Hydrogen Cars: Saving the Environment’s a Gas

Cruising north on Interstate-5 in a Chevy Equinox hardly sounds like a reason to be excited, but I felt lighter than air yesterday. That may just be an effect of the hydrogen fueling the car, or perhaps just the giddy sensation that comes from driving the future of General Motors on the same day their future looks so uncertain. Whatever the cause, my heart was beating loudly as I drove the 40 miles or so from Ft. Lewis to Seattle in a caravan of other hydrogen fuel cell cars. My heart was definitely much louder than the practically inaudible sound of the fuel stack converting hydrogen to electricity and water.

The Equinox is a compact sport utility vehicle, sort of like a minivan for people who don’t want to drive minivans. This Equinox is one of eight hydrogen powered cars from Daimler, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai-Kia, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen traveling north from Chula Vista, CA to Vancouver, BC as part of the second annual Hydrogen Road tour. The cars, which left on May 26 and will finish their tour on June 3, are stopping at 28 cities along the way to give people a chance to try out the cars and learn about hydrogen fuel cells. To put it simply, hydrogen fuel cells work like batteries, with the hydrogen ionizing into electrons and protons. The electrons are forced through a circuit, creating an electric current. The waste products coming out the end of the tailpipe are just water and a little bit of heat—much cleaner than internal combustion exhaust.Hydrogen Engine

One cell produces very little voltage, but stacked together they do quite well. The Equinox I drove could produce 94 kW, reach highway speeds of as much as 100 miles an hour (electronically regulated to prevent overtaxing the fuel cells), and go 150 miles on just 4.2 kilograms of compressed hydrogen.

I got the experience of what it’s like to drive one of these cars this morning, when I drove down to Fort Lewis near Tacoma, WA. Fort Lewis was chosen as one of the sites to stop at because the military is building a hydrogen fuel maker from a wastewater treatment plant and plans to have a shuttle bus and 19 forklifts that run on hydrogen gas sometime in the next couple of years.

Fort Lewis also currently is expanding its use of other alternate fuels such as biodiesel and ethanol. “We’re trying everything to see what’s best,” says Miriam Easley, sustainability outreach coordinator at Fort Lewis. With the military rather than civilians in charge, much can get done quickly, including testing different alternative fuels in a semi-closed economy. “If anybody can get it right, the military can get it right,” said Col. Cynthia Murphy, garrison commander at Fort Lewis.

Much of the future of alternate fuel vehicles depends on the infrastructure available to support them. If there were enough places for people to fuel hydrogen powered cars, people would be more willing to buy them. But to create demand for the fueling stations, the cars have to be already sold. “It’s a chicken and egg question,” said Dawn McKenzie, and assistant manager of product communications for GM and one of my passengers as I drove. This is a thorny problem for car manufacturers. Washington does not currently have any hydrogen stations, but it does offer other types of alternative fuel. After driving back to Seattle, we went to one of them, a Propel station providing both ethanol and biodiesel.Hydrogen Cars

Compared to hybrid vehicles like the Prius this felt more like a gasoline powered car, albeit quieter. There’s no abrupt transition like in the Prius between the battery and gasoline engine. If it weren’t for a small indicator light, it would be hard to tell if the car was even on.

Perhaps the most important and most subtle aspect of driving a hydrogen car is that it really is not that different in feeling from driving a regular car. But it is quieter, more economical and decidedly more environmentally-friendly than standard gasoline engines. It’s easy to imagine a transition in America to these kinds of cars. It’s a hope that keeps me buoyant.

Eric Hal Schwartz was an intern in Xconomy's Seattle office. Follow @

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