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The Real Future of Sustainable Cars?

October 18, 2010

Refueling with Hydrogen

In recent months, the electric car movement has been gaining traction. Over the next two years, several ambitious entrepreneurs and established automakers are scheduled to release of a handful of promising electric rides. While electric vehicles represent a clear step up from fossil fuel dependent combustion engines, these vehicles face several environmental hurdles of their own, leading some to view them as a short-term solution to the dirty transportation problem.

The electric cars soon arriving on the scene take the important leap of forgoing the gas pump, but when they plug into an outlet, much of the electricity they use to re-juice will still be produced via unsustainable methods (A recent study even suggested that widespread adoption of EVs in China would actually increase certain greenhouse gases, as the country relies heavily on coal to produce electricity). On top of this, the batteries used in EVs pose an environmental quandary in themselves. These batteries contain rare earth metals and other less than eco-friendly elements. Batteries wear out and need to be replaced, and in an imagined world where the entire nation relies on electric vehicles to get from A to B, this is a problem too large to ignore.

This brings us to the hydrogen fuel cell, a vehicle technology that some argue is the best approach for a country seeking a long-term, sustainable solution for green highway travel. Critics of hydrogen cars point to the substantial infrastructure and cost barriers than stand in the way of the mass adoption of fuel cell vehicles, and claim the benefits of hydrogen fuel will not be seen until the distant future, making it an unproductive strategy to dedicate serious resources towards developing the technology in 2010.

Recent developments, however, suggest that a hydrogen-powered future is not quite as far off as critics will suggest.  This week marked the opening of the first SunHydro hydrogen fueling station in Wallingford, CT.  In January, Proton Energy Systems (parent company of SunHydro) announced an ambitious plan to create an East Coast “hydrogen highway” powered by SunHydro stations stretching from Maine to Miami.

Several infrastructure problems stand in the way of widespread fuel cell use, including effective methods for transporting and storing the potentially volatile element.  There is also a production issue: fuel cells themselves are zero emission, emitting drinkable water out of the exhaust, but one prevalent means of producing hydrogen involves the use of natural gas, thus negating some of the green attributes of the fuel.

SunHydro founder Tom Sullivan hopes to overcome these infrastructure problems by implementing a unique hydrogen production method at SunHydro stations. The fueling station uses on-site solar power to split the hydrogen and oxygen atoms in water molecules. Eco-friendly oxygen is released as a byproduct, and the hydrogen is collected for use in the station’s fuel pumps.

Along with the infrastructure issues SunHydro hopes to solve, the other main obstacle to a hydrogen vehicle future is cost, but recent developments may indicate this barrier is quickly shrinking. In May, Toyota announced a plan to release a $50,000 fuel cell car by 2015. The company claims to have cut the cost of producing hydrogen cars by 90% thus far, and believes it can cut costs a further 50% in the coming years. It is reasonable to assume that increased interest and investment in the technology would cut costs even more rapidly.

In the long run, it is clear that hydrogen fuel makes sense financially. Hydrogen stands out as a nearly unlimited resource. The new SunHydro station sells the element at a rate of $10 per kilogram, giving the Toyota prototype vehicles filling up at the pump an estimated range of 350 miles on one $50 tank. Toyota’s website points out that one test car achieved 431 miles on a single tank. As fuel cell cars and fueling stations become more advanced, increased efficiency means that hydrogen fuel may become increasingly cheap.

While electric cars offer an alternative to combustion engines that is immediate and requires little change in infrastructure, we should not stop there. Hydrogen fuel cells show much promise, and as a society we are perfectly capable of making widespread changes to infrastructure and business models if we are willing commit the necessary amount of time and financial resources.

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