By Bill Moore
Governments and auto industry giants have spent billions of dollars on hydrogen research and development, and the results are impressive and incredibly expensive. The pay-off of that costly effort was on display at the 2003 Michelin Challenge Bibendum, held in Sonoma, California. Here were amazingly quiet, totally pollution-free automobiles from the major carmakers: DaimlerChrysler, Ford, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota, as well as from several small development firms including Anuvu and ECD.
But perhaps the most intriguing and encouraging hydrogen-fueled entrant was a virtual one-man band in the form of Tai Robinson, who with the assistance of his father, brought along his hydrogen-powered Toyota Tacoma pickup truck. Where the big boys had spent hundreds of millions on their projects, the youthful Robinson had spent a mere ten grand or so to convert the gasoline engine in his used 4x4 truck to run on gaseous hydrogen.
With support from Dennis Weaver's Ecolonomics Institute, Robinson had be able to install two state-of-the-arts carbon-fiber wound tanks into the bed of his truck in place of the industrial gas cylinders he'd used to drive the Tacoma across the United States and back earlier this Summer.
So, if there's a "hero" in the battle to produce affordable hydrogen vehicles, my vote goes to Tai. His stars-and-stripes emblazoned truck shows that hydrogen is not only a workable fuel, but getting it to burn in an conventional internal combustion engine is a very real option, though some sacrifices will have to be made in terms of range until ways can be found to increase the energy density of hydrogen storage on the vehicle.
But these are the challenges what engineers and entrepreneurs find so compelling. And some of their solutions were showcased during the 2003 Challenge Bibendum.
Ford's Fast Track to Hydrogen Cars
If Tai Robinson showed its possible to create a relatively low-cost approach to using hydrogen as an automotive fuel, Ford Motor Company intended to demonstrate that it doesn't intend to wait a decade to begin deploying large numbers of affordable hydrogen-powered cars. Like Robinson, their approach is to convert a conventional internal combustion engine to burn gaseous hydrogen, while overcoming the range and power issues through the blending of several technologies.
Because hydrogen has only a tiny faction of the energy density of gasoline by volume, you have a store a lot of it to have any kind of appreciable range. This also means the vehicle's power suffers. One way to overcome this drawback is to blend hydrogen with a fossil fuel like natural gas, but this approach doesn't solve the problem of CO2 release or eventual fossil fuel depletion.
Ford's solution -- and others including BMW -- is to use a supercharger to help boost the vehicle's power. The Dearborn manufacturer brought its second and third generation Hydrogen ICE or H2ICE prototypes to the Challenge -- interestingly leaving it's fuel cell cars home, a move that strongly suggests Ford is seriously looking at this technology for production in the near future. This impression was further reinforced by its announcement that the company plans to begin marketing hydrogen ICEs in significant numbers to fleets in about three years.
While I simply didn't have the time to drive the two models Ford had available for the media drive, I did have a chance to speak with Dr. Arun K. Jaura, one of Ford's H2ICE engineers, who explained that these cars are a considerable improvement over the first generation version I drove last year. That car demonstrated that the concept was feasible, though it wasn't really ready for "prime time."
By the third generation -- called H2RV or Hydrogen Research Vehicle, Ford had integrated not only a supercharger to boost the power output to that of a gasoline engine, but they had also mated their new Modular Hybrid Transmission System (MHTS) to the vehicle's hydrogen-burning 2.3 L I4 engine.
MHTS takes a normal automatic transmission and replaces the torque converter with a 40 kW, 300-volt electric motor. This serves multiple functions including replacing the flywheel, the starter and the alternator, as well as providing a hybrid traction motor. The MHTS system is not only integrated into the generation three H2RV, but was also incorporated into the Ford Model U concept vehicle. According to Ford, MHTS "represents a building block for a portable and scalable hybrid strategy that is cost-effective, utilizing existing assets and designs with a lower variable cost than competing hybrid technologies."
Ford says the H2RV can accelerate from 0-60 in 11 seconds and gets about 45 miles per kilogram of hydrogen, which is roughly equivalent to 45 miles per gallon of gasoline. The current prototype has a driving range of 125 miles, despite carrying three 5,000 psi storage tanks, which underscores one of hydrogen's biggest problems, one that Energy Conversion Devices is tackling.
ECD's Hydrogen Prius
What Tai Robinson and Ford did for their respective vehicles, Troy, Michigan-based ECD did to a Toyota Prius, converting it to run on hydrogen, with one very big difference. ECD's hydrogen is stored in canisters packed with metal hydride, one of several potential hydrogen "sponges" being developed to solve the energy storage problem.
It takes enormous amounts of pressure to store sufficient quantities of hydrogen. Current technology compress hydrogen up to 10,000 psi, and even at that level, it still takes several large carbon-fiber tanks to store enough hydrogen to provide a driving range comparable to today's gasoline cars.
ECD hopes to prove that metal hydrides can soak up hydrogen gas at near ambient pressure and temperature. This would enable tanks to be much closer in size to today's gasoline tanks, though they would be heavier and considerably more expensive. But because the hydrogen would be chemically bound to the hydride, there would be no fire or risk of explosion.
ECD reports that its hydrogen tank only has to be cooled down to 60 degrees F to accept hydrogen and be heated to 120 degrees F to release it, both very comfortable temperatures to work with from an automotive perspective. We plan to follow up on ECD's efforts in the near future.
The Fuel Cell Endgame
DaimlerChrysler, GM, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota all brought fuel cell vehicles to the Challenge Bibendum, but the runaway styling favorite had to be the innovative Hy-Wire concept vehicle. This vehicle incorporates two breakthrough concepts: a fuel cell drive-chassis and drive-by-wire technology. All of the drive components of the vehicle are housed in a separate "skateboard" chassis including the fuel cell, hydrogen tanks and electric drive train. Ultimately, there will be no mechanical connection between the passenger cabin, which can be a completely separate and switchable component, and the power chassis. All the vehicle controls are electronic rather than mechanical.
The car spent most of its time taking journalists for rides around a roped off part of Infineon's main grandstand parking lot. I have to admit it was a thrill to actually see the car in motion. Several television crews including Sixty Minutes -- the Australian version -- pretty much had the car tied up most of the time . GM also had their earlier HydroGen3 prototype at the event, as well, though this was clearly overshadowed by the more futuristic Hy-Wire.
What the Hy-Wire revealed in terms of styling and proof-of-concept -- Toyota's trio of Highlander FCHV's forcefully demonstrated in terms of practicality. These are very, very impressive vehicles. Quiet, powerful and best of all, zero emission. Darryl Umale took my wife and I for a spin in one and told us that when Toyota does its on-road testing, it always does so with the air conditioning running. They want to see how the vehicle will perform in "real world" driving situations, and even with the AC on the SUV has a range of 180+ miles. As for its performance, we vaulted up two steep hills behind the track with little apparent effort, while conversing in library-like silence.
But for all Toyota's sophistication, it was DaimlerChrysler's latest iteration of its fuel cell A-Class Mercedes -- dubbed FCell -- that was voted the best car of the competition, at least by one writer. According to British automotive journalist Jesse Crosse, with whom I shared driving the new Prius, the FCell was by far the best fuel cell car on display. Being based in the UK, he's had a chance to drive the various evolutions of the car and assured me that this car surpasses anything he's driven to date, including Toyota and Honda's fuel cell vehicles. I'll have to take his word for it, but I will make a point to drive it at EVS 20 next month, if its there.
As for Honda, between their FCX, their Insight, and their CNG Civic, they ended up walking off with the most number of trophies at the end of the competition, followed by Toyota. The FCX is the first fuel cell car to be placed into commercial service in Japan and the US, where several are in service with the city of Los Angeles.
While having nowhere near the capital resources of the likes of DaimlerChrysler, GM, Ford, or even Honda, Korean carmaker Hyundai nevertheless brought two fuel cell-powered Santa Fee SUVs to take part in the competition.
A Clear Message
The message of this year's Bibendum is clear, fuel cells work and are gradually being put to work in practical, every-day driving situations both in the US and Japan. Toyota announced it was leasing more of its FCHVs in California and the FCell will begin package delivery around Detroit with UPS. But what needs to be remembered is that all these vehicles cost millions of dollars each. The lease cost of a Honda FCX is just under $7,000 a month in Japan. So, it will be sometime before the average car buyer will have the opportunity to buy or lease a fuel cell vehicle.
However, one small start-up wants to change that. Sacramento-based Anuvu [pronounced "a-new-view"] claims their fuel cell vehicle will cost a fraction of the big OEM models. They debuted a Suzuki station wagon with their proprietary fuel cell stack. According to Craig Newhouse, the company's national sales manager, Anuvu wants to get affordable fuel cells into the small fleet market.
They have developed what amounts to a fuel cell series hybrid. Their fuel cell stack can be sized just large enough to give their demonstration car sufficient range for the car to meet the fleet's normal daily drive. Think of it as a battery range extender of sorts. The car will operate most of the time off its low cost lead-acid batteries, with the modest 10 kW fuel cell providing just enough power to keep the batteries charged for its normal duty cycle. The idea is to equip taxis and small parcel delivery fleets with these vehicles.
As I was talking with Newhouse, UC Davis professor Dr. Andy Burke walked up. He told me that he had tested Anuvu's fuel cell stack and gotten performance readings comparable to far more expensive Ballard stacks, which pleased Newhouse immensely. It also confirmed for me that Anuvu isn't just some fly-by-night outfit. These folks have some serious -- and most importantly -- cost effective technology. Their approach to the problem may not work for most consumer vehicles, but it could work well for the niche they are targeting.
Fuel Cell Mass Transit
I can't leave the topic of fuel cell heroes without mentioning a pair of fuel cell buses that participated in the Challenge Bibendum.
Surprisingly, one of the very first fuel cell buses ever built was still going strong during the Challenge. Powered by an early sodium fuel cell, the 30 passenger transit bus originally saw service in the Washington, DC area, earning it the monicker of the "DC" fuel cell bus, despite the fact that it also has operated in Palm Springs. Recently it began calling the UC Davis campus its home, something Dr. Daniel Sperling noted to me with marked pride. He commented that the fact that this bus is still running after something like a decade of operation strongly suggests that fuel cells will have the necessary longevity to provide profitable service.
The second bus is one of thirty state-of-the-arts DaimlerChrysler buses that are being delivered to ten European cities where they will be placed in revenue service. This is a big, stylish public transit bus in the European tradition. The day I saw it, it was full of bags of cement and laptop computers as part of the test regime it underwent during the Bibendum.
The Challenge of the Challenge Bibendum
From the perspective of sheer numbers of fuel cell-powered vehicles -- and EVs and hybrids and diesels and alternative fuel cars -- the Challenge Bibendum was a huge success. I know of few other International venues that has hosted so many high-tech, green machines in one place at one time.
But honestly, it was just a bit overwhelming. With more than 100 vehicles taking part -- half of them available for media test rides -- it was just impossible to experience them all in the two and half short days they were available. I had to content myself with those that I hadn't driven or ridden in before -- including the now-defunct Corbin Sparrow. As a result, I completely missed out on driving the improved FCell. I had hoped to take at least one turn around the Infineon Raceway course, but ran out of time for that, as well.
Yet, the lesson is very clear. Progress is gradually being made in the laboratory and on the test track. Greener transportation options are at hand. The only real question now is how do we create demand for them, because it is demand that will drive down costs and make million dollar prototypes affordable transportation for the average consumer.
It is here that I think the car companies need to be working just as hard as they are in lab. Obviously, in the light of the Challenge Bibendum, Michelin is certainly doing its part.
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