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Kimble: Hydrogen cars full of hot air

Element to fuel cars abundant – stations aren’t

The Chevrolet Equinox fuel-cell vehicle draws onlookers at the University of Arizona Mall.

The Chevrolet Equinox fuel-cell vehicle draws onlookers at the University of Arizona Mall.

The last time I heard anyone talk about using hydrogen for transportation, some guy on an old newsreel was yelling, “Oh, the humanity” and the Hindenburg was crumbling to the ground in a huge fireball.

That, J. Byron McCormick assures me, will not happen with the fleet of hydrogen-powered SUVs General Motors has deployed under his leadership.

No explosions. No fireballs. No newsreel spectacular.

But also no gasoline. And no exhaust except for water and warm air. And a very green vehicle running on a fuel that could be manufactured with power from the sun.

Technically, it is possible – and it is being done now on a very small scale. Jay Leno drives a GM car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

But daunting practical barriers must be overcome before you can buy a car that runs on hydrogen and ditch the gasoline habit forever.

McCormick is executive director of fuel cell activities at GM – and he got his start at the University of Arizona, where he received bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering. (For UA history buffs, McCormick is not related to a former UA president with the identical name: J. Byron McCormick.)

It was at UA that this McCormick first became interested in the technology of fuel cells, a device that breaks hydrogen into its two chemical components – oxygen and water – and in the process produces power to run an electric motor.

The technology is used on space vehicles and in nuclear submarines – mostly to produce water and oxygen, not power.

This week, McCormick returned to the UA campus with two Chevrolet Equinox sport utility vehicles that have been modified to run on hydrogen instead of gasoline. Except for fuel cell graphics plastered all over the SUVs, there was little obvious difference.

The vehicle drives like an “ordinary” one. But with an electric motor, it is totally silent while stopped and makes only a low hum when moving. Acceleration is impressive, with the vehicle leaping away from stops faster than gasoline-powered cars.

It will go about 200 miles on a hydrogen fill-up – but then what? There are no hydrogen pumps at your neighborhood gasoline station. There are a few around, but they are inaccessible to the public.

That’s the chicken-and-egg problem keeping all of us from driving hydrogen-powered cars: There isn’t a network of hydrogen fuel stations because there aren’t any hydrogen cars. And there aren’t any hydrogen cars because they have nowhere to fill up.

To nudge this problem off dead center, GM has hand-built about 100 hydrogen-powered SUVs and lent them – free – to drivers who live where there are a few fueling stations. Most are in the Los Angeles area, with a few in New York state and a handful in Washington, D.C.

Late-night host Jay Leno, well known as an automobile connoisseur, received one of the coveted vehicles. Most went to ordinary people willing to drive them and report any problems.

More will be built and distributed in Germany, South Korea, Japan and China, which have better-established hydrogen distribution networks.

There is no shortage of hydrogen. Vast quantities are vented as waste, often in the processing of petroleum. Or it can be made as needed, using electricity. If the electricity comes from solar cells, wind or some other renewal resource, the process is totally clean.

However, hydrogen also can be extracted from natural gas, releasing carbon dioxide. That makes the process less environmentally friendly.

McCormick predicts that production models of a GM hydrogen-powered vehicle will be rolling off the assembly lines by 2015 – only seven years from now. At first they are likely to be expensive boutique vehicles, but within five more years, they should be comparable in price to gasoline-powered vehicles of that time, McCormick said.

And what about the specter of scads of vehicles carrying Hindenburg-type fuel? Don’t worry. Fuel tanks are protected with Kevlar. And should they leak, the gas dissipates far faster than gasoline does, McCormick said.


Mark Kimble appears Fridays on “Arizona Illustrated” on KUAT-TV, Channel 6. Reach him at mkimble@tucsoncitizen.com or 573-4662.

UA graduate student Grace Shih checks out the interior of the hydrogen-powered SUV.

UA graduate student Grace Shih checks out the interior of the hydrogen-powered SUV.





• Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and is available from a wide range of sources on Earth.

• There are large hydrogen production sites throughout the United States.

• Enough hydrogen is produced each year to fuel 180 million fuel-cell vehicles. Production is forecast to increase by 45 percent in three years.

• At current costs and production rates, hydrogen for a vehicle would cost the equivalent of $2.50 per gallon of gasoline, on a cost-per-mile basis. In the long term, that is expected to drop to $1-$1.50 per gallon.

• The only emissions from a hydrogen-powered vehicles are water and a little warm air.

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