April 4, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

U.S. cities hot for hydrogen

Las Vegas' hydrogen station and automotive fleet attracts so many tour requests that its director is starting an educational program to keep up with the demand.

The public's excitement and interest is an unexpected side effect to the city's hydrogen initiative, according to Dan Hyde, the director of fleet and transportation services for the city of Las Vegas.

Think of your city's road vehicles and you probably envision a fleet of aging utility trucks and maybe a sensible sedan for the mayor. But some state, county and city governments are on the cutting edge when it comes to hydrogen fuel.

The average hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle can go about 150 miles before it needs to refuel, according to Patrick Davis, acting program manager for hydrogen fuel cells and infrastructure technologies at the U.S. Department of Energy. That makes municipalities, which generally keep their cars within short distances and return them to a common station, good testing grounds.

London and Luxembourg, along with Barcelona and Madrid in Spain; Amsterdam in the Netherlands; Hamburg, Germany; and Reykjavik, Iceland, have been using hydrogen fuel cell buses as part of their fleets since 2003 through a pilot program with Daimler-Chrysler.

Hydrogen oasis

U.S. cities have also been joining hydrogen programs through sponsorships with car companies, energy companies and initiatives from the Department of Energy. There are now fleets with hydrogen fuel cell buses, cars and light-duty utility trucks, as well as vehicles with converted internal combustion engines that take hydrogen fuel.

The Las Vegas area, for example, has one hydrogen filling station for the city and one at the Las Vegas Valley Water District's Springs Preserve.

The city fleet station run by Dan Hyde uses compressed hydrogen fuel that gets delivered to two separate types of pumps. One dispenses pure hydrogen at 5,000 psi for fuel cell cars like the Honda SCX; the other dispenses a blend of hydrogen and compressed natural gas for cars with internal combustion engine conversions. It will also fill up two hydrogen engine buses from Ford to be delivered this June.

related story
Hydrogen's energy chain
Turning hydrogen into a viable fuel presents many challenges, but researchers see possible solutions.

The Las Vegas Valley Water District chose to make its own hydrogen from a completely sustainable energy source for the Springs Preserve station, according to James Morwood, fleet services manager for the LVVWD.

Solar panels make electricity for electrolysis, a common method for liberating hydrogen from water. While that hydrogen production method can use up a lot of electricity, the solar panels at Springs Preserve make more electricity than the hydrogen station uses in 24 hours. The excess electricity is directed to the Nevada grid.

"This project demonstrates the district's commitment to renewable energy. We are trying to lead the way and show people that this is out there and we can get there, but we need more participation or it's going to be pretty hard to sell hydrogen vehicles," said Morwood.

Of course, it's arguable whether these programs can catalyze hydrogen into the winners' circle of alternative fuels.

Ken Kurani, an associate researcher at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis, was part of the Hydrogen Pathways Program that from 2003 to 2006 studied every aspect of the hydrogen "energy chain."

While he sees state and local governments as playing a part in illustrating the pros of hydrogen, they aren't going to push the market into using it, he says. Since they often rely on partnerships with the private sector and federal government, they are subject to the whims of bureaucracy at all levels. If hydrogen falls out of favor and loses sponsor support, for example, or if the leasing company wants its hydrogen fuel cell vehicle back (as in the case of the electric car), those government programs are out of luck.

The midterm, hybrid option
The city of Las Vegas, for example, spent $150,000 in land and manpower to prepare the site for its hydrogen station, according to fleet director Hyde. The rest of the $10.8 million project came from Air Products and the Department of Energy. Air Products maintains the station for about $24,000 a year, about half of which is paid for by the government, according to Hyde. Air Products also supplies 1,500 gallons of compressed hydrogen fuel twice a month.

Hydrogen could be the long-term solution once transportation systems become "electrified," but not just yet, said Kurani.

"The immediate-to-midterm option is going to happen through hybrid electric vehicles and...subject to fixing the lifetime costs and the short-lifespan-of-batteries issue...plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, as well," says Kurani.

But for both local governments and consumers, this isn't going to be a winner-take-all situation.

"We started the 20th century with steam, electric and gas, and we settled on one. I don't think there is an imperative that we have to settle on one again, though. You have the electrical grid with so many sources. If we have grid-connected vehicles, that opens up the transportation industry to those possibilities," Kurani said.

Hyde lists several reasons why Las Vegas was willing to try out hydrogen.

"First, air quality, which is everyone's concern. Second, it goes a long way for energy independence if we can perfect the tech for mainstream use. And third, it creates new business for the economy," he said.

Other areas working on similar hydrogen programs are Washington, D.C., Atlanta and a Boston-based consortium that looks at alternative forms of transportation in the Northeast. California's Hydrogen Highways Network aims to make hydrogen fuel accessible to all Californians at service stations along the state's major highways by the end of the decade.

CONTINUED: A good guinea pig…
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Hydrogen: The whole story.
There are several problems with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles that make them impractical: 1. Hydrogen is extremely hard to store. It is the lightest element and has a tendency to leak out of ANY container you put it in, especially when you compress it. 2. It takes more energy to get hydrogen from water than you get out of it. 3. Most current hydrogen fuel cells use platinum, a limited and expensive metal. 4. Range is limited. 5. Fuel cells wear out, just like batteries, but they cost far more to manufacture and replace.

I am concerned that these limitations are not mentioned right away and addressed throughout the article. Why? Because the public is being led to believe that there is a coming "Hydrogen Revolution" that will solve our transportation energy ills. This simply isn't true. Electric vehicles powered by batteries (charged directly by solar panels) provide a feasible alternative to most transportation without heavy investment in infrastructure. This article states a driving range of 150 miles. GM's own (now-defunct) EV-1 electric vehicle achieved nearly this range five years ago and was capable of far greater range with little effort. This, too, is something that we seem to have forgotten.

CNET has a responsibility to report this issue accurately.
Posted by dustindriver (8 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Hydrogen as an energy carrier
> 1. Hydrogen is extremely hard to store. It is the lightest element and has a tendency to leak out of ANY container you put it in, especially when you compress it.

This is very true and it affects not only storing it but also transporting it. If you lose 10% of your hydrogen before it ever reaches your fuel tank than you're taking a noticeable hit to your well to wheel efficiency.

For hydrogen to become at all useful as a fuel it's going to need to integrate much better into our existing transportation structure.

> 2. It takes more energy to get hydrogen from water than you get out of it.

It's slightly sad that we actually need to tell people this, since it should be obvious to everyone that's done a high school science course, which SHOULD be the entire adult population of the Western world at least.

Right now the best electrolyzes get about 55% efficiency and fuel cells get something like 90% efficiency. Multiply 'em together and you get 50% total. Put quite simply, you put in twice as much electricity as you get out. These numbers aren't likely to improve much either, electrolysis has been used for 100+ years now and is quite well understood, while even making fuel cells 100% efficient doesn't help the equation much. Ohh, and you also need a bit of extra energy (10%?) if you want to compress the hydrogen up to 350 bar.

> 3. Most current hydrogen fuel cells use platinum, a limited and expensive metal

Catalytic converters in internal combustion engines (ICE) also use platinum (among other precious metals). Really this just comes down to a question of costs, how much would a fuel cell and accompanied equipment cost vs. an ICE or other alternatives. Suffice it to say that for the foreseeable future, fuel cells are VERY expensive and no where close to cost-competitive.

> 4. Range is limited.

Honda's latest SCX design has an estimated range of 500KM (300 miles), so they've at least solved that issue.

> 5. Fuel cells wear out, just like batteries, but they cost far more to manufacture and replace.

Everything wears out, so again we're just talking about costs here.

I'll add another problem for ya here:

6. Even when stored at 350bar (5000psi) you need a much larger fuel tank than a conventional ICE.

In any case, personally I think GM is on the right track with their Volt concept. Electric cars are great for commuting, but have a major drawback that they just can't be refilled quickly (rough estimate: with a 40-amp, 220-volt "oven and dryer" style circuit most electric cars would take about 1 hour per 160km/100miles worth of charge). They're great for commuting to and from work though, which is where most people do a lot of their driving, but people need a car that can do long trips as well as short ones.

The trick with the Volt concept is that it can run about 65km (40 miles) on an electric charge for short trips (ie the daily commute). For long trips it uses an ICE to charge the batteries for the electric motor. This gives it a ~500km (300 mile) range before fueling, and then it gets fueled using our existing infrastructure, the gas pump. While it might seem a bit odd at first to use an ICE to charge batteries, the idea actually makes very good sense and is well proven in trains and ships (among others). Internal combustion engines work best when they're tuned for a very narrow rpm range, while electric motors work well over a very wide range. Using a combination of the two can run your ICE only at it's ideal rev range meaning you always get maximum fuel economy (rough analogy: always getting highway mileage from your engine even in stop-and-go traffic).

The only brain-dead decision that GM made with this concept is that they stuck an ethanol engine in the damn thing, which is totally pointless so long as ethanol comes from corn (too energy intensive to grow and only remotely economically viable due to the many billions of dollars in subsidies). A small diesel engine makes FAR more sense in this application. They could get roughly twice the range out of 1 litre of diesel fuel vs. 1 litre of ethanol, so it would make the vehicle cheaper to operate and probably more environmentally friendly (again, so long as the ethanol is coming from corn).
Posted by Hoser McMoose (182 comments )
Link Flag
Did you see my other article?
You are right to question the viability of hydrogen fuel, but not everything can fit into one article. I did a sidebar article to this story that addresses the issues you bring up.

It can be found here:
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://news.cbsi.com/Studying+the+hydrogen+energy+chain/2100-11392_3-6173003.html" target="_newWindow">http://news.cbsi.com/Studying+the+hydrogen+energy+chain/2100-11392_3-6173003.html</a>

Posted by candacelombardi (50 comments )
Link Flag
Waiting for the Electrician, or Someone Like Him.
For the short distance i travel in my average day, a 50 mile range would be enough.

For this, a plug and drive car would make the most sense.

Maybe GM will sell me a their car without the heat engine.
Posted by disco-legend-zeke (448 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Tesla vs GM
This talkback has some very interesting discussions. Thanks! Maybe someone knows this...

I've been wondering why/how Tesla can engineer an electric roadster that offers many times the performance and range of the electric that GM is planning?

Also, why is the Tesla close to $100K? Except for the batteries/motors, it looks like a regular little $25K roadster. So do Tesla motors/batteries really cost $75K extra per car, or are they selling cars at a huge markup to recover their R&#38;D expenses. Since a Prius battery pack costs under $7K, I'm guessing the latter.

If GM mass produced an electric roadster (say based on the Saturn Sky) using Tesla battery/motor technology, what could it profitably sell for?

I think if GM could price it at $30K, they would sell a ton, even if it didn't have Tesla's level of performance.
Posted by open-mind (1027 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I agree, I think Tesla is selling the car at a markup to recoup R&#38;D costs. Also, it's a matter of supply. They don't have the oomph to crank out a few million of those bad boys, so every little part is produced on a fairly limited run and thus is more expensive.

Why did Tesla make such a high-performance roadster? My guess is they knew it would take gobs of cash to develop and produce, so they figured why not make a supercar that rich boys would buy? I mean, they would have a much harder time selling an econobox for, say, $50,000. But a car that can best a Porsche or a Vette or even a Ferrari? Worth the extra cash.

Check out <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.zapworld.com/" target="_newWindow">http://www.zapworld.com/</a> and <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://zenncars.com" target="_newWindow">http://zenncars.com</a>

Zenn supposedly is working with EESTOR to develop and manufacture these lightweight capacitors that extend range into the 300-mile-plus range. And they supposedly charge in less than an hour. Sounds too good to be true, but it's on their site.
Posted by dustindriver (8 comments )
Link Flag
Hydrogen is Greenwashing propaganda
H2 as a fuel is absurd to the point of insanity. Think of the nightmare, you want to go on a long trip, normally you would bring a jerry can of spare gas with you, forget it, fuel can only be obtained at an expensive high-tech custom oil company owned distribution station. Run out of gas - call the tow truck. Even with a BEV, if you run your battery dead, you can charge it up with a $100 portable generator or anywhere that there is 120vac power. If you live in the country where you would store 45 gal drums of diesel or gas, forget it, you're screwed. How about fuel for your boat, lawn mower, chain saw, 4 wheeler, snow machine or aircraft - what an expensive bulky Hydrogen tank you have to take to a service station to fill, nutso. And what about driving in the winter in the country, where you should bring extra fuel in case you get stuck in a snow storm? And battery EV?s already have up to 350 miles range, more than H2 Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles would have, without the enormously expensive Hydrogen infrastructure cost.

Ever notice how heavy &#38; bulky a standard 2300 psi O2 or N2 cylinder is, and all the safety precautions for use and storage that are required for their use, well it would hold a whopping 1.6 lbs of H2 in a 120 lb cylinder. H2 is the hardest gas to prevent from leaking, and can form explosive mixtures with air in any semi-enclosed space, which can be ignited by a lighting strike one mile away. It also causes metals to become brittle, so high tech materials are needed to use it. Insurance companies may refuse to insure people with H2 vehicles, as any leak in an enclosed parking lot or garage would easily be ignited causing a deadly, destructive explosion.

Besides, there is a far superior way to store H2, called Methanol, costs $1 per gallon, simple to produce by numerous methods including from H2 and waste CO2. Burns at 43% efficiency (H2 fuels cells are 50% efficient) in a simple Port Fuel Injection Turbocharged high Compression Spark Ignition engine and meets the tough Tier II New Low Emission Vehicle requirements. Easy to store &#38; transport. Can be mixed in all proportions with ethanol &#38; gasoline to facilitate a gradual change away from oil products. Six times the energy per liter of H2 compressed to 3000 psi. Whereas methanol is sold in grocery stores in flimsy plastic containers (they wouldn?t let you buy gasoline in those packages). People use it routinely in Northern Countries to add to their gas tanks to prevent gas line freeze-up. It would save many lives and the destruction of property in accidents, since it burns with a very cool flame. (that is why racing cars are required to burn it or a mix with ethanol). Also dissipates to atmosphere in a spill quickly, or can easily be washed down (mixes with water) no environmental damage, unlike petroleum. A far superior way to transport Natural Gas than LNG, safe and environmentally benign in a spill.
Posted by wabcd (234 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Hydrogen sounds good, but...
Most posts here have done a good job covering what should have been included in the article. Hydrogen is just too damn expensive to produce with today's technology, both in cash &#38; environmental concerns.
There is nothing green about using water to produce power of any kind in Las Vegas because water is the most scarce natural resource in Nevada. The outlook for future sources of additional water are absolutely nonexistent. So what the hell were they thinking when they built a fuel plant which requires even more water usage to produce that fuel? OH, I wasn't thinking. The grant money was there, so they needed to be the ones to spend it.
Posted by Bob H in NPR (39 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Glaring oversight
Yes, and that is a glaring oversight by the author and the CNET editors. Las Vegas is in the desert. Why use water as a fuel rather than drinking it?
Posted by dustindriver (8 comments )
Link Flag
how much per gal. is hydrogen fuel?
Who will supply it?
How many miles do we get out of it?

Do we need little green tanks to carry it out
to the freeway in case we run out of it on the
Posted by mattbytez (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Hydrogen Energy
The proposition that hydrogen can be an effective and non-polluting fuel source is ludicrous. It takes anywhere from two to five times the energy input as is obtained from the hydrogen energy output. Non-polluting input energy? The closest clean method might be the hydrolosys of water by electric energy, but the massive amounts needed can only be supplied by massive investment in nuclear power, the safest and cleanest available source of such a large amount of energy. Perhaps geothermal can help?
Posted by peedycat (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
compressed air
The compressed air vehicle is the way to go. No combustion,
just pure air. It would be easier to set up, no transportation of
If we could build these vehicle and sell them at a little
profit,don't get greedy, we could go a long way in changing the
world. It would be the greedy part that has to be eliminated.
Keep the cost down, maybe under $8,000, so everyone could
afford one. I know it is a dream.
With existing cars, hydrogen is the way to go, probably the only
way. Convert them to burn hydrogen, maybe a on- demand unit
where it produces as you go.
Posted by twotall610 (53 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Check out Ammonia as Hydrogen Carrier
Much material that I've read touts liquified ammonia gas as an energy carrier. It contains about 1 1/2 the energy of liquified hydrogen and
requires no cryogenic treatment. Its pressure is
less that 200 psi and has been safely used and carried by tank trucks and pipelines for decades.
It requires relatively little energy to break down
to nitrogen and hyrdogen gasses.
Posted by Pearsonms (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Plug in Hybrid (electric) better?
Just use a solar array at the gas station and I can use a plug in Electric car. Enough for the car and the car to recharge it by driving. I would like to see side by side comparisons.
Posted by Blito (436 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Fuel cell vehicles vs electric
I am in agreement with Blito apr 7 2007 when he said electric is better. Fuel cells use expensive materials that will only get more expensive as they are depleted. We've come a long way with battery technology why throw it away.
But why do we not also develope an engine that is designed to run on pure hydrogen?
Posted by bluegoosefeathers (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Hydrogen as a car fuel
I think it is rather obvious that using hydrogen to fuel automobiles is not very practical. But I do think there is something to be said for using hydrogen for heating houses and hot water. I would suggest we concentrate on developing point-of-use hydrogen generation. Using photovoltaics and wind a block of houses could generate enough hydrogen and store it at low pressure for this purpose could they not. And by eliminating natural gas we cut carbon emissions do we not? And since hydrogen is non toxic you elimnate carbon monoxide dangers. No venting necessary to burn hydrogen in an appliance so heating efficiency goes up considerably. And by using such point-of-consumption production you eliminate the need for expensive infrastructure. So lets do it. Unfortunately I have not found a single article that discusses how to convert any appliance to hydrogen. This is the practical hydrogen economy not automobiles and expensive infrastructure.
Posted by bluegoosefeathers (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
well i think at this point it might be pertinent to mention than the integration with capacitor technology might be in the best interest for the electric car image and use, with a mid to small range of temporary charge holding capacitors the "gas station" style fill ups might be possible .capacitors don't degrade quickly and can gather and discharge energy quickly witch can be used to then charge the batteries slowly as you drive the vehicle. or discharged for the vehicle. If we were able to perfect the technology a little further we could just use a capacitor grid in the place of a battery.
Posted by Blackartshelby (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag

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