If you can’t wait five, 10 or 20 years for the much-touted "hydrogen economy," then step right up: Several companies are ready to sell you vehicles that run on the fuel that's much cleaner and gets higher mileage than gasoline or diesel.
Like sports cars? There's a Shelby Cobra with a 351 engine that runs on hydrogen. How about a Nissan Frontier pickup powered by fuel cells and hydrogen? That will soon be available. Or hankering for a hydrogen Hummer? That, too, can be yours.
There are two significant catches, however. First is getting the hydrogen. Industrial gas suppliers sell hydrogen in cylinders but very few filling stations exist today. California has the most at 13 pilot stations run by utilities and carmakers, and plans some 170 commercial ones by 2010. The cost varies too, from $1 to $20 a kilo. A gallon of gasoline has the same energy content as a kilo of hydrogen, but vehicles using the latter get two to three times higher mileage.
Second is the price tag: The Shelby Cobras start at $149,000, the pickup is $99,995 and the Hummers run $60,000 for the conversion alone — you supply the Hummer.
A small price to pay for starting a green revolution, says Tai Robinson, who runs Intergalactic Hydrogen, a company converting Hummers and other cars. "It is time for the people to make a move, the vehicles they say they want to run on hydrogen are available now."
The internal combustion route
Hydrogen can be used in two ways to power vehicles: either directly into a modified internal combustion engine, or via fuel cells. Robinson's company has taken the former route, as has the Hydrogen Car Co., which is selling the modified Shelby Cobras.
Robinson hasn't sold a HydrogenHummer yet but he did sell one of his GreenHummers, which run on biodiesel as the primary fuel and hydrogen as a secondary source. Biodiesel is derived from natural oils like soybean oil and can even be recycled from a restaurant's fryer.
The Hummers about double their mileage once converted, says Robinson, whose conversion garage is in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
At the Hydrogen Car Company, a startup in Los Angeles, director Lloys Frates says two hydrogen Cobra orders have been placed since the launch in early June. The cars take up to six months to deliver, she says, since Shelby Automobiles first builds the body and chassis.
The hydrogen Cobra specs include a top speed of 140 mph and 0-60 mph in four seconds. The downside: the hydrogen tank's range is around 80 miles.
The tank itself is one of the expensive pieces of the puzzle. Frates says each tank costs $4,000 to build, and another $1,000 for a special fuel shutoff valve.
Frates says the gasoline Cobras start at $100,000, leaving a hydrogen margin of $49,000. "It's still an expensive car no matter which way you look at it," she says.
The company also converts Ford trucks to hydrogen for commercial fleet use, and plans a line of hydrogen SUVs, vans and trucks in 2005, once the vehicles are certified. The prices should range between $30,000 and $80,000, says Frates, the latter for luxury SUVs like the Lincoln Navigator.
Both Robinson and Frates see a future for fuel cells but say there's no reason their approach can't be the bridge.
"We were sick of waiting for the fuel cell," Frates says of her company, noting that its chairman, S. David Freeman, still has a 1969 report predicting Americans would be driving fuel cell vehicles in 10 years. "I'm 70 years old and I want to see this happen in my lifetime," she recalls him once saying.
The fuel cell route
Major carmakers, on the other hand, are focusing on fuel cells, convinced they are even more efficient and cleaner than hydrogen internal combustion engines. Instead of burning fuel in an engine, fuel cells are more like batteries, using an electrochemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity.
Anuvu, a fuel cell developer in Sacramento, Calif., says it's almost ready to sell Nissan Frontier pickups and large cargo vans that run on fuel cells and hydrogen.
The Frontier's specs include 0-60 mph in 10 seconds and a top speed of 80 mph. At speeds above 45 mph, the battery drains faster than the fuel cell can recharge it, which reduces its 250-mile city range to just 60 miles on the highway.
Sales director Craig Newhouse promises to deliver either of these "CUVs" — short for Clean Urban Vehicles — within 120 days of an order. The cost: $99,995 for the pickup and $149,995 for the van.
Anuvu — as in "a new view" — feels its niche is in commercial fleets, where a company looking to meet clean air laws buys several vehicles and installs a hydrogen filling station.
What Anuvu is selling is actually a hybrid fuel cell vehicle, one that uses a small fuel cell system to power an electric motor that does the heavy work of moving the vehicle. It's similar to the gas-electric hybrids now on the market, except that fuel cells instead of an internal combustion engine are used.
The fuel cell stack recharges the hybrid battery, but the latter can also be recharged by plugging into a wall, Newhouse says. "It's like an electric car except that it has all of the advantages and none of the disadvantages."
If there's a hydrogen leak, he adds, censors will shut down the stack but the vehicle can still be driven another 30 miles by running off the hybrid battery.
The battery also will provide AC "power out so you can run your power tools out of the back," Newhouse says. And a DC power connection will let you power a building if there's a blackout.
There'll even be an Internet connection from the car back to Anuvu, Newhouse says, "so that we know where it is all the time."
Industry: Fuel cells a decade off
The major automakers are all working on fuel cells but none predict mass production vehicles this decade. The California Fuel Cell Partnership, which has brought carmakers together at a test hub in Sacramento, doesn't expect take-off until 2012-2020, with numbers in the low thousands initially until an infrastructure can be developed.
Assuming hydrogen can be produced in large volumes at competitive prices, hydrogen pumps could be added to existing gas stations or some companies are developing home fuel cell stations that would extract hydrogen from natural gas. One such company is Stuart Energy, which has a partnership with the Hydrogen Car Company to eventually sell HomeFueler units. Stuart has yet to set a price, however.
As for Anuvu's vehicle, partnership spokesman Joe Irvin doesn't think it qualifies as "a full fledged fuel cell car" since it relies on the hybrid battery. "The hybrid side is readily available out there in the market place," he says, "so it's not quite the same but it's interesting to see what they're doing."
"I think it's more of a marketing ploy to get a couple sales to early adopters with plenty of coin," Irvin adds. "Hey, that's PR 101."
Newhouse takes exception to that, adding that while major carmakers keep testing, Anuvu is ready to sell. He adds that there's one firm order so far and a few potential customers have shown interest in several dozen purchases. Anuvu is also testing a fuel cell ferry for the city of San Francisco and aims to produce a fuel cell sedan with a 300-400 mile range.
Bringing down costs
Newhouse says mass production would drive the price down significantly. The fuel cell pickups, he estimates, could be sold for $20,000-$25,000 if 100,000 were built.
Robinson says the same is true for internal combustion vehicles that run on hydrogen. The technology "would only add a few thousand dollars to the base price," he says, "and that would be recouped almost instantly just with the fuel cost savings alone."
At the National Hydrogen Association, technical director Patrick Serfass urges patience from those watching the industry. He worries that hydrogen will be overhyped and create a case of expectations that can't be met right away. "There's great promise in it," he says, "but we're only in the middle of a transition."
That may be, but it won't stop the hydrogen car pioneers from going after early adopters.
Robinson realizes that not everyone can afford to be a green revolutionary. "We need to break into the elite market to deploy this," he says. "Once it is accepted at the top level, the next deployment would be affordable" to more people since production costs would go down as volume increases.
One of those early adopters could be California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who while campaigning last year pledged to convert one of his several Hummers to hydrogen.
Schwarzenegger saw the HydrogenHummer in action and sent an aide to inquire further, Robinson says. But so far, no deal to convert and Schwarzenegger has yet to live up to that electoral promise.
"Nobody is opening their wallet," laments Robinson.