BILLERICA, Mass.--It's a 21st century twist on the whistle stop train tour.
A caravan of 11 vehicles on Monday started off from Portland, Maine, on the Hydrogen Road Tour, a cross-country trek of hydrogen-powered vehicles that will end in Los Angeles after two weeks.
The event, which will make 31 stops in 18 states, was organized to educate U.S. consumers and policy makers about hydrogen and fuel-cell vehicles. It's sponsored by nine automakers, the U.S. Department of Energy, the California Fuel Cell Partnership, the National Hydrogen Association, and the Department of Transportation.
The stop on the tour after Portland was here at the headquarters of Nuvera Fuel Cells and now the home of the first hydrogen refueling station in the state.
During the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Cheryl McQueary, the deputy administrator of transportation research and innovative technology at the Department of Transportation, said that the U.S. currently produces enough hydrogen to power 34 million vehicles.
Right now, however, there are only 16 hydrogen refueling stations in the U.S., used by hundreds of consumers. Most experts expect that the distribution infrastructure will develop as a series of clusters around cities like Los Angeles and New York.
"The question is not if hydrogen-powered vehicles will be available commercially, but when," Paul Brubaker, the head of the U.S. DOT's Research and Innovative Technology Administration, said in a statement.
That's a sentiment voiced by many politicians and technologists. Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles only give off water vapor as exhaust, and hydrogen can be produced domestically, potentially decreasing the use of imported oil.
Fuel-cell vehicles, which convert hydrogen to electricity onboard, ride largely the same as gasoline cars but are far more quiet. Some of the demonstration models on the Hydrogen Road Tour also incorporate batteries as a plug-in hybrid does.
But there are several practical and technological hurdles blocking fuel-cell vehicles from the road. In addition to a lack of a refueling infrastructure, engineers are working on ways to make fuel cells more durable and to expand the storage capacity.
Hydrogen Road Tour hits the road
The driving range of Nissan's X-Trail Fuel Cell Vehicle, for example, is rated at 200 miles but practical use is more like 150 miles, according to a representative.
I took a "bi-fuel" BMW 7-Series for a ride, a model which lets you switch between hydrogen or gasoline. Unlike a fuel-cell car, this car has an internal combustion engine that burns hydrogen or gasoline. The fuel economy and performance are the same as a traditional 7-Series but has much cleaner emissions, according to the company.
The reason BMW chose to build this model is to show politicians that hydrogen is a viable fuel today, said Jason Perron, clean energy program manager at BMW of North America. The consumer also has the flexibility of taking trips to places that don't have hydrogen filling stations.
Other auto manufacturers with cars on the tour are DaimlerChrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai-Kia, Toyota, and Volkswagen.
Beyond the political speeches and looks at the cutting-edge fuel cell vehicles, the event here demonstrated on-site hydrogen production.
Filling stations often use an electrolyzer which splits water to make hydrogen using electricity.
The Nuvera hydrogen refueling station will make hydrogen from natural gas and water. The natural gas-based system, which also has a storage tank and refueling pump, is more energy-efficient than an electrolyzer, said Wes Hansen, the lead systems engineer at Nuvera Fuel Cells.
Nuvera is first targeting the market for forklifts powered by hydrogen fuel cells. But hydrogen-powered passenger cars are about a decade away, said Roberto Cordaro, the company's president and CEO.
Today's fuel-cell vehicles will mature over multiple generations, much like hybrid cars have.
"These cars (here) will be the first generation. The second and third generations will be needed before we move to products with hundreds of thousand or millions made a year," Cordaro said in an interview. "So it will probably take no less than 8 years and no more than 12 years before you get to that level that we have seen with the Prius (hybrid)."
Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor John Heywood, an expert on automotive technologies, said that hydrogen faces many questions on the role it will play in transportation.
Hydrogen is being used to fuel fleets but whether it becomes widespread and environmentally beneficial for a large part depends on where the hydrogen comes from, Heywood said in an interview last week.
"Whether it starts to take off in a serious way towards big time depends a lot on (whether) we see good ways to produce hydrogen that fit our future energy strategies," he said. "People are working hard on these questions, but it's going to hover at the modest level for quite a while before we get a sense of whether this is ready for big time."