- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2004

Hydrogen is viewed by nearly all energy experts as the fuel of the future. It is the most abundant element in the universe and can be gathered by a number of different methods from a number of different sources, from fossil fuels to water. The gas is environmentally clean, with its only byproduct of combustion being water. The automobile manufacturers and oil producers agree that, in order to be ready for a hydrogen-based fuel infrastructure, steps must be made now toward that goal, currently years away.

A glimpse into that future, the vehicles of tomorrow, occurred on Wednesday with the opening of the first combined gas station/hydrogen refueling center in the U.S. The Benning Road, NE center, operated by Shell, features a state-of-the-art hydrogen fueling pump that will fuel vehicles equipped with fuel cells or internal combustion engines that use hydrogen as their energy source.

The new fueling station represents the third of five steps that need to be taken, according to Jeremy Bentham, Shell Oil’s CEO of Hydrogen Programs, before tomorrow’s hydrogen-fueled vehicles will have the same features, range and convenience as today’s gas-powered vehicles.

“The first step,” says Bentham, “is to create stand-alone hydrogen fueling stations for specific usage. These stations do not have public access, but rather provide hydrogen for such purposes as city buses and other fleets.” Such stations already exist in Iceland and Japan, as well as in Europe.

The second step, continues Bentham, “is the creation of non-integrated fueling stations, ones in which there are separate facilities for gasoline and hydrogen. This is also currently being done in other countries.”

Step number three is the fully-integrated gas and hydrogen fueling station, the first of which in North America is the Benning Road facility. “This represents a significant step in a long journey that will enable the eventual realization of a hydrogen-based economy,” said Bentham.

He went on to explain that the remaining two steps will occur gradually over time. Step number four is the building up of a number of fully integrated stations in a given metropolitan region so that they will be about two miles apart, much like gas stations of a given brand. The fifth step will be to link metropolitan “mini-networks” into a national one by installing stations on interstates at about 25-mile intervals.

Step number three is the fully-integrated gas and hydrogen fueling station, the first of which in North America is the Benning Road facility.

Shell has partnered with GM on this program. Currently there are 6 fuel-cell GM vehicles based in Washington DC that will utilize the new fueling station.

GM’s Vice President for Research, Planning and Development, Larry Burns, explained that industry and government will have to work together to educate the public toward an awareness of the future of hydrogen as a primary fuel.

“This station cost about $2 million to install,” said Burns, “but it’s the first of its kind. In the future we would expect such stations to cost around $500,000, which is about the same as conventional gas stations today. Put in perspective, to build enough fueling stations to reach the aforementioned step number five would cost $12 billion today. That is less than half the cost of the Alaska Pipeline, when expressed in today’s dollars.

None of this is going to happen, however, without public and private partnership. This means that government policy must support research and development.”

The fueling station looks just like a regular gas station, because it is. The hydrogen pump sits at one end of the station and vehicles are fueled in much the same way as present vehicles. Due to the safety issues (chiefly pressure and temperature, since flammability issues are much the same as with gasoline) of dispensing hydrogen, currently only certified persons are allowed to fill vehicles. Over time such obstacles will be overcome, as systems become more automated.

Other obstacles such as cost will also be overcome. Eventually, say the Shell and GM representatives, hydrogen will cost the same per mile as gasoline. However, it won’t carry with it the environmental and political negatives that petroleum now does.

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