Pay-At-The-Pump Hydrogen Almost A Reality

June 2, 2009

Just as hopes for a national hydrogen infrastructure seem to be fading, it seems that a small infrastructure is finally within reach—at least in California—and that several smaller hurdles, at least on the refueling side, are on the verge of being solved.

One of those issues is that drivers can’t actually buy hydrogen in California, and that many of the stations have limited hours and are associated with energy companies, the state, or fuel-cell advocacy groups. But it looks like they’ll be able to buy the compressed gas as soon as next year. Today, stations can’t charge for it because no major standards organization has established standards for the fuel or for its dispensation. So last summer, California adopted interim standards for hydrogen fuel—the first step—and it’s anticipated that the metrology issues will be solved by 2011; other states will likely follow.

The conventional mass-flow meters that are used to dispense gases, which measure the torque generated by the coriolis effect as it swirls through, don’t work reliably for hydrogen, clarified Honda R&D engineer Ryan Harty, so new methods have been devised before customers can really ‘pay at the pump.’

Currently, according to California Fuel Cell Partnership communications director Chris White, stations approximate the amount of hydrogen used by the vehicles that refuel there and the distance they travel. “It’s more like a cell phone plan,” she says.

Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell with mobile refueler

Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell with mobile refueler

By the time it’s sold by actual usage, the Partnership anticipates that hydrogen will cost $2 to $3 per kilogram (roughly equivalent to a gallon of gasoline) before taxes. Current estimates place the price of a kilogram closer to $10, so it may take some subsidies to get it down there.

Each hydrogen station capable of refueling about 100 vehicles a day costs around $2 million, according to Harty—there are six stations of that capacity expected in the next two years (in addition to California’s 26 now)—but White adds that stations can cost as little as $500,000. Stations wouldn’t have any of the potential environmental issues such as soil-seepage and groundwater-tainting leaks, either.

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