20 October 2010—A "hydrogen highway" stretching from Florida to Maine came a little closer to reality last week. Last Friday, start-up firm SunHydro opened the first privately funded hydrogen filling station for fuel-cell-powered cars and buses in the United States.
The filling station, which is located in Wallingford, Conn., sells hydrogen that is generated on-site using electricity from solar cells. The electricity is used to split water using hydrolysis technology developed by SunHydro’s 14-year-old parent company, Proton Energy Systems. It is only one of about 70 such stations peppered around the country, most of which are in California. However, many of these stations are not in operation or are limited to use by people in government or academia. SunHydro’s station is open to the public.
"Not only are there zero emissions with this method," says Rob Friedland, president and CEO of Proton, "but this offers a retail-transaction feel for refueling."
Fuel will be sold by the kilogram instead of the gallon. "Beyond that metric difference, the experience [of fueling] will be the same," says Larry Moulthrop, Proton’s cofounder. With today’s hydrogen cars, it would take 4 to 5 kilograms to fill an SUV-size vehicle, such as the Toyota Highlander, at a cost of about US $60, according to SunHydro’s founder, Tom Sullivan. That much hydrogen should give the car a range of about 640 kilometers per fill-up. "Similar to a regular car," he says.
The station’s solar panels provide 75 kilowatts of electricity to a device that splits deionized water using what’s called a proton exchange membrane. This is a semipermeable membrane that conducts protons while being impermeable to hydrogen. From there, the hydrogen is compressed and stored in six 4-meter-long tanks. At the nozzle, the hydrogen has a pressure of about 10 000 psi (69 000 kilopascals).
SunHydro has bigger plans than just a station in Wallingford. Sullivan—who made his fortune from hardwood flooring company Lumber Liquidators—says he is planning nine stations along the East Coast of the United States. And from there, who knows? "Eventually there will be a product that people could sell, a containerized [version of the SunHydro station]…that we could ship anywhere in the world." The portable station would be 2.4 meters wide by 12 meters long and could fuel about 10 hydrogen cars per day, says Sullivan. He estimates the cost of the station will be between $100 000 and $200 000.
These stations don’t need to rely on solar energy. "If the station is in a place that could have a wind turbine, we’d use that as well. But initially it’s sun-powered," Sullivan says.
Bjorn Simonsen, chairman of Norway’s hydrogen highway, HyNor, says Sullivan’s vision is "bold" and admires his "fire." But he thinks it’s important to have more than one refueling station in a city, or people won’t buy the cars. "It would be better to have two stations in four cities rather than one in nine cities all up along the East Coast," because if one is closed, the driver has an option to go elsewhere, he says.
Sullivan and his team now plan to travel west with their hydrogen highway concept. And Toyota is along for the ride. It announced a deal with SunHydro back in August to have 10 fuel-cell-hybrid vehicles (FCHV) test driven by Proton staff and members of the Wallingford community. A handful of those cars were at SunHydro’s ribbon cutting. IEEE Spectrum took a test drive, and the experience was completely noiseless—just the rub of wheels on pavement.
Craig Scott, manager for Toyota Motor Sales advanced technology vehicles, says that although its FCHVs are not yet for sale, "we’ve increased the number of units from 2 in 2001 to about 105 units now."
Auto companies such as GM, Daimler, and Honda have pilot lease programs going on in the United States as well. While other manufacturers, such as Hyundai, report that they are nearly ready to go, the target for commercialization for most auto manufacturers is some time in 2015.
GM spokesperson Scott Fosgard says its fuel-cell car program, Project Driveway, has given the company valuable information about how close customers want to be to a refueling station, among other things.
Even with car companies promising to deliver hydrogen vehicles, SunHydro will have a difficult time finding enough customers. The company might be helped by Sullivan’s almost missionary zeal; he is adamant that a lack of reliance on foreign and dirty fuel is not only noble but necessary—even though the current state of hydrogen filling stations is not perfect.
"There’s a lot of delivered hydrogen [in the United States] that is not produced on-site, but…it’s better than buying fuel from the Middle East, and it’s better than gasoline," Sullivan says.
Catherine Dunwoody, executive director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, agrees. "Even when you make hydrogen from natural gas, it’s still green [because] it reduces CO2 emissions by at least half, and the hydrogen fuel cell is two to three times more efficient than burning fuel in an engine."
It’s clear that some of Sullivan’s zeal is rubbing off. Speaking at the ribbon cutting, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who represents Wallingford and its surrounding areas, called this "nothing less than a Kitty Hawk moment."
About the Author
Laurie Wiegler is a freelance journalist in Connecticut.
To Probe Further
The National Hydrogen Association (NHA) Web site lists hydrogen filling stations in the United States. (Editor’s note: Some of the stations on the list are in the planning stage or are otherwise inactive.)