IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Day 1: From PR to public safety

Firoz Rasul, chairman of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, touted the rally as a "milestone event" because it marked the first time all eight automotive partners had taken their cars out on the road together.
Firoz Rasul, chairman of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, touted the rally as a "milestone event" because it marked the first time all eight automotive partners had taken their cars out on the road together.James Cheng /
/ Source:

Organized by the California Fuel Cell Partnership — a consortium of carmakers, energy companies and government agencies — the rally marked the first time so many automakers had come together for a fuel cell road trip.

The kickoff venue — the headquarters of the agency monitoring air quality in the region — was also special in its own right given that the South Coast Air Quality Management District had recently inaugurated its very own hydrogen refueling station.

Before leaving for Long Beach, some 40 miles away, the cars were topped off at the station, which uses electricity from the state's power grid as well as solar power to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Both processes are simple, but neither is cheap — just one of the hurdles facing fuel cells.

More stations, cars planned
The agency had also organized training workshops that same day for first responders on how to deal with hydrogen, which is highly flammable, at pump stations and in cars. Not only does California want to have 200 stations in place by 2010, but the fuel cell partnership expects to have 300 cars on the road by 2007 — up from 58 today.

Frank Ledesma, Los Angeles County Fire Department.
Frank Ledesma, Los Angeles County Fire Department.James Cheng

Firefighters from across Southern California were there, among them Capt. Frank Ledesma, a chemical specialist with the County of Los Angeles Fire Department. Ledesma, who's been supervising the installation of the hydrogen station in Diamond Bar, told one official: "I'm making code as I go along" because there are no standards in place.

The Diamond Bar station is one of 13 in California that serve two fuel cell vehicles used by the air quaity agency as well as several other vehicles based in the Los Angeles area. And yet, Ledesma noted, nearby fire stations have not been given guidelines on how to deal with hydrogen accidents.

Industry officials said standards, guidelines and additional training are in the works. But for now, they pointed the firefighters to safety documents online.

Steve Jurado, the assistant fire marshall at UCLA, said he worries the technology is coming along faster than the regulations. "To me that's the scary part, there's no standardization," he said.

Other firefighters worried about how rescue crews might react at a crash site involving a hydrogen-powered vehicle. While the cars have hydrogen sensors, few fire crews have the equipment to detect a leak.

More flammable than gasoline
A key concern is that hydrogen is much more flammable than gasoline. "What if a terrorist shoots at hydrogen tanks?" Ledesma asked hydrogen experts.

Gasoline would still be a better target, the experts responded, because even though it's less flammable, it radiates more energy in an explosion, causing more damage.

As for refueling pumps, Aaron Rachlin of Praxair, a leading distributor of hydrogen, noted that "you need to have very tight fittings" on nozzles since hydrogen, being much lighter than gasoline, can leak more easily.

That means special pumps as well as ways to ground vehicles in case of static electricity or a nearby spark. "Grounding is so important," Rachlin said.

Rachlin and other hydrogen experts said hydrogen stations should have sloped roofs or canopies, unlike the flat ones at most gas stations, so that any escaping hydrogen doesn't get trapped in a cavity and explode.

By the end of the day, the fire specialists were more familiar with hydrogen but still concerned. Said Kevin Smith, deputy fire marshal for the fire district in Chino Hills: "We have a ways to go to get our firefighters used to this."