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Made in China: Volkswagen’s hydrogen fuel cell vehicle

Volkswagen fuel cell

On the heels of the Obama administration’s announcement that it will move away from hydrogen fuel cell funding, Volkswagen confirmed that it remains committed to building fuel cells for hydrogen-powered vehicles.

To stress the company’s point, we were invited to the California Fuel Cell Partnership in Sacramento to test-drive Volkswagen’s fuel cell prototypes.

Currently, the automaker’s fuel cell efforts are housed under the sheet metal of Chinese-spec Passat Lingyus, which were built primarily for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. VW gave scientists at Tongji University in China free rein to create, implement and refine the fuel cell components within them.

All 22 Passat Lingyus are roadworthy, with a range of 186 miles per hydrogen top-up. However, according to John Tillman, program manager of Volkswagen’s Advanced Powertrain Research Program, the fuel cells are “still at least a generation out from being ready for public consumption.” You don’t say?

Despite this, the fuel cell vehicles were a lot more functional than we’d expected. Electric cars are silent, clean diesels have a torquey burble, but the fuel cell vehicle quietly whirred down the road, the ride punctuated by occasional noises that sounded similar to carnival ride hydraulics or something a Foley artist would create for a Will Smith movie set five minutes into the future.

Acceleration is akin to an electric car, where power builds slowly but steadily due to the single-gear transmission. Stomping on the gas pedal, er, hydrogen pedal, won’t get you anywhere fast, but the Lingyus never feels dangerously slow.

Minor gripes: The air conditioning can’t be turned on unless you find repetitive grinding from the electric motor soothing, and the vibrations from the fuel cell, which spans the entire length of the cabin, transmit into the seats. Think of it as driving with surround sound. Undoubtedly, the engineers are more concerned with fuel cell durability than the odd noise and burp here and there.

There is clearly a long way to go before fuel cells will be ready for mainstream applications, and the question of their viability remains. Still, those at VW – and many other automakers – want it known they consider research into this technology a fundamental aspect of alternative fuel development. Whether it’s throwing good money at a problem solution, only time will tell.

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May 26, 2009 - 4:48 PM No Comments

Hydrogen hopes: Can they restore funding for fuel cells?

Energy Secretary Steven Chu “zeroed out” hydrogen funding, but a small band of advocates want to restore the cuts.

A Honda FCX fuel-cell car: The end of U.S. funding? (Credit: Honda)
Fuel-cell advocates are none too happy about Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s abrupt decision earlier this month to cancel $100 million in hydrogen funding.
In a joint statement, the U.S. Fuel Cell Council and the National Hydrogen Association said, “The cuts proposed in the DOE hydrogen and fuel-cell program threaten to disrupt commercialization of a family of technologies that are showing exceptional promise and beginning to gain market traction. Fuel-cell vehicles are not a science experiment. These are real vehicles with real marketability and real benefits. Hundreds of fuel-cell vehicles have collectively logged millions of miles.”
The groups had asked for $1.2 billion in funding, but now the tally is down to $68 million for stationary fuel cells to be used as backup power. But the advocates think he can still be reasoned with. Robert Rose, executive director of the U.S. Fuel Cell Council, says he thinks the energy secretary has been too busy to focus on hydrogen, and he hopes Congress will reverse the decision. “We aren’t giving up on Dr. Chu,” he said.
Chu evidently got an earful at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Water Subcommittee May 19. According to Dr. C.E. “Sandy” Thomas, a passionate hydrogen advocate who heads H2Gen and was in attendance, Chu took some flak. Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) said he was “stunned” by the flat funding for hydrogen, calling it a “significant mistake” that was “not a smart thing to do.” He said he will “do everything we can to restore the program.” Dorgan also said that the program was 10 years old, preceding George W. Bush’s occupancy of the White House, and had been making significant progress.
Also offering complaints, though not about hydrogen, was Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who complained that Chu was not returning her calls. More to the point, J. Byron McCormick, GM’s former fuel-cell chief, resigned from a DOE hydrogen advisory group when the funding cut was announced. “As I thought about the decision, how it was worded, and the fact that the budget was zeroed, I didn’t feel I could in any way appear to be supportive,” he said.
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May 26, 2009 - 12:45 PM No Comments

Rail Conference to Feature U.S. DOT official

A U.S. Department of Transportation official will be keynote speaker at the fifth International Hydrail Conference, June 11-12 at UNC Charlotte.

Hydrail is emerging technology that uses hydrogen fuel cells instead of diesel-electric generators to power rail transit, such as streetcars and commuter rail. Supporters of the technology in Mooresville, who hoped hydrogen could power a light rail line to Charlotte, have brought previous international conferences to Charlotte and Salisbury.

This year’s conference, to be hosted by UNCC’s Charlotte Research Institute, will highlight the trend away from overhead electrical power for streetcars. The keynote speaker will be Walter Kulyk, director of the Office of Mobility Innovation at the Federal Transit Administration.

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May 26, 2009 - 12:18 PM No Comments

Border to Border: Fuel Cell Vehicles Demonstrate the Future of Transportation from California to Canada

Beginning today, Americans and Canadians will have a unique opportunity to see what the transportation future holds with the launch of a nine-day caravan of clean, efficient hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

The California Air Resources Board, California Fuel Cell Partnership (CaFCP), Powertech Labs (on behalf of British Columbia), the National Hydrogen Association and the U.S. Fuel Cell Council are organizing the second annual Hydrogen Road Tour 09. Vehicles from seven major automakers will turn heads as they make the trek from border to border. The Tour will stop in 28 cities along the route, with special focus on the communities where hydrogen-powered technology—passenger vehicles, transit buses and hydrogen stations—will likely enter the market first.

“The Hydrogen Road Tour showcases the progress of hydrogen programs in the U.S. and Canada,” said CaFCP executive director Catherine Dunwoody. “These vehicles are comfortable, perform great, refuel in minutes and will travel the distance with zero tailpipe emissions, zero petroleum and greatly reduced greenhouse gases. Thousands of people will get a chance to try these vehicles for themselves.”

H2RT will depart early in the morning today, Tuesday, May 26 from the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista and arrive at the Hydrogen + Fuel Cells Conference in downtown Vancouver in the morning of Wednesday, June 3. The caravan will stop at 28 locations to provide people with a first-hand experience with the vehicles and fuel. High-tech fuel cell vehicles from Daimler, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai-Kia, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen—including several new models—will make the journey, and will be joined by fuel cell transit buses at several stops. In addition to using many of the existing stations along the route, Air Products and Powertech Labs are providing mobile refueling stations and hydrogen fuel.

“Fuel cell technology is on the verge of becoming a practical alternative to burning gasoline,” said Air Resources Board Chairman Mary D. Nichols. “This year’s road tour demonstrates how far the industry has come and how near we are to putting these cars in the public’s hands.”

Currently, 250 zero-emission fuel cell vehicles have been placed on California’s roads, building anticipation for plans released by automakers, energy companies and government agencies to collectively roll out 4,300 passenger vehicles to customers in California by 2014. In addition, transit agencies operate fuel cell buses, including BC Transit in Vancouver which will operate a fleet of 20 fuel cell buses for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Cities, businesses and military bases in California, Oregon and Washington are implementing other projects that use fuel cells, including forklifts and stationary power.

About the California Fuel Cell Partnership
CaFCP is a public-private collaboration of organizations including auto manufacturers, energy providers, fuel cell technology companies and government agencies working together to promote the commercialization of fuel cell vehicles. Hydrogen and fuel cell vehicle technology are a central part of a long-term strategy for air quality, climate protection and energy diversity.

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May 26, 2009 - 12:14 PM No Comments

Research on Hazelnuts Might Reap Big Rewards

May 26–PLATTSMOUTH, Neb. — If the folks at the Arbor Day Foundation go a little nutty talking about hazelnut trees, it’s because they just might be on the verge of producing a phenomenal hybrid.

Research by the foundation, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Rutgers State University of New Jersey and Oregon State is on track to develop a second-generation hazelnut hybrid with a variety of commercial benefits.

Tom Molnar, an assistant professor of plant biology at Rutgers, said the hybrid hazelnuts could be available for commercial planting within a decade or two.

“This program could take 15 or 20 years, but I know that we will have plants that can be produced for commercial use and be grown in a variety of climates,” Molnar said. “They will also be more sustainable than soybeans.”

Molnar had been working on hazelnut hybrids on his own for about 10 years before joining forces with UNL, Oregon State and the Arbor Day Foundation.

“The first step is to find one or two good plants and see how they do in a lot of different locations, from New Jersey to Nebraska, up into Minnesota and across the Northeast.”

Only the Wilmette Valley in Oregon grows commercially viable hazelnut trees in the United States. The Oregon growers produce 99 percent of the U.S. crop but meet only 3 percent to 5 percent of the world demand.

Determining the hybrid with the highest yield per acre would be next, he said.

Research has shown that the hazelnut tree can provide food for humans as well as livestock, that it has potential as a bio-fuel and is an easily sustainable crop that doesn’t require large amounts of energy to grow.

Doug Farrar, vice president of the Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City, stood on a wind-swept hill recently outside Plattsmouth as second generation hazelnut hybrids were planted on Horning State Farm, which is managed by the Nebraska Forest Service.

Farrar said hazelnuts produce twice as much oil as soybeans and have many cooking uses.

They produce a cooking oil, he said, that has a similar composition to extra virgin olive oil but without the fatty acids.

The hazelnut also has the potential to help solve energy problems because it has a dense shell that makes excellent fuel and, when burned, creates hydrogen that could be used for fuel cells in electric cars.

Not having to plant the crop every year is another factor in the hazelnut’s favor.

A producer doesn’t have to use the energy to till the soil, Farrar said.

“We have put a lot of time — over 10 years — into this project,” Farrar said. “We would not have put all this energy into the project if we did not believe it had great benefits for agriculture and the environment.”

The hope is that this and subsequent generations of hybrids will be hearty enough to withstand native diseases and Nebraska’s climate while producing hazelnuts in quantities suitable for commercial sale.

The challenge is to crossbreed those native hazelnut trees grown in Oregon with hardier eastern European varieties.

Scott Josiah, director of the Nebraska Forest Service, is in charge of about two acres of hazelnut hybrids at the Horning farm near Plattsmouth. Another 9 1/2 acres of hazelnuts are being grown at Arbor Farm and two more acres at UNL’s East Campus.

Josiah carefully monitors the various hybrids to determine which version can produce the biggest, best and most abundant nuts.

“Our first-generation hybrids are already doing very well in terms of survival,” Josiah said. “The thinking is that if they can survive in Nebraska, they can survive anywhere.”

Farrar said the Arbor Day Foundation is already receiving inquiries from farmers eager to plant hazelnut trees. More than 90,000 trees have been distributed to Arbor Day Foundation members to grow and observe.

“We don’t want to make any promises before we can deliver,” Farrar said, “but we feel strongly that it’s only a matter of time and we will have a new crop that can be grown even on less than the best soil and produce a wonderful product.”

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May 26, 2009 - 12:04 PM No Comments

Funding for hydrogen cars fizzles

In his 2003 State of the Union address, President George Bush spoke of his commitment to hydrogen fuel cells as the obvious and inevitable replacement for oil.

“With a new national commitment,” he said, “our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom, so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free.”

Assuming you’ll still be able to get a drivers’ license at age 16, that would suggest Bush thought hydrogen fuel cells would begin powering our cars by 2019. He spearheaded about $1.2 billion in proposals for hydrogen research, which would be funded over a period of years. Even so, Bush’s critics complained the funding was inadequate.

Certainly it was more adequate than what we have now. President Barack Obama, as part of sweeping budget cuts, has whacked the lion’s share of Bush’s proposed funding. Obama will trim the $169 million per year in funding of fuel-cell and hydrogen research down to $68.2 million, which — on paper, at least — will save about $100 million.

Perhaps even more important than the $100 million in savings — a comparatively insignificant amount given the total federal budget — the cut sends a message, loud and clear: This administration doesn’t believe in the future of fuel cells for transportation. The research money left will be dedicated to “fixed” hydrogen-fuel-cell research, essentially small power plants that would produce household current.

Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, likely the man most responsible for axing the funding, thinks hydrogen is just too far from being viable as a fuel for cars and trucks. Said department spokesman Tom Welch: “The probability of deploying hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles in the next 10 to 20 years is low.”

Those in support of hydrogen fuel cells argue the probability just got lower. An executive with one auto manufacturer who declined to be identified because the federal government “is still the hand that feeds us” suggested Obama’s fuel-cell-funding cutback “could be viewed as shortsighted.” The lion’s share of research expense has been funded by manufacturers, but with even usually flush companies such Toyota and Honda reporting losses, it’s hard to blame them for cutting back on research that could take decades to justify.

So if it makes sense for private companies to trim spending on hydrogen fuel cells, doesn’t it make sense for a similarly struggling public government to cut back? Unfortunately, it does. When gasoline was $4 a gallon, it seemed more appealing. At just more than $2 a gallon, far less so. That’s arguably shortsighted, too — does anyone really think we’ll never see $4-a-gallon gas again someday? — but right now, it seems logical.

How do hydrogen fuel cells work?

To oversimplify, a fuel cell converts the chemicals hydrogen and oxygen into water, and in the process it produces electricity. In an automotive application, the power from the fuel cell runs an electric motor, so in essence, you are driving an electric car that makes its own power.

No one is suggesting it doesn’t work: Most every major manufacturer has experimental hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles on the road. Honda is the most visible: The company is in the process of delivering 200 FCX Clarity fuel-cell-powered cars to customers in Southern California, clustered around three Honda dealers and near hydrogen refueling stations.

Other manufacturers have been showing fuel-cell-powered show cars for years. Among them was the promising Chrysler ecoVoyager concept vehicle, which debuted at the 2008 North American International Auto Show as sort of the minivan of the future.

The ecoVoyager would be powered by an electric motor, with power primarily supplied by a lithium-ion battery pack capable of satisfying a consumer’s typical daily commute of less than 40 miles. The ecoVoyager would have a small hydrogen fuel cell to extend the vehicle range for occasional long trips.

What’s the big challenge?

Foremost is establishing a network of hydrogen refueling stations comparable to our current gas stations. And someone would have to produce and transport the hydrogen to those stations. Hydrogen must be stored on a vehicle under extreme pressure, at least 10,000 pounds per square inch, raising safety concerns. And most hydrogen fuel cells use platinum as an integral part of the process, and platinum is expensive.

Supporters argue there are ways around many of the perceived problems but, frankly, no one is listening to them. In this recession, so many of us are worried about what will happen in the next week, not the next decade. Too bad, sure, but it’s the reality.

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May 26, 2009 - 12:01 PM No Comments

New Report Shows Hydrogen Vehicles Will Drive Change

Washington DC–Today, the National Hydrogen Association released a new report called the “Energy Evolution:  An Analysis of Alternative Vehicles and Fuels to 2100.”  The Energy Evolution shows that a scenario which initially includes a mix of alternative vehicles, and is later dominated by hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles sales is the only way to simultaneously cut U.S. greenhouse gas pollution by 80% below 1990 levels; reach petroleum quasi-independence by mid-century; and eliminate nearly all controllable air pollution by the end of the century.  The report also shows that an expansion of hydrogen stations is more affordable than most people think.

In all, the report compares more than 15 of the most promising fuel and vehicle alternatives over a 100-year period, using data and models to create scenarios where one fuel and vehicle alternative becomes dominant in the mix of vehicles over time. The scenarios evaluate the performance and viability of the 15+ alternatives in terms of greenhouse gases, oil imports, urban air pollution and societal costs.

A task force of experts conducted the “Energy Evolution” analysis under the leadership of Xcel Energy’s Frank Novacheck, with significant input from H2Gen Innovation’s Dr. Sandy Thomas.  To verify the objectivity of the methods and conclusions, experts from organizations such as the U.S Department of Energy, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and U.S. Fuel Cell Council have reviewed the report.

Quite honestly, the results surprised even us, but the data speak for themselves. They show quantitatively why it is absolutely critical that we continue significant efforts make hydrogen vehicles and stations more widely available to consumers,” said Jeff Serfass, President of the National Hydrogen Association.

Most people forget that hydrogen technologies like fuel cells are compatible with the other alternatives.  For example, development of plug-in hybrid technology advances the development of the same electric drive technology used in hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles.  So the point we want to make today is that we need to work on all the best alternatives together, not one as a replacement for another.  And hydrogen is essential to get us to the desired environmental and energy endpoints.”

The task force assumed success for the various alternative vehicle technologies and fuels, including advancements in batteries, commercialization of non-corn biofuels, “greening” of the electric grid and increased efficiencies in conventional combustion engines.  These assumptions were made to fairly compare the hydrogen vehicle scenario to fully mature alternative technologies.  The conclusions of the “Energy Evolution” complement previous studies such as the National Research Council’s “Transitions to Alternative Transportation Technologies-A Focus on Hydrogen” and the California Fuel Cell Partnership’s “Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle and Station Deployment Plan: A Strategy for Meeting the Challenge Ahead.”
To obtain a copy of the full report or the four-page brief, visit:

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May 2, 2009 - 4:47 PM Comments (3)

CTC Donates Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Phase one is complete….. We found some hydrogen fuel cells – thanks to CTC (Concurrent Technologies of Johnstown Pa). The good folks at CTC believe in Project GreenHouse and have graciously donated 3 fuel cells to the cause. We will be working with an operational 1kw and 2kw hydrogen fel cell and a 1kw parts fuel cell that no longer works (perfect for learning about their nuts and bolts).
Next step, locate some good solar and wind people to help get the Alternative Energy Learning Center off the ground.

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May 2, 2009 - 12:14 PM No Comments

Hydrogen Fuel Tank gets cooler and cleaner

Scientists have improved the performance of ammonia borane as a hydrogen storage material – making it more practical for a fuel tank in hydrogen-powered vehicles. The material was enhanced by the addition of catalytic nanoparticles to the structure, allowing it to release hydrogen more cleanly and at lower temperatures.

Finding ways to store hydrogen to run next-generation fuel cell vehicles is a challenge, since traditional metal canisters filled with compressed or liquefied hydrogen gas are heavy, bulky and expensive. A better solution is to use a solid material, and the most promising candidate for this is ammonia borane (NH3BH3) – a waxy solid consisting largely of hydrogen.

However, there are drawbacks to using this material. Releasing the hydrogen can be tricky, usually requiring heating at over 100°C, which is too hot for polymer-based fuel cells to operate. In addition, the material is prone to become unstable – expanding rapidly or turning into foam – and released hydrogen can be poisoned by other gases released from the heated material.

Now, Ping Chen and colleagues at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics, in Dalian, China, have modified the structure of ammonia borane to eliminate these problems. ‘By introducing nanoparticles of cobalt and nickel catalysts into the structure we can hold nearly 6 per cent by weight of hydrogen at a temperature as low as 59°C – with no byproduct and sample foaming,’ Chen told Chemistry World.

Better breakdown

The team worked in collaboration with researchers at the National University of Singaporeand used a ‘co-precipitation’ method to uniformly distribute a small amount of catalytic nanoparticles throughout the ammonia borane structure. The new material releases hydrogen at the lowest temperature so far – and the high stability makes it an attractive candidate for further investigation as a practical onboard hydrogen storage material.

‘This system lowers the temperature for hydrogen gas release and therefore has potential as an efficient way to supply hydrogen to a fuel cell,’ says Tom Autrey at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington, US, who led the first investigations into the storage potentials of ammonia borane. ‘This process also reduces the concentration of borazine – an unwanted impurity in the hydrogen that can arise from AB decomposition.’

But there is still work to be done, Autrey notes, before this technology is truly able to blossom. Since the process is not yet easily reversible, a system will be needed that allows the fuel tank to easily be recharged with hydrogen.

Lewis Brindley


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May 2, 2009 - 12:07 PM No Comments