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Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Vehicles: the Alternative, Alternative Technology

A company in New Jersey is betting that hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles can give plug-in electrics a run for the money.

There has been a lot of talk around the Statehouse about rolling out the infrastructure for a plug-in electric vehicle. But a company with its North American offices in Murray Hill is quietly testing out stations to power hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

Yet not many are paying attention.

Linde North America Inc., a manufacturer of industrial gases, is developing technologies to power a variety of hydrogen-fueled vehicles, including forklifts, buses and cars. So far, it has rolled out 70 hydrogen fuel stations in 15 countries around the world, including parts of the United States.

Room for Two

While lawmakers in Trenton sponsor bills to help promote electric vehicles, Linde executives say there probably is room for both plug-in electrics and hydrogen vehicles, with the latter having some distinct advantages.

"There’s probably a path for both vehicles in the future," says Michael Beckman, head of Linde’s North American alternative energy efforts. In many ways, Beckman said, the components in the two vehicles are very similar.

But Linde believes there are some attributes of the hydrogen vehicle that may make it more suitable and an easier sell to the American consumer. One advantage is range. Battery-powered vehicles currently have a range of 100 miles, while fuel cells range about 250 to 300 miles, Beckman said.

The other advantage, no small issue for a public that is used to tanking up with fossil fuels in less than five minutes, is refueling time. Electric vehicles take as much as eight to 10 hours to be fully charged, although there are some souped-up charging stations that can give a vehicle another 40 miles in 15 minutes or so. Linde has developed a hydrogen fueling station that can fill up a vehicle in three minutes, according to Beckman.

Fuel-Cell Forklifts

Already, Linde has sold some Fortune 500 companies on using hydrogen fuel-cell forklifts at their manufacturing facilities, including Cisco, BMW and Coke, Beckman said. It also has six fuel-cell buses running in the San Francisco Bay area, with another six expected to come online.

"We think it holds a lot of promise as well," Beckman said. In addition, Linde is installing three hydrogen fueling stations in California, one near the capitol in West Sacramento, another at San Francisco Airport and the third in southern California.

"Over the past several years Linde technologies have been used successfully to fuel a variety of hydrogen vehicles," Beckman said. "I think we’ve proven that hydrogen-fueled vehicles are viable commercial alternatives. Based on the positive results that have been demonstrated, I’m confident that we’ll see commercialization grow at a much faster pace over the next few years."

A New Jersey company, NRG Energy, a Princeton-based energy conglomerate, is rolling out a pilot program in and around Houston, Texas, for plug-in electric vehicles. NRG, as well as Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G), have expressed interest in building the infrastructure for electric vehicles in New Jersey where lawmakers have recently passed bills giving tax credits and other incentives to promote the technology.

There also is a debate within the Christie administration over which technology should be promoted in the new Energy Master Plan (EMP): plug-in electric vehicles or vehicles that run on compressed natural gas.

In the U.S., which is lagging behind Europe in promoting hydrogen-fueled vehicles, there are approximately 300 such cars and perhaps as many as 30 buses. California is the most aggressive in promoting the technology, projecting that there will be 5,000 hydrogen-fueled vehicles by 2015 and 10 times that many by 2017, Beckman said.

The cost of the vehicles is expected to slightly higher than conventional cars at the outset. For instance, Toyota has said it will launch a sedan-type fuel-cell vehicle in 2015 at $50,000 or less. The cost of fueling up will be about what it costs today -- once there are more vehicles going through a hydrogen fueling station, Beckman said.

Linde expects the pro-environmental aspects of the vehicle will be a big selling point to consumers interested in dealing with issues such as climate change. Beyond not emitting any of the typical pollutants of a gasoline-fueled car, the company said that from a "wells to wheel" perspective, the cars will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 30 percent to 50 percent, Beckman said.

"In the future, it’s wide open," he said.

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