The Zero-Emission Hydrogen-Fueled Chevy
23 Jul, 2010
It’s been said many times in the last decade: our reliance on fossil fuels must end. In pushing forward this goal, many vehicle manufacturers have marketed their offerings in alternative-fueled vehicles—most of them hybrids combining the use of battery power with traditional internal combustion for lowered use of gasoline. If we are to truly reach this goal, however, we must eliminate the use of fossil fuels altogether—and that is where future solutions such as the Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell SUV come into play.
With this SUV, Chevrolet is most definitely out to show that alternative fuel vehicles can be practical and fun. Seeing it up close, it has the first-glance appearance of a typical mid-size SUV, with all the room and functionality that entails. It seats four and sports 32 cubic feet of cargo space and has the features you’d expect, such as air-conditioning, a navigation system and a sound system.
But that is where the similarities pretty much end, for the fuel powering this SUV is that of the future. “It is an electric vehicle,” Shad Balch, Western Region Environment & Energy Policy and Communications Director for General Motors explained to Organic Connections. “But instead of having a big battery that you recharge, the vehicle actually creates electricity on-board. It does that using compressed hydrogen gas.”
The hydrogen is converted into electricity using a fuel-cell system under the hood in the front of the vehicle. The system consists of a stack of fuel cells that serve as a membrane, through which a combination of hydrogen and outside air is forced. By this process, electrons are separated out and fed down to the electric motor, leaving behind water molecules. The water molecules are then ejected—the only emission from the Equinox.
It is simply the lack of hydrogen refueling stations and sustainable production of hydrogen—the practical infrastructure needed to support using such vehicles on the road—that is keeping the Equinox Fuel Cell SUV from broad release. “The Equinox Fuel Cell SUV is part of our demonstration that the vehicles are here, they work well, and they’re not just some science project,” said Balch. “We’re saying to energy companies and government, let’s all join in and start building pumps.”
In certain areas, especially in California, you might actually see one of these vehicles on the road, thanks to General Motors’ Project Driveway, which has placed 100 of them in the hands of everyday drivers for feedback, close to nearby fueling stations.
One such driver is Los Angeles–based wildlife photographer Wayne Williams, who has been extremely impressed with the Equinox. “I find the vehicle to be very fast,” Williams told Organic Connections. “The ride is virtually indistinguishable from a good crossover SUV. Acceleration and speed are not an issue whatsoever. If I’m in traffic or moving around, the car is very responsive. Because it’s electric, it’s very quiet; the only sound you really hear is the slight tick-tick as the hydrogen is converted.”
Indeed, as this writer took a ride in the car, the sound of tires against pavement and the slight sound of the air conditioner were the only audible noises. And the acceleration was highly impressive—you can definitely feel it. The Equinox has a top speed of 100 mph, and since it is an electric car, it is single-speed, so no shifting is required except at the beginning and the end of your drive, or to put it in reverse.
With its three carbon-fiber tanks full, the Equinox has a range of approximately 150 miles. The tanks hold a combined 4.2 kilograms of hydrogen, so the mileage averages out to about 36 miles per kilogram of hydrogen. In practical experience, however, Williams has found these figures to be exceeded. “Depending on whether I’m running the air conditioning and how efficiently I’m driving, I’m getting between 40 and 57 miles per kilogram,” he reported. “Based on that, I could drive between 220 and 230 miles without refueling.” Nevertheless, the Equinox has a feature that prompts the driver to refuel at 150 miles, just to be on the safe side.
The three hydrogen tanks can be refilled in a matter of minutes—as opposed to the hours that it takes to recharge an electric vehicle—from a hydrogen refueling station.
Features of the Future
Other futuristic features include what is called a regenerative braking system, which is not just used to stop the car: it also sends power to the battery. When the brake pedal is applied, the electric motor reverses and becomes a generator, with power being fed to the battery as the vehicle is slowed.
If you look in the rear of the Equinox for a tailpipe, you won’t see one. Instead, there are four vents through which water vapor is released. The vents are “blown out” when the car is started—you must wait about 30 seconds before moving into motion for this to occur—and then again when it is turned off.
Williams has certainly become a champion of such vehicles. “From my viewpoint, our biggest problem that we have right now is finding a way to produce sufficient amounts of hydrogen and distributing it in such a fashion that it’s efficient and it’s viable,” he said. “I think it’s just a matter of time. If we had the political will in this country to invest in that infrastructure, it would be completely beneficial. Hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the natural world.”
“Given the demand and the infrastructure, we could have this car in production and on the road by 2015,” said Balch. “We have a system we’re testing right now that we could have ready for a commercial application within five years. The system is a fuel-cell stack that is half the size of the one on our current test model, about a third of the weight, and it has about a quarter of the amount of platinum in it, which is the element that drives up the cost. It’s down to a scale that we can manufacture, if the volume is high enough.”
For more information on the Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell SUV, visit www.chevrolet.com/experience/fuel-solutions/fuel-cell/.