My fuel-cell car in Wallingford, a Toyota FCHV-adv. Or a hydrogen Highlander, if you'd prefer. (Jim Motavalli photo)
WALLINGFORD, CONNECTICUT--I have come to this blue-collar town north of New Haven to meet my car, a Toyota FCHV-adv, or Fuel-Cell Hybrid Vehicle-advanced. It's the hydrogen-powered version of the Highlander, and I am one of five people in the state to have been selected for a six-month test. It's an honor.
I twist the key, get the "ready" light and take off on the back roads around Wallingford. This is one expensive test bed I'm piloting, and it's incredibly quiet. We'd been warned of whirring noises from the air compressor, valve clicking from the hydrogen system and the occasional battery cooling fan (under the seat). I've heard all of those things in other hydrogen cars, but this was the quietest one I've driven.
So what are they like on the road, then? Just like an electric car, since that's exactly what they are. Instead of batteries, they have a chemical fuel cell turning hydrogen into electricity. We were told to watch for the "turtle" warning light (it means the electric motor is heating up) and to be sure to activate the "anti-cold" switch in temperatures below 23 degrees Fahrenheit, but it didn't seem relevant on this pleasant fall day. For a relatively big vehicle that takes on some weight in fuel-cell form (400 pounds), the FCHV handled well. Acceleration is quick enough, and top speed is 96 mph. New drivers won't really need much of a learning curve.
Why Connecticut, and why Wallingford? An entrepreneur named Tom Sullivan, the founder of the incredibly successful Lumber Liquidators chain (started in Boston but now nationwide), happened upon a distress auction for a fuel-cell company called Proton Energy Systems. In the summer of 2009, just days after hearing of the auction, he bought the company for $10.2 million.
Armed with a fuel-cell company, Sullivan promptly announced that a new entity called SunHydro would build a network of 10 to 12 solar-enabled fueling stations--a hydrogen highway--from Maine to Florida. The first one is at Proton's Wallingford headquarters, and it will be publicly inaugurated Friday. Many of the others are at or near Lumber Liquidators locations, 300 miles apart, and will be installed over the next two years.
The Proton/SunHydro solar-powered hydrogen refueler in Wallingford. (Jim Motavalli photo)
The hydrogen activity attracted the interest of Toyota, which agreed to create an FCHV demonstration project based around Wallingford. And so an interesting assortment of people, including a city official, two journalists and a professor at Yale, are to test the cars for six months, stopping by Proton's $2 to $3 million station, connected to rooftop solar, regularly for a fill-up. The station is pretty big, and large enough to fuel a dozen cars a day.
Our training session attracted a swarm of Toyota engineers and Proton officials. We got the safety drill, and the refueling instructions. These cars carry tanks pressurized to 10,000 psi, and hydrogen gas is highly flammable. We all know about the Hindenburg. But the cars have redundant safety back-ups, and even though the family will be traveling with me, I'm not worried.
According to Larry Moulthrop, a Proton founder and the coordinator of the Toyota fuel-cell car project, the station is currently in H35 mode, which means it can equip our cars with three kilograms of hydrogen. A kilo of hydrogen has the energy equivalent of a gallon of gas, but the fuel-cell car is two to three times more efficient, so it translates into a range of 160 miles. That's more than plug-in cars like the Nissan Leaf and Coda sedan, but it's not that much when you live 40 miles from the station.
Fortunately, the station has two nozzles, and the heavy-duty version is H70, which can deliver six kilos of hydrogen for 300 miles. And that's the same range as conventional cars.
We didn't fuel up on this first visit, but we were taught how to do it, and it seemed easy enough. You enter a PIN code and your mileage since the last visit, push in the nozzle and make sure its engaged. Once the hydrogen is flowing, it takes a few minutes, a big advantage over battery electrics that can take six to eight hours to charge.
Doug Sato, a Toyota manager, told us the car has a 90-kilowatt fuel cell, with the equivalent of 120 horsepower. The hydrogen tanks are carbon fiber, and you could drop them out of airplanes. If the hydrogen warning light comes on, we "open the windows to ventilate the vehicle." I would have guessed that one. We don't park in a garage, and I knew about that one, too.
We get our cars in two weeks. I can't wait.
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