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The New York Times: Hydrogen’s Second Coming: On the Road, Hope for a Zero-Pollution Car

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MEMORIAL Three hydrogen vehicles at the spot where the Hindenburg crashed on May 6, 1937.
Published: April 29, 2007

WHEN the largest aircraft ever built — the pride of Nazi Germany — crashed in flames at the United States Navy’s airship base here, it took 36 lives and smeared the reputation of hydrogen for decades.

In less than a minute, the Hindenburg disaster of 1937 turned hydrogen, which provided the zeppelin’s lift, into a pariah. But 70 years later, a growing number of advocates are promoting hydrogen as a panacea, a promising alternative to petroleum. In the last decade, every large carmaker has jumped on the hydrogen express.

In dozens of laboratories and research centers, scientists and engineers are busy searching for ways to reduce the cost and improve the practicality of hydrogen-powered vehicles. Development has progressed to the point that some of these prototype vehicles are in daily service, commuting around Detroit, delivering packages in Washington, serving urban bus routes.

To look in on the development progress of hydrogen vehicles, The New York Times invited 10 companies actively promoting hydrogen for personal transportation to bring their vehicles to the Naval Air Engineering Station here. With pressure mounting to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, the anniversary of a pivotal event 70 years ago seemed an appropriate time to look for a clearer understanding of what cars may be like in 30 years.

Some carmakers deemed the disaster site an awkward location for this gathering; others were sympathetic but unable to field a vehicle because experimental mules have testing and appearance schedules busier than those of presidential hopefuls. The three hydrogen-powered vehicles that did arrive here (all by trailer, because refueling was not available for the long trips from their bases) were not the latest models from the auto show circuit, but hard-working development vehicles with thousands of testing miles on their odometers.

Weather was also a factor. The day of the gathering was fraught by a severe northeaster. Six inches of rain was followed by flooded roads and snow, as the winds blew and angry skies frowned. But the show went on, thanks in part to the hosts at the base and the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society.

The Hindenburg anniversary is not the only reason hydrogen is in the news. Four years ago, in his State of the Union address, President Bush announced a $1.2 billion hydrogen initiative to foster clean air and lessen dependence on imported oil. The Department of Energy has conducted marriages of sorts, joining automakers with energy companies — General Motors and Shell; Ford and DaimlerChrysler with BP — to encourage research and set standards for refueling hardware.

As hydrogen gains favor, hydrocarbons seem to be taking over the role of villain. Peak oil theorists, especially Matthew Simmons, chairman of the Simmons & Company investment bank and the author of “Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy” contend that increased demand will outpace the ability to increase production. And the Supreme Court’s April 2 ruling that the E.P.A. has authority to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, as it does tailpipe emissions, was a powerful vote against fossil fuels.

So the three hydrogen-fueled vehicles that gathered at the Hindenburg crash site are harbingers of the future, proof that all of hydrogen’s potential in transportation did not go up in flames 70 years ago.

The spot where the Hindenburg met its end is now a historic landmark. A heavy yellow anchor chain surrounds a concrete pad replicating the size, shape, and final resting place of the Hindenburg’s control car. Rick Zitarosa, historian of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society, said the Navy intended to preserve the site in its current form.

The vehicles here, and three other experimental cars driven elsewhere, cover a broad spectrum of hydrogen possibilities. Here are highlights:

FORD E-450 SHUTTLE Ford regards hydrogen-fueled internal-combustion engines as “a bridge to fuel cells, the powertrain of the future.” Teamed with BP, Ford built a fleet of 30 E-450 shuttle buses.

“We believe this is an affordable and sensible way to transition from today’s fossil fuels to a hydrogen-based economy,” John Lapetz Jr., the Ford program manager, said. Ford Motor also has several active fuel-cell vehicle projects.

Ford’s E-450 shuttle is a familiar sight around airport parking lots and hotels. In the conversion to hydrogen, some of the passenger area was walled off to house six pressure tanks wrapped in carbon fiber, each rated for storage at 5,000 pounds per square inch.

Mr. Lapetz characterized the modifications necessary to tailor Ford’s Triton V-10 to run on hydrogen as “fairly minor.” A supercharger was added to feed additional air.

It goes without saying that this vehicle drives like a bus. The husky V-10 provides ample urge to get the rig rolling briskly. The supercharger sounds like a distant police siren. Mr. Lapetz said that Ford had experimented with other engines and that hydrogen could replace gasoline and diesel fuel in many of them.

GENERAL MOTORS HYDROGEN3 G.M.’s first fuel-cell vehicles were shown to the public four decades ago. The 1966 Electrovan weighed 7,100 pounds and required 30 seconds to accelerate to 60 m.p.h. G.M.’s fuel-cell research intensified a decade ago. About three dozen fuel-cell vehicles and concept cars have been designed, built and tested by G.M., representing an investment of more than $1 billion, the company says.

Based on an Opel Zafira, the HydroGen3 is a third-generation design. (A Chevrolet Volt with G.M.’s fifth-generation fuel-cell was unveiled this month at the Shanghai Motor Show.) A fleet of 28 wagons was built, with hydrogen stored in either gaseous or liquid form.

HydroGen3 is a world traveler, demonstrating the hydrogen future in Washington, delivering packages in Tokyo and accumulating mileage in Europe for three years.

Since this is an experimental mule, little effort has been directed at quieting the clicks, hums, drones and growls of gases being pumped and chemically converted into electrical energy. Under acceleration, the HydroGen3 sounds like an angry golf cart. With only 100 horsepower on tap, it requires more than 15 seconds to reach 60 m.p.h. according to Matt Atwell and Joe Gerschutz, G.M. engineers along for the Lakehurst ride.

TOYOTA PRIUS The stock-appearing (well, except for the exterior lettering) Prius that visited Lakehurst was configured to run on hydrogen by ECD Ovonics. The 1.5-liter 4-cylinder engine was fitted with a turbocharger and intercooler and produces roughly the same power and torque as a gasoline-hybrid version; all of the Prius’s hybrid features were intact.

What is unusual about this car is how the hydrogen is stored. ECD Ovonics, the company that invented nickel-metal-hydride batteries, focused its expertise on carrying hydrogen in solid form in tanks filled with powdered metal. Two tanks fitted under the Prius’s floor are filled with hydrogen by connecting a 1,500 p.s.i. hose to a standard fitting. The tank capacity is 7.9 pounds, enough for nearly 200 miles.

Robert C. Stempel, the former G.M. chairman who now heads ECD Ovonics, points out that refueling at this storage system’s lower hydrogen pressure is much less expensive than the 5,000 or 10,000 p.s.i. necessary with compressed-gas storage. The system is heavy, though — 550-pounds.

Except for a few turbo whistles and whirs, the car sounds and performs exactly the same as a standard Toyota Prius. Tests showed reductions in all tailpipe emissions except oxides of nitrogen.

In addition to the vehicles brought to the base, here are three other hydrogen vehicles I have driven: BMW HYDROGEN 7 BMW, which has been studying the use of hydrogen in piston engines for 25 years, is building a fleet of 100 demonstration vehicles on a regular assembly line.

The Hydrogen 7 combines BMW’s flagship sedan, a modified 6-liter V-12 and a superinsulated storage tank to provide dual-fuel mobility. The liquid hydrogen offers a 125-mile driving range; when that is consumed, a button on the steering wheel switches the engine over to run on gasoline for 310 more miles from the standard 19.6-gallon gas tank. The engine is tuned to deliver nearly the same power on either fuel.

The detuned engine and 500 pounds added to carry hydrogen safely impair performance slightly, but the Hydrogen 7’s 143-m.p.h. top speed and 400-mile range easily surpass existing fuel-cell vehicles. While running on hydrogen, the only traces of carbon compounds in the exhaust come from engine oil consumed during combustion.

While driving a Hydrogen 7, I listened intently for changes in engine operation when the fuel supply was switched. In the hydrogen mode, there is a sharper and more metallic noise during acceleration, but most drivers would never notice that subtle difference. The beauty of the Hydrogen 7 is that it exploits hydrogen’s benefits without making existing powertrains obsolete.

MERCEDES-BENZ F-CELL Since it began hydrogen experiments in 1994, DaimlerChrysler has invested more than $1 billion and built more than 100 fuel-cell vehicles. A fleet of 30 buses has been carrying passengers daily in 10 European cities. Sixty Mercedes-Benz A-Class sedans converted from gasoline powertrains to a more futuristic F-Cell configuration have logged 2 million miles. DaimlerChrysler and Ford have made large investments in Ballard Power Systems, a leading fuel-cell developer.

In the tall four-seat A-class, passengers sit above the drivetrain, tucked beneath the floor. This arrangement is also a handy way to package the bulky storage tanks and electronics necessary to for the fuel cell.

The 20-second start-up ritual is accompanied by a chorus of clicks, whirs and buzzes. Steering, shifter, accelerator and brake controls are identical to the A-Class; an electronic display on the center console tracks electricity flow.

Even though it rides tall, the F-Cell corners securely thanks to a low center of gravity. With only 87 horsepower to move 3,380 pounds, acceleration is sluggish. According to the factory, the run to 60 m.p.h. takes 15 seconds and a governor limits top speed to 87 m.p.h. Michelin radial tires inflated to 38 p.s.i. delivered a rocky ride over the poorly maintained roads I drove.

HONDA FCX Those fearful that a hydrogen future bodes ill for style and elegance need only examine the FCX, a sleek and sexy way to ride into the future.

Honda has cleverly engineered the FCX to pack all its hardware under a low roof while leaving ample legroom for four passengers and a decent amount of trunk space. A 127-horsepower A.C. electric motor is fed by a fuel cell twice the size of a home computer that produces 100 kilowatts of power.

Driving the FCX demonstrated impressive performance: acceleration from zero to 60 m.p.h. takes less than 10 seconds and top speed is more than 90 m.p.h. There was none of the gear whine, relay clicks, motor hum and pump moaning present in other fuel-cell prototypes. There is minimal mechanical noise, just a soft growl that intensifies when you depress the accelerator (and a power gauge in the dash glows brighter).

Next year, Honda will begin building the FCX in small numbers for demonstration fleets. and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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