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A customer fills up at one of the three hydrogen refuelling stations ina Vancouver
A customer fills up at one of the three hydrogen refuelling stations ina Vancouver

Alternative Fuels

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Just beyond the shadow of the Lion's Gate Bridge, a single pulp mill in English Bay spews enough wasted hydrogen to fuel 20,000 fuel cell cars a year.

Free, unused hydrogen fuel is right there, venting into the atmosphere. Eventually it will combine with oxygen to produce, well, rain.

"Industry creates a tremendous amount of waste hydrogen. Capturing it, storing it and distributing it is the problem - the infrastructure problem," says Honda engineer Ryan Harty.

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Infrastructure is the big problem for car companies working to bring hydrogen fuel cell cars to dealerships. Engineers such as Harty already believe they have a handle on how to make a hydrogen fuel cell viable in your car and it could one day replace your gas or diesel engine.

In concept, a hydrogen fuel cell is not a terribly complicated device. It combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce water and electrical current by running them through a chemical catalyst. The only byproducts of a fuel cell are heat and water.

In a vehicle, the power is used to run an electric motor in much the same way a battery does the same job in battery-powered electric cars. In fact, many engineers refer to fuel cells as "fuel cell batteries."

As an energy user, a fuel cell has the potential to be 60 per cent efficient in using its hydrogen fuel - compared to gasoline engines. which at their very best might achieve 30 per cent energy efficiency.

Sure, the driving range of fuel cell cars, the cost, the durability and reliability, all these need to be resolved in ways that make hydrogen fuel cell cars competitive with gasoline internal combustion engines (ICE). But Harty and other smart engineers think they are near to having those issues whipped.

"We still have a way to go, but we know how to get there," says Andreas Truckenbroadt, chief executive of the Vancouver-based Automotive Fuel Cell Partnership. Of all the challenges, cost reduction is the biggest. A fuel-cell powerplant today costs about 10 times as much as current ICE engine technology, say industry sources.

Honda's FCX Clarity fuel cell car is one example of what is possible with fuel cells. It's a mid-size sedan now being tested in small numbers by real owners in the United States who pony up $600 (U.S.) a month for a lease. Honda, of course, subsidizes the lease so that the Clarity makes financial sense for those leasing one.

Cost aside, the car makes practical sense. The Clarity is about the size of an Accord and has a realistic range of nearly 400 km between fill-ups. Other auto makers also have fuel cell cars on the road right now, undergoing testing in everyday conditions, driven by people who generally like to think of themselves as clean, renewable energy early-adopters.

In all, there are about 300 fuel-cell vehicles from different makers in the hands of California drivers. A General Motors' Chevrolet Equinox crossover SUV is among them.

GM has about 100 Equinox fuel cell crossovers on the road in Los Angeles. GM is also promising to bring eight Equinoxes to Canada for use at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Assembled in Canada, GM is testing the fuel cell Equinox much like Honda is with the Clarity, though in greater numbers. Honda has just seven Clarity cars on the road now, with the goal of 200 within three years.

The point Larry Burns wants to make is that the Equinox fuel cell car is not a science project or a promotional stunt. "These vehicles are real," says GM's vice-president of research and planning.

Honda, GM and others want their fuel cell cars in the hands of Los Angelenos with families and jobs and nothing-special lives. All they have in common is a desire for clean transportation.

"We can make a very compelling consumer product," says Harty. "The cost issue can largely be addressed with higher (sales) volume. We think we're on track with the durability and reliability issues. So infrastructure is the issue. Without infrastructure, we can't do this."

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