Virginia's Hydrogen Future

Ford demonstrates fuel cell Focus for Virginia Hydrogen Economy Roundtable.

Published: 09-Mar-2003

mond got a taste of the future Friday, and it came in the form of two Ford Focus compact cars.

Parked outside the Capitol, the cars with the red, white and blue decals emblazoned on their passenger doors really didn't look very special. Upon closer inspection, however, it didn't take long to figure out they were anything but normal.

When turned on, their motors didn't roar to life. Instead, a low-pitched whine, like the sound of a dentist's drill, filled the air. From the rear, no exhaust smoke came out of the tail pipe. Instead, a small stream of water trickled onto the asphalt.

No, these were no ordinary Ford Focuses. Unless of course, a Ford Focus costs about $3 million.

The cars, in fact, were two of five hydrogen fuel cell electric cars manufactured by Ford Motor Co., which visited Richmond on Friday to give "ride-and-drive" demonstrations at the quarterly Virginia Hydrogen Economy Roundtable.

"The vision that we have is that one day we're gonna be generating hydrogen from renewable electric resources," said Nic van Vuuren, executive director of Hampton Roads Clean Cities Coalition, the non-profit that sponsored the roundtable. "We're looking very much into the long term."

What's the big deal about hydrogen?

Experts say that hydrogen and fuel cells have the potential to generate energy without pollution, making cars more environmental-friendly. Not only that, but such technology could reduce American dependence on foreign oil.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the United States uses about 20 million barrels of oil per day, costing about $2 billion a week. Roughly 55 percent of that oil is imported and the Department of Energy has estimated that this dependence could grow to 68 percent by 2025.

If the country can successfully integrate alternative fuel vehicles, such as hydrogen cars, the energy department estimated that it would reduce foreign oil by 11 million barrels per day by 2040.

And when all is said and done, experts say consumers shouldn't notice a big difference between hydrogen cars and gas-powered ones.

John Chamberlayne, commissioner of the Norfolk Environmental Commission, drove one of the hydrogen fuel cell cars for the first time at Friday's demonstration. "We didn't go very far, but it had a nice ride to it," he said. "I was surprised how much it was like what we're used to in an internal combustion car."

While in development for the past five years, research on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles got a jump-start in January when President George W. Bush proposed $1.2 billion in research funding for such vehicles in his State of the Union Address.

Many, if not all, automakers, including Ford, have produced research prototypes for hydrogen fuel cars. However, experts say it may take a decade or more before such cars become common.

So how does a hydrogen fuel cell car work?

In a nutshell, oxygen from an air compressor and hydrogen from a fuel tank combine in what's known as a proton exchange membrane, or PEM, fuel cell stack. The reaction within the cell then generates enough electricity to power an electric motor without producing harmful emissions.

"The only thing that comes out of its tail pipe is water or water vapor," said Dr. Philip Chizek, marketing manager of Ford's Fuel Cell Team. Ford, he said, introduced its first generation hydrogen-powered prototype around 1999. Since then, the company has manufactured 10 test and development vehicles and five working demonstration cars, which have been used in more than 160 "ride-and-drives" last year.

In 2004, Chizek said the company has plans to go into limited production in California.

In order for the public to accept the hydrogen cars, he said, the cars would need to provide the same services that consumers have come to expect, such as a 200 to 300-mile drive range, convenient refueling, reliability, safety and an affordable price.

Full commercialization of the cars, Chizek added, most likely wouldn't take place until 2010 or 2012, depending on manufacturing costs, price and the establishment of proper infrastructure.

Therein lie the challenges.

Presently, the production of fuel cells is 10 times more expensive than the production of internal combustion engines. Plus, hydrogen costs four times as much to produce compared to gasoline. Hydrogen, although the most abundant element in the universe, is usually paired with another element and must be separated, making production expensive.

Not only that, the country does not have the infrastructure to store and distribute hydrogen affordably. "Cost-reduction on the vehicle technology side and figuring out how to refuel, those are the two major challenges," van Vuuren said.

Although excited about the possibilities of the hydrogen cars, van Vuuren said he did not want to give the new technology too much hype. "If expectations are too high, people get disappointed and they turn away from it – that's what we want to avoid," he said, explaining that during the late 1990s, people had expected hydrogen cars to be readily available by 2003. "But we don't want people to think this is a space-age technology that will never happen because it will happen."



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