CaFCP: Cars of the future?

Hydrogen fuel-cell technology in our backyard

No spark plugs, no belts, no transmission fluid and no oil.

No spark plugs, no belts, no transmission fluid and no oil.

Photo By Emily Scott

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Let’s keep it real here. Californians love their cars, and this mode of transportation is not going away any time soon. After all, what’s better than feeling that rush of adrenaline while hugging the corners of the state’s scenic highways? It brings a sense of freedom that only comes from one thing—the sweet marriage between human and machine. Along with that, though, comes pollution that contributes to global warming.

“California has some of the worst air quality in the United States, and transportation is responsible for that,” admitted Chris White, communications director of California Fuel Cell Partnership, during a tour of the West Sacramento facility.

CaFCP is a one-of-a-kind collaboration of automobile and energy companies, as well as state and federal agencies, with the goal of promoting hydrogen fuel-cell technology. Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles might be a virtual panacea to many of society’s issues, leaving the eternal skeptic to wonder if there is a downside to this technology. And, yes, there may be, as opponents note how it takes more energy to produce hydrogen than it actually provides—what engineers call a poor energy return on energy invested.

But CaFCP keeps plugging along, determined to figure out a way to improve the technology so it won’t have a net energy loss. Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles use a hydrogen fuel stack to generate electricity to power cars. Unlike vehicles powered on gasoline, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles produce zero emissions; the only thing emitted from the tailpipe of these environmentally friendly cars is a harmless puff of water vapor.

The phrases “puff of water vapor” and “environmentally friendly” hardly conjure up an image of reliability and power. White even recognized that by saying, “People don’t buy a car that’s green. They buy a car that fits their lifestyle.” Vehicles that run on hydrogen run smoothly and quietly, while reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

But what about maintenance? Hydrogen fuel-cell cars actually require 80 percent less maintenance than cars run on gasoline, because they have fewer moving parts. They don’t require oil, spark plugs, belts, transmission fluid or many other routine items. Bad news for gear heads, good news for everyone else.

The benefits of fuel-cell vehicles don’t end there, according to CaFCP. This technology could potentially reduce our dependence on foreign oil, because hydrogen can be made anywhere in the world.

“We spend $700 billion [a year] on foreign oil, and this will make us completely independent,” said Rob Riley of the Ford Motor Company. The most common way to make hydrogen is to electrolyze water, but water is quickly becoming a scarce resource. As some ongoing UC Davis research projects demonstrate, however, there’s more than one way to make hydrogen. In one project, hydrogen is pulled from the methane produced in landfills. That same process is used in another project, but with discarded almond shells instead. Currently, the hydrogen is not yet used in cars, but that’s the hope for the future. Imagine a day when garbage is more valuable than oil. Take that, oil tycoons!

As with any new technology, one cannot help but wonder about safety. However, hydrogen is not new. People have been using this element commercially for about as long as they have been watching television. And, according to White, it is safe.

“Hydrogen is no more or less dangerous than gasoline,” he said. “It’s just different.”

The fuel tanks were safety-tested—thrown into bonfires, thrown off buildings and riddled with bullets. Kind of like a demolition derby, but with a more scientific purpose.

Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles aren’t for sale yet, as they are still in the demonstration and validation period. That period ensures the vehicles will meet the customers’ needs and give energy companies time to build a reliable fueling infrastructure, so filling a tank with hydrogen will be as easy as filling a tank with gasoline. The vehicles, which are expected to be competitively priced with their gasoline-powered counterparts, have an estimated public-release date of 2012 to 2015.

You know the saying, “Good things come to those who wait”? Well, good green things may come to those who wait just a little bit longer.