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Where the H is my Fuel-Cell Car?

If the many upsides of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles were more widely known, the nation’s conspiracy buffs would be busy indeed.

“Wait a second,” they might say. “You’re telling me that this car requires no foreign oil, goes almost 250 miles on a single refueling, can be refueled as quickly as internal-combustion-engine vehicles, boasts excellent responsiveness and great torque, can carry heavy loads, operates efficiently in any temperature — and water vapor is its only emission? Why aren’t we all driving one?”

There are so many advantages to fuel-cell vehicles that even everyday folks could be excused for wondering if black helicopters and a grassy knoll are factors in the snail’s pace at which the vehicles have inched toward commercialization.

That hydrogen fuel-cell cars and even buses will be part of the vehicular landscape at some point in the future “is really a given,” said Dennis Simanaitis, engineering editor with Newport Beach-based Road & Track magazine. “Even people who are lukewarm about fuel-cell vehicles have to admit that.”

At issue, he said, is infrastructure. Since an electric-vehicle recharging infrastructure already exists in the form of 110-volt wall sockets, EVs have thus far merited most of today’s alternate-vehicle commercialization efforts. Even though hydrogen fuel can literally be made from water (essentially by removing the O from the H2), dispensing it would require specialized fueling stations or, at the very least, specialized fuel pumps at existing gas stations.

Still, a hydrogen FCV can do things an EV can’t, Simanaitis said. “It makes its own electricity, which effectively solves one of the battery EV shortcomings: range. It overcomes another shortcoming — refueling time — as well.”

While battery EVs customarily go only about 100 miles on a charge, Honda’s FCX Clarity FCV has been certified to get 240 miles per refueling, said Jessica Fini, spokeswoman for American Honda Motor Co. in Torrance. A car with a 240-mile range “easily meets many people’s requirements for their daily commute, as well as for their weekend getaways,” she said.

Hydrogen fuel-cell technology is also versatile enough to power different vehicle types — from sedans to SUVs, Fini said.

Detroit-based General Motors, a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle development leader, has in recent years reduced the weight of the fuel-cell system in its cars by some 220 pounds, said Charlie Freese, executive director, global fuel-cell activity for the carmaker.

“No longer do you need to think of it as a propulsion system for a crossover,” he said. “It could fit into a compact sedan.”

Hydrogen fuel-cell technology can be used in instances in which battery-electric propulsion would fail or be compromised, such as propelling buses and providing propulsion for cars operating in sub-zero climes, Simanaitis said. 

So, with this much going for FCVs, why have so few of them been built and tested across the U.S.? 

Some argue that harvesting the hydrogen is the problem, Simanaitis said. There’s more hydrogen than any other element in the universe, “but it’s the most promiscuous element; it clings to anything else. I can look out my window and see a lot of H clinging to oxygen. It’s called H2O — water.” 

Still, high-quality hydrogen can be made from natural gas, which the U.S. has in abundant quantities. Fini estimates that “a kilogram of hydrogen will cost twice as much as a gallon of gasoline, but will take [that car] approximately twice as far.”

There are hydrogen filling stations in West Los Angeles and Irvine — and another in Newport Beach has recently broken ground. In January 2010, Honda unveiled a solar-powered hydrogen refueling station on its Torrance campus. “The technology is meant for eventual home use, is very small, and uses a solar panel — entirely renewable energy — to create by electrolysis the hydrogen needed to refuel the vehicle,” Fini said. This equipment uses solar energy to break water down into its two parts: hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is harvested and the oxygen dissipates into the atmosphere. A home unit would provide enough hydrogen to travel about 40 miles. “Ultimately, if you need to fill your car all the way up, you’d go to a public refueling station,” Fini said.

How soon FCVs are manufactured in volume will depend on many issues, said Greg Frenette, Ford Motor Co. manager of fuel-cell stack and energy storage materials research in Dearborn, Mich. Making the vehicles affordable, durable and reliable will top the list. “My guess is … just like hybrids, you’ll see a year-over-year gradual ramp-up,” he said.

Some, like Simanaitis and Freese, speak of the issue being a chicken-egg dilemma. Mass production can’t start before filling stations exist, and there won’t be need for many stations until sizable production begins. For its part, Honda is committed to the future of hydrogen. Fini predicts that by 2020, the stations will be there.

“Automakers … will work with station operators to ensure infrastructure is in place to meet the refueling needs of future hydrogen vehicles,” she said.

Jeff Steele, Brand Publishing Writer

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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