Hydrogen Cars Take to the Road in U.S. and Switzerland
A hydrogen-powered street sweeper tested in Basel, Switzerland.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Empa
In Hawaii, Michigan and Basel, Switzerland, people can now see a glimpse of a greener future driving along their streets. Projects in those areas are road-testing hydrogen-fueled cars, which produce only water vapor in their exhaust. In general, the vehicles have been expensive, but they've worked, paving the way for higher demand and cheaper parts in the future.
Since 2009, the city of Basel, Switzerland, has used hydrogen street-sweeping cars alongside its usual, gas-guzzling fleet. The first phase of their trial is now wrapping up, according to an announcement from one of the vehicle's funding institutes, Empa.
The greener street sweeper had several troubles in its career. The original fuel cell it used kept halting the vehicle, because the safety systems interfered with each other. Researchers replaced the cell with another model, but then the voltage converter between the fuel cell and the battery died, as did two cooling pumps.
Nevertheless, over the past three months, the sweeper has been reliable enough that Basel's cleaning department uses it every day. It saves the department fuel, using only 0.16 gallons (0.6 liters) of diesel an hour, compared to its conventional cousins' fuel use of 1.3 gallons (5 liters) per hour. Operators also like it because it's quiet.
"Hydrogen as a fuel for municipal utility vehicles saves energy, is environmentally friendly and is technically feasible," Empa concluded. But the research institute worried about the sweeper's overall cost. "In order to make it cost-effective," Empa's statement said, "the prices of fuel cells, pressurized storage tanks and electric drives must all drop significantly."
In the U.S., pilot projects are testing hydrogen-fueled vehicles for the military and for public transportation. The Mass Transportation Authority in Flint, Michigan, is getting a hydrogen bus in mid-April, local news website MLive reported March 12. Flint residents can start taking rides in mid-May.
Meanwhile, several U.S. military branches are testing 16 General Motors-made hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in Hawaii, CNN Money reported in February. The vehicles can drive for 200 miles on one tank of compressed hydrogen gas, according to CNN.
The Hawaiian fleet includes mostly cars that perform light work, such as driving people around, though one of the vehicles is a portable generator. The Army is especially interested in deploying the generator in combat, Major General Roger Matthews, Deputy Commanding General of the U.S. Army Pacific, told CNN.
Hydrogen street sweepers cost about three times as much as conventional ones, Empa said. Matthews also talked about needing research to reduce costs. An affordable hydrogen future will come, however, Empa thinks. "The costs of fuel cell systems alone have, over the past few years, dropped by a factor of ten," the institute's statement said, "and the end of this trend is not yet in sight."