hydrogen, and the region has pipelines transporting the stuff. A hydrogen “gas” station in Torrance, California, taps directly into such a pipeline. There are three stations so far in Orange County, one of them a Shell station deriving its hydrogen on-site from natural gas. The county is also home to the University of California Irvine’s National Fuel Cell Research Center, where hydrogen can be had 24/7. The center’s director, Prof. Scott Samuelsen, says of the latest Washington D.C. activity, “There’s been a dramatic turnaround in the past six to nine months…”

As an FCEV enthusiast, I’m glad to report this. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2012


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This entry was posted on August 16, 2012 by in Driving it Tomorrow and tagged , , .
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