Hydrogen may not only be our fuel of the future, but its usage may help save our planet and perhaps ultimately stop our dependence on foreign oil, so say experts at GM. At least that's what I came away with after spending a day at GM's "Electric Drive University," which included hour-long hydrogen education seminars in such subjects as hydrogen technology, hydrogen safety, well-to-wheel research and a hydrogen fueling demonstration.

The most exciting part of the day was taking the Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell vehicle out for a drive. On a blustery day at The Island Hotel in normally sunny Newport Beach, Calif., I practically jumped into the seat and took my first-ever drive in a hydrogen-powered car.

I’m as passionate as the next guy about cutting my personal carbon emissions and dependence on foreign oil, so driving a hydrogen-powered vehicle sure seems like the right thing to do. But can it handle real-world driving?

Absolutely! Chevy's Equinox Fuel Cell is a sporty and fun-to-drive CUV (crossover utility vehicle) with more than enough performance and power to be a great commuter vehicle.

This zero gas, zero-emissions vehicle achieves 0 to 60 mph in a reasonable 12 seconds with 236 lb.-ft. of instant torque and a top speed of 100 mph. As a crossover vehicle, Chevy's Equinox Fuel Cell seats four and has 32 cubic ft. of cargo volume.

The downside? GM's fourth generation fuel cell vehicle still only drives 150 miles on a full tank. And, to make matters even more difficult, there’s only a handful of hydrogen re-fueling stations for consumers in the nation. Plus, there's only one "700 bar" (the "bar" unit refers to the station's compression pressure) hydrogen fueling station in the country. (Thankfully for me, this special station just happens to be located about four miles from my home.)

These two factors -- driving distance and fuel availability -- are going to be the major challenges in making hydrogen-powered vehicles easy for consumers to buy and drive.

HYDROGEN COMES TO MARKET

Even with these daunting challenges, fuel cell vehicles from several manufacturers are coming to market over the next few years. The first manufacturer to launch fuel cell vehicles in dealer showrooms will beHonda. Its FCX concept car, which will be previewed this month at the LA Auto Show, is set to make history with the first cars to market in the United States and Japan, starting in early 2008.

BMW has a fleet of 25 of its Hydrogen 7 sedans (read about the BMW Hydrogen 7 at Autoblog) on the road here in the United States. Mostly driven by celebrities, film makers, business leaders and politicians, BMW's "Hydrogen 7 Pioneer Program" is a way to educate the public about hydrogen's potential as a zero- emissions solution. BMW has yet to release information on when the Hydrogen 7 will be available for consumers to buy and drive.

Ford has a fleet of 30 hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles (Focus and Fusion models) on the road in seven cities worldwide. So far, the 30 cars have accumulated more than 600,000 miles since the project was founded in 2005. However, in a bold move, Daimler AG and Ford announced in early November that the two companies, plus Ballard Power Company, "are forming a new privately-held company (Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation) that will focus on automotive fuel cell technology and allow the two automakers to further expand their global leading position in fuel cell technology." Mostly, says a Daimler researcher, AFCC will focus on the manufacturing of fuel stacks.

For the Chevy Equinox Fuel Cell roll out, GM got downright creative. Realizing the transformation from fossil fuel to hydrogen is daunting and is going to involve everyone from the general public to all levels of government, GM has devised a brilliant market research program called "Project Driveway."

Project Driveway will put 100 Chevy Equinox Fuel Cell vehicles on the streets of Los Angeles, New York City and Washington D.C. in one of the largest market tests ever undertaken by a car company. It works like this: Chevrolet is letting regular people drive these vehicles for three months as long as they share their experiences in Project Driveway's social community.

Not only is GM gathering much-needed data and candid feedback about the Chevy Equinox Fuel Cell vehicles, but they are also educating the public at the same time. So far, there are about 30 Chevy Equinox fuel cells on the road and GM says it's producing about nine cars each month, making the fleet of 100 cars complete by third quarter 2008.

FUEL CELL BOOT CAMP

So, beyond the marketing hype, what did I learn at GM's recent fuel cell boot camp? Lots. In fact, I now feel highly educated about how fuel cells work, how hydrogen is made and captured, how to get hydrogen into your car and the safety measures needed to keep hydrogen safe for consumers.

Let's start with how fuel cells work. Back at The Island Hotel, a GM official popped the hood of the Chevy Equinox Fuel Cell car to reveal the engine. Unlike any engine you've ever seen, GM's fuel cell "stack" looks like a series of black and silver plastic boxes with three "diffusers" on each side. That's it.

In fact, you've got to start thinking of fuel cell cars not as the mechanical engines of today. In my test drive of Chevy's Equinox Fuel Cell vehicle, I didn't really notice this "electric propulsion" until I stopped on a rather large hill and then accelerated from zero by punching the pedal to the floor. The car sped up smoothly without any noticeable movement or sound from the transmission system.

Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles don't "burn" hydrogen in the same way today's engines burn gasoline -- the electricity that drives the fuel cell electric vehicle comes from a chemical reaction between the hydrogen fuel and oxygen from the air.

In Chevy's Equinox Fuel Cell vehicle I tested, the fuel cell system fits within the space of the car's engine compartment, as I described above. There's also a nickel-metal hydride battery pack, which stores energy from the regenerative braking system to increase operating efficiency and boosts acceleration when needed. The battery pack sits under the floor in the middle of the vehicle. Three compressed hydrogen storage tanks, made of carbon fiber for strength and pressurized to 10,000 lbs. per sq. inch (psi), are located under the rear seats and cargo area.

The Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell CUV is also full of safety features. The hydrogen storage tanks themselves have gone through rigorous testing and have actually been found to be safer than gas tanks, so says GM's research. In response to the popular "Hindenberg" myth, GM says hydrogen is not explosive and cannot ignite without oxygen present. Not only are the car's hydrogen tanks designed not to rupture, but there are hydrogen sensors inside the car to detect any leaks. In case of air bag deployment, crash sensors automatically close down all hydrogen tank valves and shut down the fuel cell stack.

WELL-TO-WHEEL RESEARCH

The biggest consideration regarding hydrogen fuel is how it is made. The well-to-wheel philosophy is at the heart of this new hydrogen era. I mean, why switch to a hydrogen vehicle if the manufacturing process of compressed hydrogen emits as many carbons as fossil fuels?

Ultimately, of course, hydrogen-powered vehicles do have a smaller carbon footprint because they emit water. Fortunately, it seems OEMs, government officials and the energy industry are finally looking at the complete picture of total emissions, from how the energy is made to what is then released into the atmosphere.

Therefore, the best-case scenario for the environment is to make compressed hydrogen from renewable sources such as solar, wind, hydro and garbage (a futuristic solution), which will limit carbon emissions to practically zero.

Once we make hydrogen from renewable resources, build hydrogen fueling stations, have infrastructure supports in place and can mass-produce fuel cell vehicles for consumers, it seems we will finally sever the fossil fuel bond and move towards petroleum independence.

HYDROGEN FUELING INFRASTRUCTURE

OK, so fuel cell cars are truly being produced and even being driven on the streets, starting now. Even with limited hydrogen fueling stations, most of which are currently located in Southern California and New York, creating a viable hydrogen fueling infrastructure is perhaps the biggest challenge toward zero- emissions vehicles.

"Our vision of the future is that there's a range of energy solutions," said Daniel Emmett, executive director of Energy Independence Now.

While speaking at GM's "Electric Drive University," Emmett said hydrogen is a "highly important solution" to stopping fossil fuel usage. His organization, along with many other such organizations and governmental agencies, is helping to get the hydrogen infrastructure up and running by proposing and supporting bills in California. Emmett says it's going to cost California about $130-$150 million per year as an "important down payment" to build a statewide infrastructure of hydrogen refueling stations, along with creating standards and monitoring safety.

There's a lot to know and to do when it comes to building a sustainable hydrogen infrastructure. So far, there are few laws surrounding such important issues as liability insurance coverage for hydrogen fueling station operators and safety standards for station permits. As you can see, it's going to take a momentous effort in working together to create government support and market demand for fuel cell vehicles.


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