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Excuse me, how far to the hydrogen station?

Opel's Zafira shows the fuel cell works, but it's not a great commuter option just yet.

June 09, 2004|Jim Mateja | Chicago Tribune

General Motors Corp. is trying to prove that hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars could replace gasoline-powered cars and eliminate the U.S. dependence on Mideast oil as well as remove gasoline exhaust pollution from the air.

GM is piloting a hydrogen-powered Opel Zafira minivan on a 6,200-mile run that began May 3 in Norway and is scheduled to end this week in Portugal.

Not only will GM attempt to prove clean-burning, pollution-free hydrogen is an alternative to gasoline, it also will set a world endurance record for fuel-cell vehicles when it is done traveling through 14 countries and racking up 6,200 miles.

The record holder is DaimlerChrysler, which ran a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle 3,000 miles from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., in 2001.

While GM may prove that hydrogen-powered vehicles can travel 6,200 miles, it won't be proving that hydrogen-powered vehicles are ready to run on the streets daily. GM is catering to environmentalists, not to realists.

To ensure the Opel minivan could travel the distance, GM had to transport a portable hydrogen filling station along with it. Every 300 miles has required a pit stop to refuel.

Traveling 300 miles before refueling is considerably better than going 100 miles before plugging into a socket to recharge the batteries in an electric car. But you won't find a hydrogen refueling station every 300 miles in any country on this planet today.

You may be able to obtain herring on any street corner in Norway, but you can't purchase a tankful of hydrogen in Norway or, for that matter, in any of the other countries where the rest/fuel stops took place along the GM route.

GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz was asked when consumers will be able to buy a fuel-cell car.

"I would hope by 2010 we'd be able to sell some vehicles to centrally fueled fleets, like police departments. To be able to go to a GM dealer and order a car, I'd think that's perhaps 10 years away, at the most 15."

That's a long time.

GM is out to prove that hydrogen works as a substitute for gasoline, but not as a replacement until motorists can travel from San Francisco to D.C. or Norway to Portugal without having to strap a portable hydrogen fuel tank to the trailer hitch.

In recognition that hydrogen will work only if there are ample refueling stations, GM is partnering with Shell to set up a hydrogen pump at a Shell station in Washington so members of Congress can drive fuel-cell cars for a two-year trial period.

On another fuel front, the Meritt International Pollution-Free Alternative Fuel Motor Conversion Kit that promises to allow any gas engine to run on anything, including water, was sold on EBay for $30,300 after 60 bids, the first being 1 cent.

"I wasn't looking for a lot of money as [much as] I was someone to make something happen with it," said Ron Meritt, who, in addition to the kit, invented the portable video player for cars. "If I had kept it [the kit], it would have sat in my garage for the next 30 years." The kit was purchased by private investors in California led by Bernd Jablonka, a former hotel developer who now engages "in bringing back companies that need help."

Jablonka said his group intends to seek more "investors with deep pockets" to finish developing the system or "bring it to a point where it makes sense" and then sell it.

On EBay?

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