Highway to cell
Rex Hodge and Lyn Cowgill are quietly plotting to change the face of the American automotive industry. How? Two words: fuel cells.
It seems like an unlikely place to launch a revolution.
But in the run-down neighborhood of Alkali Flat, just north of downtown Sacramento, that’s just what former rocket engineer Rex Hodge and his business partner Lyn Cowgill are quietly plotting to do.
The insurrection will begin here among the neglected Victorian houses, the derelict factory buildings and the abandoned rail yards. The men have begun to rehabilitate a 50,000-square-foot warehouse at 12th and C streets which they plan to move into this spring. The massive two-story brick building was once a brewery, which burned down in the 1960s, and then it was a fish processing plant, which burned down in the 1980s. It was rebuilt again but has remained vacant until today, appearing to be just another dead spot in a dead neighborhood.
Soon, however, it will be the headquarters of an ambitious campaign to radically transform the automobile and greatly reduce its impact on our air.
Their plan: to build and sell tens of thousands of cars; not just any cars, but cars completely different from anything on the road today—totally re-engineered and powered by pollution-free fuel cells. These cars will run on hydrogen and emit nothing from their tailpipes but pure, drinkable water.
The fuel cell has captured the imagination of the auto industry and clean air advocates alike, with its promise of cheap, abundant power and without the noxious emissions that have been the hallmark of the internal combustion engine.
No single technology looks as hopeful as the fuel cell for long-term replacement of the gas engine, and the end to our century-long dependence on fossil fuels.
Hodge and Cowgill started the company Anuvu (pronounced “a new view”) in 1996, after Hodge left his job at the rocket manufacturing company Aerojet. While he was there, Hodge worked on rocket engines and later on ways to create smaller fuel cells for aerospace applications. When Aerojet dropped its fuel cell program, Hodge, then only 28 years old, decided he could create a commercially viable fuel cell car. He teamed up with his brother-in-law Cowgill, who had a background in design, and who also serves as the company’s marketing arm. Then the two men started recruiting engineering grad students from Hodge’s alma mater, the University of California at Davis.
While the new building is being finished, the company’s offices and shop occupy much smaller buildings next door.
Hodge, a tall, heavyset man, punctuates his sentences with wide, sweeping hand gestures as he gives a tour of the shop. “We have completely designed a vehicle from the ground up,” he says, explaining that Anuvu has gone a different path than the major car companies that are also working with fuel cells.
Whereas the automakers have tried to cram the fuel cell into a car that is designed for the internal combustion engine, Anuvu has taken the opposite approach—starting with their own fuel cell design, and then developing a car around it. The Anuvu design has produced a car much lighter in weight and more aerodynamic. There are fewer moving parts, having done away with not only the engine but its cumbersome transmission system, and replacing it with motors that directly drive each wheel.
“The big question is, how do you use less energy to propel the car?” Hodge asks, pointing to a large green shell that sits in the middle of the cluttered shop floor.
It is a mock-up of the car they are designing, and looks something like a cross between a 1930s roadster and an avocado. At the same time, its teardrop lines—chosen for the best possible aerodynamic shape—give the model a distinctly futuristic appearance.
At one end of the shop, a couple of employees are hard at work sanding the panels that will ultimately make up the body of the car. The panels are ultra-lightweight carbon fiber, similar to the composite bodies that are used in Formula One racecars. The carbon is about twice as strong as steel but weighs much less. A four-door sedan made from this material could weigh as little as 2,000 pounds, compared to 3,500 to 4,000 for a steel framed car.
By light-weighting the car, it’s possible to propel it using far less energy. That’s just one of the strategies, they say, that will make fuel cell cars a reality in the near future.
“This is the next frontier. Our plan is to incorporate the fuel cell into the life of the average driver,” said Cowgill.
It’s a bold claim, considering that the big auto manufacturers have only rolled out a handful of their own prototypes, and say mass production of fuel cell vehicles is still decades away. And there are plenty in the industry who say that what Anuvu is doing amounts to no more than a few smart people tinkering around in their garage.
Is their futuristic-looking fuel cell car a fantasy? Can a small Sacramento company with 20 employees do what the biggest auto companies in the world, with their armies of engineers and billions of dollars, cannot?
“Yes, we actually plan to sell these cars,” answers Cowgill, grinning.
The auto giants have, of course, done some tinkering of their own with the fuel cell and its application in cars. Most of the big companies have rolled out a limited number of very expensive prototypes.
Of course it is far too early to spot many of these vehicles on the road, but the SN&R caught up with one of Honda’s prototypes, and went for a test ride at a demonstration facility in West Sacramento.
Honda’s experimental fuel cell vehicle, the FCX-V3, is built on the same platform used for their battery electric cars, and might easily be mistaken for one. One tell-tale sign would be the steam coming from the car’s tailpipe. That’s pure water vapor. It is not as long as most cars and has sort of a snub-nosed shape. But the cab rides a bit higher off the ground, giving the vehicle an appearance not unlike a metallic flea.
Riding in the FCX-V3, you notice very little vibration, the only real noise being that of the wheels on the pavement and the hum of an on-board air compressor. Behind the back seat rests a tank of hydrogen gas to fuel the cell. Under the front hood are the electric motor and the drive system.
There is no growl if you punch the accelerator, no lurch if you absentmindedly let your foot slip from the clutch at a stoplight. None of the usual excitement of driving at all.
Tucked invisibly in a long black box underneath the cab of the car, the fuel cell silently does its job, producing about 60 kilowatts, the equivalent of 85 horsepower, as the FCX-V3 tools around the Port of Sacramento.
Of course, any tooling around in the FCX-V3 is done under careful supervision, followed by a mini-van full of technicians who are there to make sure nothing happens to the multi-million dollar prototype. One engineer is at the wheel, another technician in the back seat, hunched over a laptop monitoring the performance of the fuel cell system.
When a reporter asks to drive, engineer Shiro Matsuo politely shakes his head no. When asked just how much the car costs, Matsuo again shakes his head. He will just say “millions.”
Much of the expense comes from the fuel cell itself, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Matsuo said mass production would bring the cost of fuel cells down, one day low enough to compete with the gasoline engine.
As exotic as the fuel cell may seem, it is remarkably simple when compared to the internal combustion engine. One of the most elegant machines ever invented, the fuel cell has no moving parts, is tremendously efficient, and it runs off the most ubiquitous substance in the universe: hydrogen. All of the stars in this and every other galaxy are composed of hydrogen, including our own sun.
On earth, most of the hydrogen is contained in water, and water covers the globe.
Hydrogen is also the simplest chemical element, its atom containing just two parts: a single proton for a nucleus, and a single electron.
The heart of the fuel cell is what is called a Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM). The membrane acts as a sort of sieve, which allows the proton of a hydrogen atom to pass through, but not the electron. Because the proton has a positive charge on one side of the barrier, and the electron a negative charge on the other, the potential for an electrical current is created. The stranded electrons then travel through a small wire around the membrane, creating the electrical current, which can then be used to drive an electric motor or be stored. On the other side of the membrane, the protons and electrons are reunited and then combine with oxygen, which is pumped in from the other direction, to form water (H2O).
Each fuel cell, measuring about 10 inches by 10 inches, and not much thicker than a sheet of notebook paper, produces slightly less than one volt of electricity. The cells are stacked, side-by-side, up to 200 cells in a series, to achieve the number of volts desired. This fuel cell “stack,” anywhere from two to three feet long, can provide enough energy to drive a car.
The fuel cell creates three byproducts: water, electricity and a small amount of heat. As such, it is far more benign than even the cleanest gasoline engines, including the hybrid gas-electric cars that have been developed by some automakers. Because of the fuel cell’s simplicity, and its potential to produce absolutely clean power, it is thought of as a magic bullet.
Actually, the fuel cell was invented back in 1839 by British inventor Sir William Grove, but had no practical application until the 1960s, when NASA began developing fuel cells for use in the Gemini space missions. At that time, fuel cells were too large and not powerful enough to run a car.
Fuel cells remained the province of the aerospace industry until the 1990s when a Canadian company called Ballard Power Systems made a technical breakthrough that dramatically increased the power to volume ratio, and developed fuel cells that could fit under the hood of a car.
While most of the technical problems with the fuel cell itself have been worked out, there are still major obstacles to using it for everyday transportation. One big problem with hydrogen is the space it takes up in a car. Hydrogen is a very light gas and easily expands. Therefore, even a small amount takes up a lot of storage room. In most of the fuel cell vehicles developed so far, the hydrogen storage tank takes up all the room where you would normally have a trunk, and still only provides enough fuel to travel about 100 miles.
The other problem, in the near term at least, is that there is no hydrogen infrastructure to speak of. Whereas the massive network of gasoline filling stations is well established, converting even a portion of that network to a hydrogen system could be a very long and expensive process.
Hodge and Cowgill say they have solved the problem of hydrogen storage. Their lightweight design means less fuel is needed on-board. And they are working on a system that would allow drivers to generate their own hydrogen at home.
The big automakers and energy companies are working on their own solutions, but say it will take years to work out.
Many of the bigger companies have entered into the California Fuel Cell Partnership, which is headquartered in West Sacramento. It is an alliance of nearly all of the major automakers, several oil companies including Shell and British Petroleum, the major fuel cell companies including Ballard and its subsidiary XCellis, and a couple of state agencies, most notably the California Air Resources Board.
The partnership is a way for individual car companies to share information, and then work with the energy companies and fuel cell companies on specific prototypes. The facility itself serves as a sort of combination test facility and public relations nerve center.
Collectively, the companies will produce and demonstrate about 50 fuel cell passenger vehicles by the year 2003, although some companies have plans to produce more cars outside of this collaborative arrangement. There are also plans to build about 20 buses by that time. But nearly all of the companies agree that mass production and everyday use of these dream cars is decades away.
“It could be 10, 25, 100 years. Nobody knows,” said Ford spokesperson Brendan Prebo.
The facility opened with great media fanfare last fall, but has been mostly quiet since then. One of the first things a visitor notices is that the whole facility is plastered with corporate logos. The offices are mostly empty now, but each office door proudly displays the crests of Ford, Nissan, Honda, Daimler-Chrysler and others.
According to Partnership communications director Joe Irvin, Anuvu approached the group early on, but were not invited to join because they are a somewhat unknown quantity. Cowgill, however, said that they weren’t interested in membership because they had already developed their own plan for tackling the fuel cell car. He still believes that Anuvu can work with the partnership in the future.
Inside the main lobby are elaborate displays, illustrating the workings of the fuel cell. There are a lot of pictures of smiling bureaucrats and CEOs, and a video station that plays a whole range of clips covering everything from the history of the partnership to the issue of hydrogen safety. In short, there’s a lot of promotional hoopla, a lot of optimism on display, but very few cars.
Irvin explains that most of the limited number of cars are on tour, or back at their corporate headquarters being worked on. He says you will see more of the rare vehicles as the project ramps up. But beyond 2003, there are no solid plans for the partnership.
That is the year of reckoning for the major automakers to produce a certain number of Zero Emissions Vehicles (ZEVs) under the California’s Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate. Irvin said the companies would then assess whether to continue the partnership, or strike out on their own.
Publicly, the automakers are sending a mixed message. They say they are very enthusiastic about fuel cells, but only someday—not today, not too soon.
“I think what the automakers are doing is hedging their bets,” said Roland Hwang, a transportation expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental organization.
On the one hand, whoever brings fuel cell vehicles to market first will have a big edge on their competitors. On the other, most are understandably reluctant to completely overhaul their companies to produce a radically different product. Hwang said that most companies are probably trying to keep themselves in the fuel cell game without getting too far out front and risking millions of dollars. “Hell, why should they? Ford for example is making 10 [thousand] or 15,000 dollars in profit off each of its SUVs,” he added.
Still, Joe Irvin said the automakers believe that, inevitably, fuel cells will replace the internal combustion engine. “I think you’re seeing an enthusiasm for fuel cell cars that never existed for [battery] electric vehicles,” said Irvin.
Which isn’t saying much.
The auto industry has been less than enthusiastic about that other zero emission technology, the much-maligned battery electric car.
In 1990, the California Air Resources Board (ARB), under then Gov. Dukmejian’s administration, took the ambitious step of telling automakers that by 2003, 10 percent of all vehicles sold in the state of California must be completely emission free.
Heavy emphasis was put on the production of battery electric cars, which at the time seemed the only logical way to create a completely zero emission car.
After a while the industry decided it couldn’t fulfill the ZEV mandate with electric cars. Pressure by automakers forced a change in mandate in 1998, which reduced the number of battery cars required and allowed for a wide range of partial credits for cleaner gas engines, as well as a whole class of hybrid electric vehicles.
The automakers claim there simply isn’t a market for battery cars, with their limited range and high cost.
Although the average commuter rarely ventures more than 30 miles from their house in a given day, the companies say people don’t want to buy a battery car that only gets 100 miles before it needs to be recharged. And for now, battery cars are heavily subsidized in order to be leased affordably. The automakers say that fuel cells are much more promising, but still decades away from mass production.
Clean air advocates claim that demand for battery cars is greater than the industry says, but agree that the fuel cell is potentially far superior to battery technology. It’s a matter of when that technology will be available. And what to do in the meantime to combat the very real problem of dirty air? Fuel cells appear so far off, and smog is evident so near.
In 2000, the auto industry mounted another aggressive lobbying campaign to discredit the battery cars that they grudgingly produced, and to convince the ARB to require still fewer pure ZEVs.
As a result of the automakers efforts, the ARB staff has come up with recommendations to further alter the ZEV mandate. On Jan. 25, 2001, the ARB will consider further amendments to the rule that will drastically cut the number of pure zero emission vehicles required on the road from 22,000 to just over 4,000, while allowing for more hybrid gas and electric and other cleaner-burning gas engines. These amendments, if approved, will almost certainly spell the end of the battery car once and for all.
The impact on fuel cells is more ambiguous, although clean air advocates think the new rule would essentially gut the ZEV program. “It is well shy of what we need to see on California’s roads,” said Jason Mark with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Mark and others who support a stronger government requirement wonder if the industry is really serious about mass producing fuel cell cars. “The public is realizing that it is possible to have greener cars. The industry meanwhile has been putting out dueling press releases in an attempt to claim the environmental mantle,” said Mark.
Industry officials, for their part, bristle at any suggestion that they are only feigning interest in the fuel cell and cleaner air. “This is an extremely competitive industry. If any manufacturers could produce an affordable fuel cell, they would be doing it. There’s no conspiracy here,” said Art Garner with Honda.
Beyond the question of whether to build fuel cell vehicles, one of the most important quandaries is how they should be powered. Almost all fuel cells use hydrogen and oxygen as their main fuel, but there are a number of different ways to get that hydrogen. The simplest, most direct way is to carry the hydrogen on board the car in a tank. But some in the industry are proposing that methanol be used as the fuel. The fuel cell would still run on hydrogen, but a device to convert methanol, which is rich in hydrogen atoms, into hydrogen would be used.
The car would be fueled by filling its fuel tank with liquid methanol. Then a device called a reformer would strip the hydrogen out of the methanol and feed that into the fuel cell.
The advantage of the “reformed methanol” system is twofold, according to its proponents. First, there is more hydrogen trapped in a gallon of methanol than there is in the typical tank of gaseous hydrogen that would be used in a vehicle.
The second advantage has to do with the infrastructure of our energy system. It may be far easier, in the short term, to retrofit the existing infrastructure of gas stations with methanol tanks, than to build an entire infrastructure for direct hydrogen fuel cells.
According to Bailey Condre, spokesperson for the American Methanol Institute, it would be fairly easy to overlay a methanol system onto the existing network of gas stations.
Condre says that a gas station can be retrofitted for as little as $50,000, whereas the cost of a hydrogen pumping station could run into the millions. Indeed, says Condre, 10 percent of all the gas stations in California, Massachusetts and New York could be retrofitted to provide methanol for a cost of just $500 million.
But methanol has serious drawbacks as well—it is toxic. A teaspoonful, if ingested, will kill you. And reforming methanol still creates air pollution in the form of carbon dioxide, although at about 70 percent less than a typical gasoline engine.
That’s not nearly enough to satisfy clean air advocates. If methanol is only a transitional fuel, just a pit stop on the way to a true hydrogen economy, why make the investment? And the air pollution gains from methanol don’t add up for some people.
“Switching to methanol is like switching to ultra-light cigarettes,” said Dan Jacobson with the California Public Interest Research Group, which is a staunch advocate of strong clean air regulations.
Still, others think we should be going directly to a pure “hydrogen economy,” one that would be completely free of fossil fuels. Not only should hydrogen be the fuel of choice, but the way we get hydrogen can be almost completely green as well. For example, it is assumed that in the short term, nearly all of the hydrogen will be produced from breaking down natural gas, which is rich in hydrogen but not pollution-free, and not renewable. But it is possible—and preferable, environmentally speaking—to produce hydrogen from water by using electrolysis, essentially the reverse process of how a fuel cell works.
Electrolysis devices could someday be powered by only renewable energy sources like solar arrays or wind power.
Among those pushing for a leap to a total hydrogen economy is Amory Lovins, director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an environmental think tank in Snowmass, Colo.
“That’s the best and cheapest way,” said Lovins, adding that the key is to make the car efficient enough to be ready for direct hydrogen, which the traditional car is not.
Lovins was one of the first to propose some of the ideas that Anuvu is working toward. In his book Natural Capitalism, he introduces, among many other ideas, the concept of the Hypercar™.
The Hypercar is essentially a car made of ultra-light, ultra-strong carbon composite materials, designed to be much more aero dynamic than what is standard in the industry today. And ideally, the Hypercar would be powered by a direct hydrogen fuel cell, not some sort of compromise.
While Lovins has shown, on paper, how fuel cell vehicles could be done, and done today, Rex Hodge and Lyn Cowgill say they are actually doing it.
Anuvu’s prototype should be ready by this summer. After that, Hodge and Cowgill say they will quickly ramp up production. In 2002, they will produce a “limited edition” run of a couple of hundred cars from the Alkali Flat facility. In 2003, production will be in the thousands, and by 2004 they see tens of thousands of people driving their cars.
The Anuvu car would sell for about $40,000. That could be lessened if the Air Resources Board still holds on to the idea of providing incentives for the purchase of Zero Emission Vehicles. Currently, the state Air Resources Board will help pay the cost, of up to $9,000 ($3,000 a year for three years) if you decide to purchase a ZEV. That could cut the cost down to $31,000, hardly out of the range of many professional types looking for a luxury sedan, which is just the market Anuvu wants to target initially. Hodge said their car will have a roomy interior and will be heavily computerized, with touch-screen controls and cameras instead of rear view mirrors, and will be an all-round “sexier” ride than most. With all of this, the Anuvu car (Cowgill has suggested calling it the “Reality” but hasn’t convinced his colleagues) would get 700 miles before it had to be refueled.
What about the fuel infrastructure problem? Anuvu has that figured out as well. Included in the price of their car will be an electrolysis device, smaller than a typical water heater, which drivers will keep in their homes. The device will use electricity to split water and produce tanks full of hydrogen and oxygen. It will take only 10 gallons of water to produce enough fuel to travel 700 miles, said Cowgill.
Rather than paying at the pump, a driver would only have to pay for the electricity that powers the electrolysis device as part of their home electric bill. According to Cowgill, the Anuvu vehicle would run at a cost equivalent to $1 per gallon of gasoline. The typical Sacramento commuter could expect to pay about two and a half cents per mile, at today’s electricity prices. Even if electricity prices go up sharply in the near future, the fuel cell car would still compare favorably to gasoline powered cars that cost six or seven cents a mile to operate.
The thought of a company like Anuvu trying to compete with their radically new cars doesn’t seem to have spooked the major automobile companies.
“Sure these guys are rocket scientists. They may be brilliant people. But it’s not enough just to figure out how to build a new kind of car,” said Dean Case, with Nissan.
Indeed, Anuvu may face obstacles that the auto giants would not. The major companies obviously own their own dealerships, making it easy to sell cars. And there aren’t many mechanics out there who would be able to work on a fuel cell vehicle if there were a problem. The idea of carbon composite bodies sounds nice, said Case, but it is not proven. “Carbon fiber is great stuff. It’s also tremendously expensive and hard to work with and difficult to get repaired.”
Cowgill responds that carbon fiber prices have been dropping dramatically, and are expected to continue doing so. The company has secured more than enough in private investments to carry it through the initial phases of development and testing, and is working on raising enough to begin mass production. He would not reveal who the investors were.
In fact, Cowgill goes further to say that small companies like his are better positioned to lead a bona fide revolution on wheels.
“Car companies are not the omnipotent rulers that they used to be,” he explained, adding that the institutional inertia of the big companies makes it difficult to leap into a new way of doing things. The factories now tooled to produce steel-framed cars are tremendous investments that demand production runs in the millions to be profitable.
But although the new materials that Anuvu is using are more expensive by the pound than steel, Cowgill says they are far easier to work with and require only one machine to mold an infinite number of different parts, which cuts down considerably on capital costs.
Cowgill envisions a future where small cottage industry companies are able to compete by manufacturing limited runs of their cars, often made to order for the customers.
Not only is it possible to do it, said Cowgill, he sees it as an imperative. After all, California’s air quality may be improving, but it couldn’t be called healthy, especially in Sacramento and other hot spots. It is much worse, of course, in other industrializing countries. And the idea of helping the great population centers like China, Indonesia and India—countries already struggling to clean up their air— is a daunting, if inspiring task for the aspiring automakers.
Cowgill and Hodge didn’t take up this project because they were on an environmental crusade. They were, and still are, primarily entrepreneurs. And yet, after having done all of the work of the past six years, they’ve become converts of a sort.
“This isn’t just a nifty idea anymore,” said Cowgill. “It’s not just a way to make a buck. It is something that must be done.”