August 02, 2007

Sound Of Silence Signals New Auto Technology

By: by Larry Rulison, Business Writer, Times Union


ALBANY -- The Toyota Highlander that was sitting in front of the Albany NanoTech complex Monday morning was running, but it made virtually no sound except for the air conditioner.

That's because this SUV was using a hydrogen-powered fuel cell, not the traditional internal combustion engine.

The SUV was one of many vehicles on display -- and being taken for quick test drives around the University at Albany's campus -- as part of the New York Hydrogen Expo at Albany NanoTech on Monday.

The event was part of the two-day New Energy Symposium organized by New Energy New York, a statewide trade organization of energy companies, and UAlbany's Energy and Environmental Technology Applications Center -- also known as E2TAC -- which is a part of UAlbany's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer co-chaired the second annual symposium with Robert Catell, chief executive of KeySpan Corp., a Brooklyn-based energy company being acquired by National Grid, the dominant utility in the Capital Region.

About 450 executives, government officials and university researchers were expected to attend the two-day event, which ends today. Pradeep Haldar, executive director of New Energy New York and also director of E2TAC, took the Highlander for a drive while explaining why hydrogen-powered cars are such an important technological advancement.

"There is no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases," Haldar said as he drove the SUV around UAlbany's uptown campus. "This is the holy grail to address our long-term energy needs."

Bob Wimmer, a Toyota executive who was helping people take test drives of the Highlander, said the vehicle is one of 20 such fuel-cell Highlanders made by the car manufacturer last year. He said this is the first time Toyota has been able to reduce the cost of the custom-made cars below $1 million. While he declined to give the exact cost, he did say it was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Wimmer said the vehicle gets about 200 miles on a tank of hydrogen and runs similar to a standard four-cylinder Highlander.

"It runs and starts just like a conventional vehicle," Wimmer said.

The only emission from the car is water. After a test drive, water was seen trickling out of a metal grate on the back of the truck where the tailpipe traditionally is located.

Haldar said a number of obstacles prevent wider adoption of fuel-cell vehicles, including the fact that hydrogen filling stations are not widespread in the United States. Fuel companies are hesitant to build more until there are more fuel-cell cars on the road. Automakers won't build more fuel-cell cars until it's more convenient to fill them up with hydrogen.

"Those are the key issues that need to be addressed," Haldar said. "It's not a question of if, it's a question of when."

In addition to Toyota, General Motors, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz and BMW had hydrogen cars on display and available to test drive at the expo.

Hydrogen is manufactured in a number of ways. It can be made from natural gas or it can be made by passing electric current through water.

Patrick Serfass, director of program and technology development for the National Hydrogen Association in Washington, D.C., was at the expo Monday. He said the industry wants to develop hydrogen supply through electrolysis only by using clean sources of electricity, made through solar, wind, hydro or nuclear energy.

He said that New York has become one of the top states for the hydrogen economy in the United States, with the goal to create jobs at companies like Plug Power Inc. in Latham, which is making fuel cells used to power cellphone towers, and forklifts and similar warehouse trucks.

"(New York) really wants to be known as a center for hydrogen research and development," Serfass said.