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AQMD to Convert Priuses to Hydrogen

March 09, 2004|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

To help foster development of hydrogen fuel, the South Coast Air Quality Management District has approved a $4-million pilot program to convert a fleet of Toyota Prius hybrids into hydrogen-powered vehicles by this time next year.

The Prius project is intended to push development of a hydrogen fuel infrastructure by providing more vehicles that use the fuel, said Chung Liu, deputy executive director of the regional air district.

Conventional Toyota Prius sedans, which use both a gasoline engine and an electric motor, are favorites of air quality regulators and government planners because they can achieve high fuel efficiency with low emissions.

Last week the regional air board selected Irvine-based Quantum Fuel Systems Technologies Worldwide Inc. to convert up to 35 Priuses to hydrogen-electric power over the next year. The board is hoping the Defense Department's National Automotive Center will contribute $500,000 to the project. Without federal funding, the program will cost $3.5 million and the number of hydrogen-powered vehicles will drop to 30.

Hydrogen, also used in fuel cells to produce electric power, is plentiful. But there are tremendous development costs in delivering fuel-grade hydrogen for automotive use. Still, it is the preferred fuel of the future for the Bush administration and much of the auto industry.

The AQMD program calls for Quantum to provide everything from high-pressure storage tanks to the fuel injection system and engine management software and electronics to convert the gas-burning engines to hydrogen burners.

Quantum also will develop a turbocharger to boost performance in the hydrogen-burning Priuses to match the levels attained by the standard model. The cars would be placed in service in municipal fleets in Burbank, Ontario, Riverside, Santa Ana and Santa Monica.

The five cities also are expected to install small hydrogen fueling stations that would produce the gaseous fuel on site by pulling hydrogen from water in an electrochemical process. The estimated price tag on that project is $4 million to $5 million, Liu said.

Hydrogen-burning Priuses are expected to get about 200 miles of range from a tank of compressed hydrogen. The cars should be even less polluting than a standard Prius, which already gets the best rating available for a gasoline-burning vehicle.

Shares of Quantum gained 7 cents to $9.83 on Nasdaq.

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