Hydrogen Road Tour rolls through Bay Area

May 28, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
They came. They saw. They drove. They raved.

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In a world long accustomed to automobiles, it has been a while since people lined up in a hot spring sun, to drive, or just to ride in a few new cars.

The twist -- those cars are powered by hydrogen. The Hydrogen Road Tour, as organizers call it, rolled through Bay Area today, stopping in Livermore, and also at San Francisco International Airport. It featured 11 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles from seven car makers, including Honda, Nissan, Kia, Mercedes Benz, and ironically, General Motors, which showed off a Chevy Equinox.

"We know our company missed some opportunities," said spokesman Shad Balch. "But, we have been working on hydrogen technology for three decades."

These cars store hydrogen in high pressure fuel cells, which generate electricity to power their motors. The cars also used kinetic energy to charge batteries, just as hybrids do, today. But hydrogen cars emit no hydrocarbons, just water vapor. They can range from 200-400 miles on a tank.

Today's visits, however, were more about making the public more comfortable with these vehicles. "We want people to see that these aren't just pie in the sky concept cars," said Patrick Serfass of the National Hydrogen Association. "These are working vehicles. They're easy to operate. We have the technology, now, and they can only get better."

But, will they? Stephen Chu, the Department of Energy's new secretary has essentially written off hydrogen, saying carmakers should focus on hybrids and other electrical solutions, instead. Industry critics point to a lack manufacturing and distribution infrastructure.

Advocates do not view that as an obstacle. "This nation has too crucial needs," said Dr. Jay O. Keller, who runs the hydrogen program at Sandia National Laboratories. "We need to end our dependence on oil, and stop burning fossil fuels. Hydrogen cars accomplish both."

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