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Filling the Tank with Hydrogen

WINTER 2011—With the recent buzz about Nissan’s Leaf (sold out months before cars even reached show rooms) and GM’s Chevrolet Volt (recently named Motor Trend’s Car of the Year) you may be wondering: Whatever happened to the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, not to mention the hydrogen highway that former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger eagerly touted in the early days of his administration?

Tim Lipman, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center, says the early excitement for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles stalled when automakers and those providing the hydrogen-filling stations each said, in essence, “You first.” Nobody was going to build hydrogen cars without an infrastructure in place for refueling, and the infrastructure wasn’t going to happen without the cars.

But that classic chicken and egg problem is slowly being solved, at least in areas of southern California, and Lipman and his researchers believe hydrogen vehicles, under the right circumstances, could give electric cars a run for the money. In fact, a former helipad at the Richmond Field Station, where TSRC is located, is currently being converted to the first high-pressure hydrogen fueling station in northern California. To find out how it works, the Berkeley Transportation Letter sat down with Lipman for a question and answer session.

BTL: Who can use the new fueling station?

TL: The purpose of the station is for research support—to fuel the Toyota Highlanders we’ll be testing, and possibly some Daimler vehicles in the future. We’re providing about 10 hydrogen fuel cell Highlanders for organizations to use in their fleets in which drivers can put high mileage on them over a period of a month. Then our researchers will survey them about their perceptions of the vehicles, their experiences with hydrogen fueling, and how their driving experience changed any “preconceived notions” they may have had.

BTL: Where is the hydrogen coming from? 

TL: The South Bay, where there’s a hydrogen production facility. The hydrogen we use, at least initially, will be a steam reformation product produced from natural gas, which has a much lower carbon footprint than gasoline. In this process, natural gas is combined with high temperature steam to extract the hydrogen along with carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. The carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide are removed from the mixture leaving pure hydrogen. For us, it’s a starting point. We are working on finding a greener source of hydrogen for our station, and we have various ideas for that. But we have to walk before we can run.

BTL: How will it get to the Richmond Field Station?

TL: It will come in a sort of a tractor-trailer with hydrogen stored in compressed gas storage tubes. It’s possible to distribute hydrogen as a cold liquid, a cryogenic liquid, but then you have to store it as a cryogenic liquid and bleed it off. It’s easier to transport when it’s a liquid because it’s denser. But it’s a little trickier to handle.

BTL: When you say you’re a high-pressure station, what do you mean?

TL: What is unique about our project is we’re going to a higher pressure storage than most existing hydrogen stations in the state. And the new Highlanders that we will be testing have the ability—because their tanks are strong enough—to store the hydrogen at double the pressure previously used. In psi terms, most stations are using 5,000 psi. But these new Highlanders will be able to fill at 10,000 psi. What this means is our vehicles will be able to go about 400 miles on a tank, as opposed to 200 with the lower pressure, and we can still fill them quickly. It should take less than 10 minutes as opposed to 20 or 30 minutes with some other stations.

BTL: How do you do that?

TL: We are pre-cooling the hydrogen, which, because it starts cold, allows you to fill faster without worrying about it heating. UC Irvine has a hydrogen station but it isn’t at high pressure. The hydrogen only gets pushed up to high pressure as it’s going into the vehicle. So that’s why it’s slow. Ours, however, is stored at high-pressure so we can rapidly transfer it into the vehicle at high pressure. That’s what is novel.

BTL: How much hydrogen will be available at the station?

TL: There is storage for 78 kilograms in the dispensing unit at high pressure. And then there’s lower pressure storage of about 300 kilograms in the tube trailers. So together there is enough to refill about 50 vehicles between fuel deliveries.

BTL: What about safety features?

TL: There are a bunch of safety features and concepts integrated into the station, including a fire suppression system. We’ll be able to sit at our laptops and look at the station to see what the pressure levels are. So can the folks who make the dispensing system up in Vancouver. They’ll be able to monitor the station from British Columbia. When vehicles are fueling, a good seal is imperative. So there’s a sealing system that tests the pressure to make sure there are no leaks before it starts dispensing. 

BTL: So back to hydrogen more generally. It seems the electric vehicles or hybrids have pulled out way ahead into the commercial market. Are you still enthusiastic about hydrogen?

TL: I guess I would say I’m an agnostic. But we’re very interested in it for a couple of reasons. It’s true we’ve heard a lot about the Leaf and the Volt because they’re coming onto the market now and getting all the recent buzz. But the lithium batteries that those vehicles depend on are still expensive, and we don’t know how well they’re going to last under certain conditions, like high temperatures. Arizona, say, could be problematic for lithium batteries.

BTL: If lithium batteries come down in price would that tip the balance toward the battery-powered plug-in hybrid?

TL: Probably, but to the extent that these batteries are still expensive and heavy, relatively speaking, it keeps the door open for something like fuel cells to compete.

BTL: How do the vehicles themselves compete with the new battery-powered cars coming onto the market?

TL: Right now, the fuel-cell vehicles are driving extremely well and their efficiency is remarkable. They’re similar to the electric cars in that they have all-electric drives, they’re low maintenance with few moving parts, they’re quiet, efficient, require no oil changes, and no gasoline. The plug-in hybrids, on the other hand, are kind of complicated because they have these combustion systems and tail pipe emissions. So if you want to think about a vehicle with no tailpipe emissions, then it’s either battery electric or fuel cell. You just don’t have much of a driving range with the battery electrics. And refueling takes a long time. So a hydrogen car can go farther, refill quickly, and emit zero emissions. Nothing else can do this.

BTL: Still, some of us remember early the early days of the Schwarzenegger administration when there was lots of talk about a hydrogen highway with stations every 50 miles in California. What happened?

TL: That plan was far too ambitious. The idea for that infrastructure was too far ahead of where the vehicles were at that time. No one wanted to build a bunch of stations until there were cars to use them, and the automakers, who wanted to push these cars, didn’t want to get into the business of building fueling stations. A more scaled down approach with a slow build out has occurred instead.

BTL: How many hydrogen stations do we have in the state now?

TL: Between 25 and 30. Most are in Los Angeles, and this is because there was a conscious decision to focus the original round of infrastructure in one place. The Energy Commission under AB 118 (the Alternative and Renewable Fuel and Vehicle Technology Program) has just released funding for some 12 or 14 new stations, but only one or two are in the Bay Area. It’s a cluster strategy aimed at getting a critical mass of stations and cars down there, while we do a slower build out here.

BTL: Are there enough people driving hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in the LA area to sustain these stations?

TL: There are. General Motors, Honda, Toyota, and Daimler all have hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in use down there. I wouldn’t say all the stations are being fully utilized, but they are being used, and several more are being built. There also are ongoing university design competitions to develop small, home hydrogen refueling systems. Imagine a very small system, a natural gas reformer that makes hydrogen from natural gas, or some kind of electrolyzer that makes hydrogen from electricity and water. It could be something akin to electricity, where you do a slow fill with hydrogen overnight. It could take several hours, but most people’s cars are parked overnight. Then, if you wake up every morning with a full tank of hydrogen and can go 400 miles on it, then that’s going to fulfill pretty much everyone’s needs. In that scenario the public hydrogen infrastructure becomes more like a supplement to home refueling. It’s a potential game-changer to get around this chicken and egg problem.

BTL: What is the forecast for when some of these fuel cell vehicles will come onto the commercial market, and how much will they cost?

TL: Toyota announced in the spring that they expect their commercial fuel cell vehicle to sell for $50,000 or less when it comes onto the market in 2015. Higher-end hybrids are in the high thirties or low forties, so the hydrogen vehicle may have a price premium of $10,000 over a conventional hybrid. Price-wise, it’s getting closer. And while it’s three or four years behind the Leaf and Volt, I expect that in a couple more years when commercialization is more eminent, you’ll hear some of the hydrogen buzz come back. Of course, that depends: If there’s a big breakthrough in lithium batteries—if costs go really low, it will be tougher for hydrogen to compete. It also depends on gasoline prices. But if lithium batteries remain high and gas prices go up, and we have some breakthroughs in the hydrogen infrastructure, like home-refueling systems, then who knows?

BTL: When will the fueling station at Richmond Field Station be up and running?

TL: We're aiming for the end of February.

 Photos by Jay Sullivan