Oil prices are skyrocketing, the cost of a barrel is again more than fifty dollars, and this has refocused attention on finding alternative sources of energy. One possibility is hydrogen. Billions of dollars are being invested in a hydrogen future by carmakers, energy companies and the U.S. government. The first public hydrogen refueling station in North America was recently opened by Shell.
Hydrogen is an attractive alternative fuel to gasoline, it can be produced from basically anything and its only emissions are water.
National Hydrogen Association Spokesman Patrick Serfass says three things fuel switching to a hydrogen economy. "Reducing our dependence on imported fuels, environmental sustainability and economic growth."
Shell has started to create a hydrogen highway along the east coast of the United States. One hydrogen refueling station opened in the nation's capital in November.
Rick Scott is the safety manager at the Shell hydrogen station. The liquid hydrogen is stored at minus 97 degrees Celsius, before it is heated up. Rick says, "It is the first hydrogen center coupled to a retail market, so as you see behind us here we have several gasoline dispensers, and then we have a hydrogen dispenser. And as it warms up we capture that gas, store that gas in our cylinders and that's the gas we use for the fuelings."
This station services six hydrogen fuel cell cars manufactured by General Motors. These cars are basically for show, to get the public and policy makers interested in hydrogen's potential.
Eric Raske is part of a team of engineers working on GM's fuel cell program. While showing one of his vehicles he says, "This is a Opel Zafira minivan. It's a European vehicle... Instead of using gasoline as a fuel, it uses hydrogen. It's more of a chemical reaction and what happens is hydrogen and oxygen combine in the fuel cell and as a byproduct it forms water and electricity and we use electricity in the vehicle to drive an electric motor, so it's more of an electric vehicle than a standard internal combustion engine. This doesn't have a transmission. There's no gears or anything, so it's pretty simple it's kind of like an electric vehicle you just have forward, reverse, park and neutral."
The car drives well, the pickup is not great, it gets zero to 60 (miles per hour) in 16 seconds, but after a few minutes you forget you are driving a test vehicle.
But, hydrogen fuel cell technology is still in it's infancy. It took Eric, who works with the cars all the time, about 10 minutes to refuel the vehicle. "The technology has been around for well over a hundred years, it didn't really get put into practical use until sixty years ago, but it's really taken off in the last few years," he said.
President Bush has pledged more than $1 billion for fuel cell research. But, it is going to take billions more, and automakers and oil companies have huge investments.
Patrick Serfass says, “The energy companies are investing just as much money as any other companies are, in fact many of them have the largest investments into hydrogen."
A major obstacle facing hydrogen is distribution; a whole new supply network needs to be created. Patrick Serfass clarified the production of hydrogen. "You don't have to produce hydrogen centrally like we do gasoline and truck it all over the country," he said. "You can produce it in small quantities right in your own garage, you could produce it right at your office building or you could produce it at any number of different scales in-between so you could produce hydrogen just for your neighborhood."
This Shell station is getting perspective customers interested. Rick Scott says they ask lots of consumer questions like " How much does hydrogen cost? When can I get a car? And how much will the car cost?"
Erick Raske projects that General Motors will have a large fleet of vehicles by 2010 as Patrick Serfass looks ahead to having personal vehicles around 2020.
Hydrogen costs $2 a kilogram, which produces about the same amount of energy as a regular gallon of gas. And this demonstration car cost about $1 million, but as more cars are produced the price tag will drop.
There are many challenges before a hydrogen economy becomes a reality, but some are convinced it is the future. Patrick Serfass is optimistic and says, "We really can't think of any reason why it won't succeed."