If a major automaker has its way, some day you'll be able to heat your home, warm your water and refuel your car all from a unit that makes hydrogen from natural gas.
It's called the Home Energy Station, and a second-generation version of the system was unveiled last month by Honda Motors and partner Plug Power, a company that makes fuel cells, which mix hydrogen and air to create electricity.
The station aims to take advantage of the fact that natural gas has become the fuel of choice to run homes.
Here's how it works: A natural gas connection plugs into the station, which extracts hydrogen from the gas. For the home, hydrogen is run through a fuel cell stack inside the station to produce electricity. For the car, hydrogen is pumped in like gasoline, powering either a fuel cell stack or an internal combustion engine modified to run on hydrogen.
Honda and Plug Power see the system as the solution to the chicken-or-egg problem of how to get fuel cell cars on the road even though there's no fueling infrastructure.
"The question has been who's going to go first," says Mark Sperry, Plug Power's chief marketing officer. "This allows you to build the infrastructure as you build cars."
Anthony Eggert, a researcher at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, also sees it as promising. "Home refueling," he says, "is one potentially attractive strategy to get fuel cell vehicles into the market without wide-scale infrastructure availability."
Natural gas cars as stepping stone?
A few dozen prototype fuel cell cars are being tested worldwide, most in California, but the first available for sale aren't expected for years.
General Motors maintains a bullish prediction of sales in 2010, while other automakers put sales out around a decade.
Last year, President Bush announced a $1.2 billion fuel cell research initiative with a goal of car sales by 2020. A second goal is to use domestically produced hydrogen to "significantly reduce" the nation's oil use by 2040.
So while the hydrogen station won't be sold any time soon, Honda does have a transition strategy: selling a home station for compressed natural gas, or CNG, vehicles. Other automakers have abandoned CNG cars, but Honda plans to up production next year and sell a $2,000 home station at dealerships.
"People are going to come back to CNG," especially since hydrogen is a long-term solution, says Steve Ellis, the manager of alternative fuel vehicles for American Honda. He envisions "tens of thousands over time" in a transition that would make folks comfortable with the idea of refueling at home.
What's still not clear is whether a hydrogen station, or a hydrogen economy for that matter, will ever make economic sense.
"The primary challenge is around cost and reliability," Sperry says of the station. While he won't get specific, he says the station costs are still "well in excess" of where they need to be to compete with electricity directly from natural gas or coal power plants.
Eggert acknowledges economic obstacles but says projects like this one provide "substantial learning associated with codes, standards and safety procedures for future hydrogen infrastructures."
A related obstacle is that using natural gas to get hydrogen doesn't eliminate a growing issue with fossil fuels: emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that many scientists tie to global warming.
"Natural gas-based hydrogen does not eliminate carbon dioxide emissions," Eggert acknowledges. But, he adds, "the increased efficiency of the fuel cell does allow for a reduction in CO2 compared to conventional gasoline" internal combustion engines.
The Home Energy Station doesn't store the C02 emitted in the process, but Sperry acknowledges that finding a way to capture and store the CO2 would be a "step in the right direction" toward a future free from fossil fuel emissions.
"Ultimately," he adds, "if we truly want to get off of hydrocarbons we have to use renewables (like solar and wind) as the energy source" to produce hydrogen.
Industry executives acknowledge the uncertainties, but point to a history of cost reductions in hydrogen and fuel cell research, and to interest across the automotive and government spectrums.
The state of New York is the latest to buy into the concept, leasing two Honda fuel cell vehicles that will be able to fill up at the new Home Energy Station, which is at Plug Power's headquarters in Latham, N.Y.
"Fuel cells have the potential to revolutionize the transportation and energy industries," Gov. George Pataki said in announcing the leases in conjunction with the new Home Energy Station. A hydrogen economy is not only good for the environment, it can create "new jobs and industries right here in New York," he said.
Honda says the Home Energy Station goes hand in hand with its decision to make its own fuel cell stacks rather than buy them as most automakers are doing. Its latest stack, unveiled at the New York ceremony, is able to start in sub-freezing temperatures and extends auto mileage up to 190 miles per tank.
"Projects like this are important to prove the technology works in real world applications," Eggert says. "If Honda can demonstrate freeze tolerance of its new fuel cell stack, this represents a significant technological advance."
As for the new Home Energy Station, it's half the size of the first-generation station. But it's still not ready for a home test. "We don't have plans around that just yet," Sperry says.
"It's a long path to a hydrogen economy," he adds, "but you've got to start."