As a fuel, hydrogen rides high. Rockets burn liquid hydrogen to boost themselves into orbit. The sun burns hydrogen in nuclear fusion, forming helium. Hydrogen fusion creates thermonuclear weapons, the most potent ever devised, with blast force about 1,000 times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Now hydrogen fuel has hit the automotive market in southern California and the North Bay.
Almost a year ago, retired United Airlines pilot Dick Lammerding, who lives in Santa Rosa, bought a Toyota Mirai hydrogen-fuel-cell car from a dealer in San Francisco. An automotive-technology early adopter, Lammerding knows no one else who has one. “I absolutely love it,” Lammerding said.
Toyota has a couple of competitors. Honda sells a hydrogen-fueled Clarity. Lammerding met a Clarity owner who also lives in Santa Rosa and uses it to commute to San Francisco. Hyundai markets a hydrogen-powered Tucson compact SUV.
EMIT ONLY WATER VAPOR
Hydrogen fuel cells don’t pollute. They produce electricity along with water vapor and heat. Fuel cells in a stack create electricity that propels the car. They don’t burn the hydrogen.
Compared to an electric car, a hydrogen car has huge advantages in fueling time. A Nissan Leaf takes eight hours to charge at 240 volts, and half an hour at 440 volts, which shortens battery life if charged fully. A Tesla S needs an hour even on a supercharger. A hydrogen-fuel-cell car takes less than five minutes to refuel, comparable to filling a gasoline tank.
Range is another hydrogen advantage. The electric Nissan Leaf has a range of only 107 miles. Tesla S with a regular 60-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery gets about 208. The hydrogen Mirai has a range of nearly 300 miles. Honda’s Clarity claims a range of 366 miles.
Until more fueling stations carry hydrogen in the North Bay, the car poses challenges for Sonoma County customers unless it is used to commute to San Francisco.
Marin County supports hydrogen-car ownership with a fueling kiosk at the Valero station in Mill Valley — the only one in the North Bay. South San Francisco has one near the airport. Hayward, Sacramento and Truckee each have one.
HYDROGEN STATIONS PROPOSED
Several Bay Area cities have hydrogen-fueling stations proposed, including Berkeley, San Francisco, Oakland and Pleasant Hill. Southern California has numerous stations, especially in Los Angeles, with more than a dozen. So far, more than 95 percent of the nation’s hydrogen-filling stations are located in California.
Most hydrogen filling stations offer two pump options, 35 or 70 megapascals, a metric pressure unit that translates to about 5,000 or 10,000 pounds per square inch. “The 70 gives you a full tank,” Lammerding said. For comparison, a typical full propane tank has roughly 1 megapascal of pressure at 84 degrees F. The hydrogen tank handles nearly 70 times that pressure.
A kilogram of hydrogen sells for about $16.
NO LOCAL FUEL-CELL CAR DEALERS YET
No dealerships in the North Bay have the Honda Clarity yet.
That model can only be leased, according to Jason Faraji, a manager at the Oakland Honda dealership. “There’s a long waiting list,” Faraji said, with more than a year’s delay. “We get a handful of vehicles every month.”
Built in Japan, Clarity cars are imported through San Diego’s port. A 60,000-mile fuel voucher is part of a three-year lease for $369 a month.
Hydrogen by the numbers, huge and tiny
Hydrogen, a remarkable fuel, is the lightest element with atomic number 1. It has more energy density than any other gas or liquid fuel and can be stored indefinitely. Nearly 75 percent of all mass in the universe comes from hydrogen.
In concentrations greater than 4 percent, hydrogen is explosive. Lighter than air, leaked hydrogen disperses rapidly. The gas has been used safely for several decades as an industrial chemical. A fuel fire in a hydrogen vehicle may burn out entirely with minimal damage to the car, unlike the extensive destruction caused to a gasoline-powered vehicle.
Liquid hydrogen must be kept at minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Hydrogen fuel-cell cars use compressed hydrogen gas, not liquid.
In the roughly 4.6 billion years since the sun’s birth, it has used about half its hydrogen, with an estimated 100 undecillion (100 followed by 36 more zeroes) fusion reactions per second. Each fusion yields one atom of helium out of four atoms of hydrogen, plus energy from a tiny bit of mass, about 50 sextillionths (a fraction with 50 on top and denominator of 1 followed by by 21 zeroes) of a gram.
Source: King’s Center for Visualization in Science, King’s University College, Alberta, Canada