- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 19, 2006

When Bob Sisk started delivering the mail in the 1960s, he was assigned an Army jeep for his route in the Washington suburbs.

Now, the 62-year-old letter carrier is carrying his bundles of letters and packages in a vehicle that offers an eerily quiet ride, doesn’t rely heavily on oily lubricants anda emits droplets of water from the tailpipe.

Mr. Sisk is among a select group of government workers, researchers and residents testing hydrogen-powered vehicles in demonstration projects across the country. With gasoline prices hovering around the $3 mark this summer, the routine driving done by Mr. Sisk and others is helping researchers develop improvements for the technology, which could form the basis of the next generation of alternative vehicles.

“People think I was around for the horse-and-buggy days — but I wasn’t,” Mr. Sisk said with a smile during a recent ride along his Springfield route aboard General Motors Corp.’s HydroGen3 minivan.

Virtually every automaker is conducting tests of hydrogen-powered vehicles, which have received support from a five-year, $1.2 billion hydrogen initiative President Bush first announced in his 2003 State of the Union address.

The pollution-free technology holds the potential of zero emissions and a sustainable source of energy produced when hydrogen and oxygen are mixed. The vehicles could begin appearing in showrooms by 2020, or even earlier, according to government and industry experts, but many obstacles exist, ranging from high costs and a lack of fueling stations to the need for improved storage capacity and better range.

With the technology still in its early stages, the vehicle testing gives automakers valuable information on their progress based on typical driving experiences.

From the back of a post office in a Virginia strip mall that includes a barbershop and a coin collector’s store, Mr. Sisk takes the hydrogen vehicle, based on an Opel Zafira minivan, on his route three days a week.

“It drives like an ordinary car,” Mr. Sisk said. The vehicle has a range of about 170 miles to 250 miles and a top speed of 99 mph, although Mr. Sisk said it’s “not as fast on takeoffs” compared to a conventional vehicle.

In Albany, N.Y., Deputy Commissioner John Spano has acquired two Honda fuel-cell vehicles as part of the state’s clean-fuel-vehicles program. The program, administered by New York’s Office of General Services, maintains more than 5,000 alternative vehicles, including flexible-fuel vehicles, electric vehicles, hybrids and vehicles fueled by compressed natural gas and propane.

When deploying the hydrogen vehicle, Mr. Spano said, the agency does not “handle it with kid gloves at all.” He said the Honda FCX has responded with strong performance, although it hasn’t been used on long trips outside New York’s capital region because of limited range and a lack of fueling stations across the state.

In 2004, Mr. Spano said the office had a couple of cases in which the vehicle’s range dropped to 70 to 80 miles in cold weather and one instance in which the vehicle failed to start at a temperature of about 10 degrees. But otherwise, it has passed the test thus far.

“It’s quiet. It’s quick. We really haven’t had any complaints,” Mr. Spano said.

Cold starts and adjusting to hot desert climates are among the challenges the vehicles face, along with a price — about $1 million per vehicle — which does not make mass production feasible right now.

Automakers are pushing ahead. GM has introduced the Sequel concept vehicle, the first fuel-cell vehicle capable of going 300 miles between fill-ups. Ford has hydrogen-fueled shuttle buses in central Florida and is distributing Ford Focus fuel-cell vehicles in the United States, Canada and Germany.

Nissan is developing its first in-house fuel-cell stack and a high-pressure hydrogen storage system. Mazda is working on a hydrogen-fueled rotary-engine version of its RX-8 sports car.

Scott Samuelson, director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California at Irvine, said the main drawbacks involve the lack of an infrastructure of hydrogen fueling stations and the limited onboard storage of hydrogen in current models.

Most vehicles have a range of about 180 miles but the lack of fueling stations reduces the typical range to about 110 miles, said Mr. Samuelson, whose program tests Toyota hydrogen vehicles.

California has begun an ambitious “hydrogen highway” program to address the lack of fueling stations; the state has 16 hydrogen fueling stations and another dozen under development, according to the National Hydrogen Association. In the United States and Canada, a total of 37 are now in use and another 22 are expected to open over the next 18 months.

Donald Paul, Chevron Corp.’s vice president and chief technology officer, said in testimony to a Senate panel Monday that the nation’s fuel system took more than a century to develop, “and given the complexities, it is absolutely critical that both the fuel cell vehicles and the hydrogen infrastructure be developed simultaneously.”

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