January 16, 2007
By: by Fred O. Williams, News Business Reporter, The Buffalo News
The modified Toyota Prius glides silently from the curb, running on electricity from its battery. It gets only a little louder when I goose the pedal to rev its motor, yielding a faint puttering.
I was among a few reporters who took the special test vehicle, one of two funded by the state's energy research office, for a spin around the University at Buffalo's North Campus last week. Any Prius is environmentally friendly, but this one is greener than most. That's because the fuel that turns its crankshaft isn't gasoline, but hydrogen - the fuel of the future, according to energy gurus.
The appeal is easy to see. Hydrogen burns in a regular engine, without spewing pollutants or greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Nor does it have to be imported from global trouble spots. If advocates are right, hydrogen cars like the Prius will become common sights on the highway someday.
For now, the hydrogen-burning Priuses at UB, supplied as part of a state-funded program to encourage the development of the alternative fuel, are among just a handful of such cars in the East, officials say. University personnel will drive them as part of study on how they perform.
"These are about as common as hen's teeth," crows Gunnar E. Walmet, director of industrial buildings/ research from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
You might not guess the car's exotic status by its handling, at least during the 1.5 mile trip I took. It starts silently when I press the "power" button on the dash, more like a computer than a car. That's ordinary for a Prius, explains Karl Lindaman, my escort from the university's fleet maintenance crew.
A screen on the dash flashes to life, telling us the fuel level - three red bars on the indicator say we have enough for only a 24-mile trip, ending any thoughts of a jaunt to the casino and back.
Its a dry, 62-degree afternoon, and the Prius tools along the roads around the UB Center for the Arts without any snags. Its computerized transmission whines as we speed up to 30 mph, but the interior is quiet enough to talk without raising our voices.
Lindaman says the car's range is limited to 80 miles on a fill-up. Fueling takes about two hours at the filling station the university has set up, where a compressor pumps hydrogen from cylinders into tanks slung underneath the car. The tanks hold 1.6 kilograms of compressed hydrogen, the energy equivalent of about 1.5 gallons of gas. The pressure in the tanks is about 100 times that of the air in the tires.
Disappointed by the car's response to my right foot, I complain to Lindaman about the lack of pep. He replies that it'll go if I mash the pedal and wake up the turbocharger.
Turbo? On a Prius? It's the best way to compensate for the sluggish acceleration, one of the car's handlers explains later.
I'm reluctant to bring the hammer down though, thinking of the car's $100,000 price tag. What would the insurance claim be like for a hydrogen-burning, electric-hybrid car, I wonder. It's the custom fuel-handling system, made by Quantum Technologies in California, that boosts the cost of this Prius into six figures, about $80,000 more than the regular price.
Below the screen on the dashboard I notice an orange warning sticker. It says to pull over and call fleet maintenance if the engine starts misfiring.
The sticker is there for a reason, Lindaman says, especially in rainy weather. Water getting into the intake causes the engine to buck, and the car "acts like it wants to throw you through the windshield."
After the ride, Walmet explains that the idea of the test is to find and overcome problems like that.
There are a lot of hopes riding on hydrogen. President Bush has pledged $1.3 billion over five years for its development as a motor fuel, anointing it as the successor to petroleum.
Western New York is becoming a hotbed of test activity. In addition to the NYSERDA program, the state Power Authority anticipates spending $21 million around the region for hydrogen fuel production, fueling stations and vehicles.
Buffalo is, "well, you wouldn't want to call it the Middle East of hydrogen," says Walmet. But you could, he says; the gas is available here as a byproduct of chemical plants that make chlorine. The key is cheap hydropower used by the chemical plants. They use electricity to split water molecules into their components, oxygen and hydrogen. Hydrogen produced by this "electrolysis" method provides a way to store electrical energy, not only from hydro plants but also from wind farms like the one being erected on the old Bethlehem Steel site in Lackawanna.
The ready supply of hydrogen here makes it cheaper here than most places, though still not exactly cheap - at $3 to $5 for a kilogram, the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline. And the Prius isn't getting that wholesale price yet. The cars at UB are running on retail hydrogen from an industrial supply company at $31 per kilogram, the state's contractor says.
When people think of hydrogen and transportation together they may remember the image of the zeppelin Hindenburg exploding in flames, a disaster that put an end to dirigible travel in the 1930s.
That incident shouldn't reflect on hydrogen cars, Walmet insists. "Hydrogen is on balance no more dangerous than gasoline," he says. It isn't toxic to inhale and it's not an environmental threat.
True, "it has the propensity for exploding if a certain amount leaks out." Then again, gasoline burns too - what fuel doesn't? Pictures of tests show a rocket-like jet of flame shooting from a ruptured hydrogen tank. At least the fiery plume points away from the vehicle.
The grail of hydrogen-fuel vehicles is the fuel-cell, a zero-pollution technology that emits only water vapor and runs at higher efficiency than a combustion engine. Hydrogen burning cars like the Prius do produce some nitrogen oxides. But the million-dollar cost of a fuel cell car means the technology is probably decades away from being practical, making hydrogen combustion a potential stepping stone toward the development of a fueling infrastructure.
In the meantime, fleet vehicles like the UB cars, and other special uses like forklifts for indoor warehouses, can give hydrogen combustion its start in the real world, Walmet says.
"I think," he says, "we have to build up everybody's understanding and knowledge."