New York Times - 23 Sep 08

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
(Copied 7 Jun 09)

Pumping Hydrogen

Published: September 23, 2008

Fill It Up A customer refuels his Honda Clarity at a Shell station in Los Angeles. (Monica Almeida / The New York Times)

ON a strip of Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, a futuristic experiment posing as an ordinary fuel station may be bringing the world one step closer to the hydrogen age.

From the moment engineers started dreaming about hydrogen as an alternative to oil, they faced a nagging question: What should come first - the fuel-cell car or the hydrogen pump?

Carmakers have argued that without a network of hydrogen filling stations they couldn't roll out fuel-cell vehicles from the research lab to the dealership. Energy companies, on the other hand, said that without large numbers of fuel-cell cars available at reasonable prices, they saw little point in building a costly new fueling infrastructure.

This classic chicken-or-egg dilemma has long hobbled the development of most alternative fuels and has assured the supremacy of oil. Thanks to low prices and abundant reserves just a few years ago, energy providers and automakers simply had little incentive to end the petroleum age. But, faced with the perils of global warming and soaring prices, automakers and oil companies have begun a hasty search for alternatives and have been working together to break the hydrogen logjam. Their answer is to introduce both cars and new fuel stations, clustering them in urban centers like Los Angeles, Berlin and Tokyo.

"The game now is about clustering; it's the only way to take this next step," said Duncan Macleod, vice president of Shell Hydrogen.

New Fuel A Shell station on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles is the first in the nation to offer hydrogen refueling pumps; a sign (below) cautions customers about the dangers of the gas. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Shell's Santa Monica Boulevard station - which has conventional gasoline pumps as well as an odd-looking nozzle with bright blue "hydrogen" labels - is part of this strategy. So is Honda's decision to lease about 200 of its newly developed FCX Clarity cars over the next three years to selected customers in Southern California, who will be able to fill them up at the new Shell station and others. The FCX Clarity uses a fuel cell to power an electric motor; the cars are being leased for $600 a month, a fraction of what they would cost to buy.

But the experiment underscores the tremendous path that hydrogen must travel before it can nudge petroleum off our roads and highways. Given the prohibitive cost of a fuel-cell vehicle — they are custom-made, not mass-produced - no automaker will be selling them to the public for at least 10 years. And many energy companies remain skeptical of the long-term prospects for hydrogen, arguing, among other things, that even with government help the infrastructure costs would be enormous. Automakers also recognize that there are other ways to wean cars from oil, like using biofuels or batteries. But hydrogen offers a plentiful and clean form of energy and cannot be ignored, experts said. And the public is interested in the technology: when Honda announced its leasing program, more than 50,000 people registered for it online.

So carmakers are stepping up their efforts to develop hydrogen cars. Honda plans to have a model in mass production by 2018. G.M. aims to put 100 fuel-cell cars on the roads over the next few years, mostly in Southern California, as well.

Other carmakers, including Ford, BMW, Volkswagen and Daimler, are working on prototypes. The National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, recently estimated that automakers could be selling as many as two million hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars by 2020, which would represent only 1 percent of all vehicles on our roads. After that, the numbers could rise quickly, reaching 60 million by 2035 and 200 million by 2050.

"In the long term, hydrogen and fuel-cell vehicles look like a major part of the solution," said Larry Burns, G.M.'s vice president for research, development and strategic planning. "The dilemma is, how do you manage the transition? We don't have a hydrogen infrastructure like we have a petroleum infrastructure."

Clean Energy Hydrogen-powered cars from several automakers on a national tour to raise awareness about the fuel. (Mario Anzuroni / Reuters)

More than 170,000 fuel stations now distribute gasoline around the country, and millions of miles of pipelines and thousands of tanker trucks feed into a huge system that took more than a century to develop.

Replacing that infrastructure entirely is unrealistic. Instead, G.M. believes that a hydrogen network can be built at a fraction of the cost by concentrating on select urban centers.

In a study released in December, the company said that if 12,000 hydrogen stations were built in the largest 100 cities, that would put a station within two miles of 70 percent of the American population. That number of stations would be enough to fuel one million cars.

"We don't think about this as a nationwide deployment on Day 1, where everything has to be covered immediately," said Britta Gross, G.M.'s manager for hydrogen and electrical infrastructure. An initial network of 40 hydrogen stations in Los Angeles would cost $80 million and cover the needs of that city in the early years of hydrogen deployment, Ms. Gross said.

The government is backing this new approach, said Steven Chalk, deputy assistant secretary for renewable energy at the Department of Energy. "Five years ago we would have said that we need to launch hydrogen nationally but we now think that this cluster idea is the way to go," Mr. Chalk said. "The way to do that is to concentrate in areas where you have critical mass."

Hydrogen holds the promise of turning the internal-combustion engine into a relic while helping to solve the transportation sector's carbon emissions problem. More than 95 percent of the nation's cars now rely on petroleum, and transportation is responsible for a third of carbon-dioxide emissions.

Hydrogen can be produced in a variety of ways, from natural gas or from electricity. Used in a fuel-cell - an electrochemical device that produces electricity - it emits no carbon dioxide, only water. Fuel-cell cars also possess advantages over those that rely primarily on batteries: they have greater range and take only minutes to refuel, compared with several hours to recharge batteries.

Governments around the world have given billions in subsidies for the development of hydrogen technology, with little to show for it. In the United States, the Energy Department has spent $1.2 billion in research and development grants for hydrogen over the past five years. Still, more work is required to increase the durability of the fuel cells and reduce their costs.

"Hydrogen was forever 20 years away, but now, for the first time, you see some of the milestones moving closer, not away anymore," said Mike McGowan, the chairman of the National Hydrogen Association, the industry's trade group. "There is now almost a sense of urgency about the infrastructure."

The largest obstacle remains the size and cost of the infrastructure needed to produce and distribute the hydrogen. The nagging issue is how to replicate a model that has served the petroleum age so well, and that was developed over a century.

"The transition is the key question," Mr. Chalk said. "How do you shift from oil to hydrogen? I don't think you'd necessarily do it exactly the same way. The hydrogen infrastructure does not need to be rolled out just like the current gasoline infrastructure."

Most transportation experts say the automobile industry is inevitably going to shift toward the electrification of the car. The success of the Toyota Prius hybrid, which has both a gasoline engine and an electric motor, has stunned the industry. Now most carmakers offer hybrid models and are furiously working on the next generation, like plug-in hybrids that rely even more on electrical power. The question is where hydrogen will fit into this picture.

"There are three horses in the race to replace petroleum - biofuels, electricity and hydrogen - and at various times you see the fortunes of these various horses ebb and flow," said Roland Hwang, an automobile expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

Ten years ago, hydrogen was in the lead, he said, but lately electric cars and biofuels have taken off because of new, longer-lasting lithium-ion batteries, and large subsidies for alternative fuels like ethanol.

"Hydrogen has probably fallen back," Mr. Hwang said. "That's because hydrogen is the most challenging in terms of fuel production, vehicle technology and infrastructure deployment."

But as automakers charge ahead, they are also complaining that oil companies are dragging their feet.

"The message we're sending to the energy companies is stop thinking of the chicken-and-egg problem and look at what we're doing and listen to what we're telling you, and look at the number of vehicles we're talking about in the future," said Stephen Ellis, Honda's sales and marketing manager for fuel-cell cars. "The process is taking too long. The energy companies are not being as aggressive as they could be, or as they should be."

The cost of developing such an infrastructure may prove prohibitive without far larger government incentives. A study by the Energy Department's Oak Ridge National Laboratory found that the automobile industry would sustain billions in losses from fuel-cell cars until at least 2022.

The National Research Council said that the total cost of deploying a national hydrogen network could be as high as $200 billion, including $55 billion in government aid through 2023. Some experts, like Mr. Hwang, expect the cost to be more than twice that.

In fact, given the uncertainties about which fuels will emerge as real alternatives to oil, energy executives still appear extremely cautions about hydrogen.

"They need to feel confident that these tens and hundreds of thousands of vehicles will be coming," said Catherine Dunwoody, executive director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, an association of private companies and government agencies promoting hydrogen. "Meanwhile, the automakers feel like they're running into a brick wall. There is definitely a sense of urgency on their part."

BP recently dropped its commitment to hydrogen, and Exxon Mobil is focusing its efforts on technology that allows hydrogen to be produced directly on-board fuel-cell vehicles, without the need for a new infrastructure. Shell says auto companies are setting unrealistically high goals for fuel stations given the limited numbers of fuel-cell cars.

"When people talked about the hydrogen economy, hydrogen was the answer to everything," said Mr. Macleod, of Shell. "I don't think they had thought about all the pieces of the story. Hydrogen is one pathway. There will be many. It is part of the story."

Puneet Verma, director of Chevron's hydrogen research and development efforts, said basic issues like hydrogen storage still needed to be ironed out.

"There is a significant economic hurdle in hydrogen," he said. "We can't provide it on a retail fueling basis to be cost-competitive with gasoline, not today."

However, G.M. and other automakers say such concerns should not deter energy providers from making the necessary investments. "It is really a matter of collective will between policy makers, carmakers and oil companies," said Mr. Burns, of G.M. "We all need to get on the same page, and on the same blueprint, and start in the same cities."