Fuel Cell Car Stops in Napa Valley

Local clean-vehicle coalition were given a presentation.

Published: 19-Jan-2003

ATHAN CRABBE
Register Staff Writer

A small group at the Napa Wine Train station on Thursday caught a glimpse of the future: a car so clean, you can drink from the tailpipe.

The car is a Daimler-Chrysler prototype, powered by a hydrogen fuel cell and producing no emissions but water. Members of an area clean-vehicle coalition were given a presentation on the technology and the chance to test drive the car from the Wine Train lot to Copia.

The car started with an unfamiliar click and whir under the hood, as its fuel-cell system kicked into gear. Acceleration was delayed a second after the push of the pedal, but soon the car sped into motion.

Daimler-Chrysler engineer Jess Schneider said the car can go more than 150 miles without refueling, at speeds similar to a gas-powered vehicle. The car can go at least 90 mph, Schneider said with a knowing smile.

While the hydrogen-powered prototype is years, if not decades, from public use, it might provide a glimpse into the future of transportation. Some transit agencies in the state are now testing hydrogen-powered buses to gauge their practicality and popularity.

Joe Irvin, spokesman for the California Fuel Cell Partnership, said Santa Clara is currently testing a hydrogen bus and transit agencies in the East Bay and Santa Clara will test buses next year. The coalition of auto makers, oil companies, government and other groups is also seeking groups to test fleets of hydrogen-powered cars.

Developing such vehicles is made more important in the wake of Sept. 11, Irvin said, because they might allow independence from Middle Eastern oil.

Hydrogen might not be the only solution, he acknowledged. The technology is currently costly, he said, and won't work for the general public unless hydrogen stations are more abundant.

The prototypes refuel at stations in West Sacramento and Richmond, allowing for a drive from the Capitol to San Francisco. Refueling the car takes just a few minutes, Irvin said.

Other possible obstacles exist. The process to extract hydrogen from water is costly and requires energy of its own -- which means dirty-burning fuels are needed at this point.

Developers envision a "perfect cycle" in which renewable energy such as wind and solar are used for the process, Irvin said.

Hydrogen safety might be a concern for members of the public with visions of the Hindenberg disaster. Daimler-Chrysler engineers say the prototype has its fuel tanks on the bottom for safety, in addition to other measures.

Irvin said emergency responders are also being trained about how to handle accidents involving the vehicles in areas were they're being driven.

Other alternative fuels, such as methanol, cleaner gas and various hybrids, are also being tested. Natural gas buses are already in wide use by some groups, including the Napa Unified School District. The Wine Train even has a natural gas-powered locomotive.

But the hydrogen fuel cell has its advantages, Irvin said. Chief among those is no emissions other than water: the fuel cell combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce energy, creating H2O in the process.

The test car was also a winner in the public appeal department, according to those who test-drove it. William H. Zeller of PG&E declared the ride as "pretty nice," much like driving an electric vehicle.

Zeller is a member of the Clean Air Vehicle Coalition of the Redwood Empire, which works to bring such technology into the area. Another group member, John Clifton, said he could envision the car eventually catching on -- if refueling stations are widely accessible.

"Most of this stuff is logistics," Clifton said.

But Clifton, a retired aerospace engineer, said he worries that even the most clean and efficient technology could be thwarted by oil interests and other powers-that-be.

"We have all these vested interests trying to stop some of this progress," he said.

Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 256-2260 or ncrabbe@napanews.com

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