Many believe hydrogen is the fuel of the future for the auto of the future, powered by a "fuel cell." Hydrogen fuel is usually produced from waer and extracted natural gas. But the Orange County Sanitation District sees no need to pay for natural gas when it gets plenty with the sewage its customer pay it take. (Published Tuesday, Aug 16, 2011)
The long-awaited "Hydrogen Highway" just took a detour to a sanitation treatment plant, the one right next to the 405 Freeway in Fountain Valley to be precise.
There's a reason for locating a filling station here.
"We take sewer treatment plant gas and we produce electricity and hydrogen," explained Jack Brouwer, PhD, an Asst. Professor of Engineering at UC Irvine and Associate Director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center, which spearheaded the project.
California's Hydrogen Highway: Stations, Cars and Buses | CHH Updates | Infrastructure
Brouwer is among those who see hydrogen as the fuel of the future for the automobile of the future, powered by a "fuel cell" in which hydrogen reacts chemicaly with oxygen to produce electricity to run an electric motor. If you remember your high school chemistry, you know that means the only byproduct is water.
There are already hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the road, but at this stage, only a few hundred in all of Southern Califfornia. One of them is a Honda Clarity leased by Jim Salomon, a Newport Beach general contractor who became the first to use the new hydrogen- from- sewage filling station. "I believe this is the future of the auto," Salomon said as he drove off, accompanied by the distinctive hum of a fuel cell.
"A Hydrogen economy is a fantastic route to energy independence and environmental benefits," said Tom Mutchler, VP of Engineering for Air Products, which operates 20 hydrogen refueling stations in California with hydrogen produced the traditional way from water and natural gas.
Fountain Valley is the first to use hydrogen produced from sewage gas, not just in California, but anywhere.
Making hydrogen from sewer gas is not yet more economical. But it does offer the hope of an unlimited fuel source, and it also enables the sanitation plant to make use of the sewer gases in a much lower emission way than simply burning them to produce heat or power. The system in Fountain Valley uses a high temperature fuel cell that from the sewer gas can both extract hydrogen and directly produce electricity.
The hydrogen sells for $9.99/kilogram, with approximately the same energy content as a gallon of gasoline. But Brouwer points out that a fuel cell is three times more efficient than the traditional internal combustion engine, so the hydrogen price is actually the equivalent of paying $3.33 for a gallon of gasoline. Of course, the price of gasoline fluctuates wildly depending on the cost of crude oil. The OC Sanitation District gets its raw sewage for free.
But the real question is will whether fuel cells can ever become mainstream, affordable technology for automobiles. Industry experts observe that Honda is leasing the Clarity at a price far below what it actually costs to produce the car. For now, Honda takes the loss as an investment in research and exposure.
What's more, there is a competing technology for electric autos: using batteries for the energy storage. In the past year, Nissan has introduced the Leaf, a pure battery electric, and GM has debuted the Volt, which has a gasoline motor to provide extended range when the batteries run out of power.
Brouwer points out that hydrogen fuel cells offer distinct advantages over battery electrics: longer range, and the ability to refuel in a few minutes, like a gasoline car, and unlike a battery electric that requires hours to re-charge.
At least for now, battery electrics are less costly to produce. "Yes, it will take a while for fuel cell technology to be cost competitive," Brouwer said.
But Brouwer thinks it will happen eventually, and says major automakers seem to agree. Toyota and Hyundai have both announced plans to market fuel cell autos in 2015.
"This is a paradigm shift," said National Fuel Cell Research Center director Scott Samuelsen. "We'll be truly fuel-independent and no longer held hostage by other countries. This is the epitome of sustainability, where we're taking an endless stream of human waste and transforming it to transportation fuel and electricity. This is the first time this has ever been done."
The concept of a "Hydrogen Highway" in California had been pushed by Arnold Schwarzenegger during his governship. Now, with help from sewage, its' moving forward.
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