Except for the drawings of molecules on its doors, the small Chevy Equinox SUV looks like an anonymous, run-of-the-mill General Motors vehicle. It is anything but.
The Equinox, GM's fourth-generation fuel-cell car, has an electric motor — which has no fuel injection, no pistons, no transmission, no motor oil. It is powered by a hydrogen fuel-cell engine, which converts hydrogen gas into energy.
Larry Burns is GM's vice president for research and development.
Burns touts the cars' zero emissions — instead of exhaust, they emit water vapor — and their reliance on hydrogen made primarily from natural gas, but also from water.
"Today, there [are] 50 million tons of hydrogen being produced worldwide. ... If all of that that's currently being produced in the world was used in fuel cell vehicles, you could fuel 200 million vehicles a year," Burns says during a recent test drive of the vehicle in the Washington, D.C., area.
"You reduce carbon dioxide by 60 percent using natural gas to create hydrogen [to] put into this vehicle."
Burns and GM — which has spent $1 billion in developing this technology — have the help of some big-time boosters, including President Bush.
But there are skeptics who think that hydrogen fuel-cell supporters are being wildly unrealistic.
One of them is Joseph Romm, who worked in the Department of Energy during the Clinton administration. He wrote the book The Hype About Hydrogen and writes the blog ClimateProgress.org.
He cites the high cost of the vehicles — the new Equinox would cost about $600,000 — and the difficulty of moving hydrogen, a diffuse gas. He also says the gas is "pretty expensive." In addition, hydrogen fueling stations are relatively rare now and expensive to build — a station outside Washington, D.C., cost $2 million, Romm says.
Then there are the environmental arguments.
"Making hydrogen from natural gas doesn't solve your fossil fuel-global warming problem. You still end up with greenhouse gas: carbon dioxide. Making it from water using renewable sources isn't a bad idea, but that uses a lot of energy," Romm says.