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Priming the public for hydrogen fuel

By Greg Schneider
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The new pump at the Shell station in Washington doesn’t look much different from the others, but it represents a new concept in automotive technology: hydrogen power.

The hydrogen-dispensing pump is the first installed at a public gas station in the country, according to officials from Shell Hydrogen and General Motors Corp., who unveiled it Wednesday.

Average motorists can’t do much more than look at it, because the only local vehicles that run on hydrogen are six minivans GM uses to demonstrate the technology to members of Congress.

But the pump, which Shell spent more than $2 million installing, is a sign of how major corporations think they’ll be able to wean the nation from dependence on foreign oil.

“This is a significant step on a bigger journey,” said Jeremy Bentham, chief executive of Shell Hydrogen. “I think this is a little like the cell phone industry in the early 1980s — you had a patchy infrastructure and cell phones the size of briefcases, but those people had a vision of how to step forward to the future and have created a very, very big business.”

Shell and GM are major proponents of moving toward a “hydrogen economy,” in which a significant part of the world’s vehicle fleet would run on hydrogen-powered fuel cells.

Such cells are essentially batteries that generate electricity by converting hydrogen and oxygen into water, producing no pollution.

Virtually all the major auto manufacturers have prototype vehicles that run on fuel cells and are refining the technology.

Environmentalists hail the notion of cars and trucks that emit nothing more harmful than water vapor, but they have become increasingly skeptical about the promise of hydrogen.

“The major unanswered questions about hydrogen are not whether you can run a car on it. They are, how do you make it? What is it going to cost? And what is going to be the public investment in infrastructure?” said David Hamilton, director of global warming and energy programs at the Sierra Club. The Shell station on Benning Road NE is “devoid of economic reality. (Hydrogen power) doesn’t exist in the real world except as a hugely subsidized example of something that the companies want you to see.”

Hydrogen is a common element, but it has to be extracted from other sources in ways that can be environmentally damaging.

The most common method for producing hydrogen involves burning natural gas, but with natural gas already in increasing demand and short supply, it’s not practical to expect it to be a major source for powering vehicles, Hamilton said.

That leads to the next most common way to produce hydrogen: a method that involves burning coal.

But that produces vast amounts of carbon dioxide, a “greenhouse gas” that’s thought to contribute to global climate change.

Even if companies such as Shell develop cleaner sources for hydrogen — such as burning methanol or vegetable matter — there remain huge hurdles in transporting and storing the fuel, and in building a distribution network as far-reaching as today’s system of corner gas stations.

There’s also the matter of reassuring the public about the safety of hydrogen, a substance that most people still associate with the Hindenburg, a hydrogen-filled dirigible that exploded in the 1930s.

All of which is where the Benning Road station comes in.

“We have it in D.C. for a very significant reason, and that is the educational outreach,” said Phillip Baxley, vice president of business development for Shell Hydrogen.

The station and GM’s fleet of fuel cell minivans will let the companies demonstrate hydrogen technology to lawmakers and staffers on Capitol Hill as well as to foreign dignitaries who come to town, Baxley and Bentham said.

The facility also serves as a seed for an eventual distribution network. Shell’s vision, Bentham said, is to establish small networks of five or six such commercial pumping stations throughout the country by 2007; connecting a number of such small networks into regional networks beginning around 2010; and having mass-market penetration between 2015 and 2025.

Shell is hoping to cooperate with other energy companies, automotive manufacturers and government agencies to finance such a costly undertaking, which is yet another reason to put the first such station near federal government decision makers.

GM also recently unveiled a private hydrogen fueling station in California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has issued an executive order calling for such centers around the state.

Shell installed a visitors center at the Benning Road station and will have someone on site full-time to explain it to the public and to keep an eye on safety.

The underground hydrogen tank has 24-hour electronic monitoring for leaks, the company said, and local emergency responders have been trained on how to handle an incident involving hydrogen, which is odorless and colorless.

The pump itself can only be operated by punching in a secret code, and all of GM’s drivers have been trained how to use it, Bentham said.

Jim Hossack, senior consultant with the marketing firm AutoPacific, said hydrogen is just one of a number of alternatives car companies are developing to reduce gasoline consumption, such as gas-electric hybrid vehicles and super-efficient diesel engines.

“Conventional internal combustion engines are certainly going to lead the charge for probably the first half of this century,” Hossack said. “Where we’re going to be at the end of the century, I’m not sure anyone is willing to make that bet yet. There are just too many unknowns.”