Hydrogen's Fan Club Remains Small

Getting the public to embrace fuel-cell cars is an arduous task.

Published: 03-Apr-2005

N class=text>The estimated 1,000 people who attended the National Hydrogen Association's 16th annual conference in Washington, D.C., last week emerged with a wealth of technical data about hydrogen production, storage and use as fuel.

But beneath the number-crunching, a more human theme emerged at session after session: How can hydrogen's backers convince a skeptical, gasoline-reliant public to embrace hydrogen as a potentially pollution-free energy source of the future?

That's a tough question for the association's members to tackle, given how fragmented the hydrogen industry is now.

No one knows for sure when hydrogen-powered cars, which turn hydrogen into electricity using devices called fuel cells, will gain significant market share.

It's not clear how much it will cost to build a distribution network, though widely varying numbers were reported at different sessions. It's not even guaranteed that hydrogen will ever reach widespread use as a fuel, though supporters insist that day will come.

One of the element's leading backers is Air Products and Chemicals of Trexlertown, the world's leading supplier of hydrogen and a leading builder of prototype fueling stations. Air Products was a sponsor of the conference, and several of its employees were featured speakers.

None of the speakers, Air Products or otherwise, suggested quick solutions to hydrogen's public relations problem. But the recurrence of that theme suggests industry leaders have it on their minds, as much as the technical challenges.

''The public at large is a bit skeptical about [hydrogen's] progress,'' said Carol Battershell of energy giant BP, formerly British Petroleum. ''The public has very tough questions.''

Fossil fuels reign supreme



It's no surprise that America's drivers are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward hydrogen. Gasoline, coal and other fossil fuels have held sway as the country's main energy sources for more than a century.

During that time, alternative power sources have claimed small slices of the market at best: Think of wind power or solar electricity. At worst, they have failed and been written off, like electric cars.

But fossil fuels are no longer as abundant or affordable as they were decades ago. The air pollution they cause has become too great to ignore. So has the United States' reliance on oil from foreign countries, which hold the power to tighten the supply channel.

That's where hydrogen comes in. The world's most abundant element, hydrogen can be used to make clean electricity that powers cars, computers, even office complexes. President Bush threw his support behind hydrogen two years ago, pledging $1.2 billion through 2008 for research projects conducted by Air Products and numerous other energy companies, carmakers and colleges.

All those studies agree on a single truth: Hydrogen has a long way to go before it is ready for the mass market. That's especially true for use in cars, hydrogen's highest-profile and biggest-stakes market.

Steve Chalk, manager of the U.S. Department of Energy's hydrogen and fuel cell program, said the department will assess progress in 2015 and decide if fuel-cell auto technology is worth commercializing. If hydrogen gets a thumbs-up, the decade between 2015 and 2025 will see fuel-cell cars enter the mainstream, will witness the construction of the plants, pipelines and stations needed to get hydrogen fuel to America's neighborhoods.

''It's going to take another 30 years to have significant benefits,'' Chalk said.

It's less clear when companies such as Air Products can develop truly clean, renewable sources of hydrogen: Most of today's industrial hydrogen is made from natural gas.

Cost estimates to build the fuel network range from $873 million for a bare-bones string of stations along interstate highways to $14 billion for a more comprehensive plan.

Some believe that hefty price tag is putting off American drivers who, despite gas prices topping $2 a gallon, see no immediate need to move away from their old standby fuel.

''We have some societal issues ahead,'' warned Bill Reinert of Toyota Motor Sales USA. ''Three-dollar-a-gallon gas is not a reason to switch to fuel cells. You'll drive smaller cars. You'll drive slower.''

Americans' intransigence sets a tough hurdle for car companies, that say fuel cell cars will not catch on unless they are comparable in price or performance to gasoline cars.

Still others at the conference suggested glowing media reports may have made Americans skeptical. Having heard about the wonders of hydrogen, they want to know why they can't buy — or at least see — a car now.

Chances to see a fuel-cell car are rare outside a handful of major cities, though the hydrogen conference showcased a fleet of hydrogen cars, buses, and even a scooter.

Still other opposition could arise from self-serving reasons.

Pierre Rivard, chief executive officer of Canadian fuel-cell maker Hydrogenics, said he feared union opposition when Hydrogenics installed fuel cells in forklifts at General Motors' plant in Oshawa, Ontario. One fuel cell power pack took the place of three battery packs, raising the possibility that fewer union workers might be needed in the plant's battery storage and handling office.

Rivard said the union has not raised objections to the fuel cells. But his example raises the question of whether other unions, in similar circumstances, might complain. Also, Hydrogenics has only converted two forklifts — a small percentage of the machines used at the Oshawa plant, and not a serious threat to the union.

Hydrogen leaders concede that winning over average Americans will take time. To do that, they plan demonstrations that will give drivers a better view of hydrogen cars.

On Wednesday, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman fleshed out a previously announced program that will bring more fuel cell cars onto American roads. General Motors said it will build 40 fuel cell cars to be distributed in four states, splitting the $88 million cost with the Department of Energy. DaimlerChrysler, meanwhile, will let consumers test fuel cell vehicles.

''The idea of motor vehicles powered by hydrogen seems to make more sense to me than ever before,'' Bodman said.

Researching molecules

When not facing the challenge of hydrogen's public image, those at the conference pondered countless ideas that show promise but, so far, fall short in some significant way.

For example, Air Products Global Marketing Manager Karen Campbell spoke about ''non-hydrogen'' approaches to hydrogen storage.

Most companies plan on storing hydrogen as a compressed gas or liquid. Air Products is researching ''chemisorption,'' or using a liquid chemical solution as a carrier for hydrogen. The chemical carrier would bond with hydrogen molecules.

But Air Products has yet to figure out what substance would work best. And Campbell admitted, ''There are many, many, many molecules that need to be investigated.''

If it can be made to work, Air Products' storage system would solve one of the biggest problems facing hydrogen — how to keep it on board a car so it does not take up too much space, explode in an accident or evaporate when the car is left sitting. The Department of Energy's Chalk called storage ''the critical challenge.''

''Anything that can unlock the secret to hydrogen storage, we're going to be chasing it,'' he said.

On the production side, Kevin Nguyen, senior fuel processing engineer at ChevronTexaco, displayed a design for a hydrogen plant that may meet cost goals set out by the Department of Energy. Nguyen's plant is relatively small, though, and is not expected to reach field testing until next year.

Venki Raman, former head of hydrogen research at Air Products, said production is also a vital area of research. Raman now heads Protium Energy Technologies, a Lehigh Valley consulting firm. He spoke on Monday, the conference's first day, at a financing forum where startup companies presented their business plans.

''Every one of the small companies that presented on Monday was presenting some sort of production technology,'' Raman said. ''It just goes to show you how important production technology is.''

Of course, the conference was not entirely about tackling problems. It was a venue to celebrate gains since last year's event, and to laugh at anecdotes like the one shared by Shell Hydrogen Chief Executive Officer Jeremy Bentham.

''When I was last in Japan, I had an unusual experience,'' Bentham said. ''I actually saw a queue of fuel cell vehicles waiting to be refueled.''

And, from time to time, it was a chance for those in the business to remind themselves why they work with hydrogen. In many cases, the engineers and marketing directors at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel were there because they believe hydrogen, for all its faults, can still help save the world from a pollution-choked fate.

''If nature is our mother, then we have been a reckless child,'' said Craig Newhouse, national sales director for California fuel-cell maker Anuvu Inc.

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