LOS ANGELES One of the main obstacles to the development of hydrogen as a fuel for cars is the lack of a system of fueling stations.
Barney Rush thinks the Northern Virginia company he heads can be a part of a now-nascent hydrogen filling station network because much of the infrastructure for it are the natural gas lines that already run under most city streets in America.
Rush is CEO of H2Gen Innovations, a seven-year-old maker of machines that use natural gas to make hydrogen.
H2Gen shipped its first machine in 2005. They look like big metal boxes that house methane steam reformers that change natural gas into hydrogen by striping away carbon. The hydrogen fuel is free of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.
Most of the 25 machines H2Gen has delivered make hydrogen for industrial purposes. But the company sees expansion in making hydrogen for fuel cell cars.
"So many people talk about what we have to do in the future in order to provide the hydrogen for these cars," said Rush. "We've got the machines today."
General Motors Corp and Honda Motor Co have hydrogen fuel cell prototypes now, and plans for affordable cars within a decade.
"Right now, infrastructure is a big obstacle," said Diedra Wylie of GM which is putting 100 Chevy Equinox SUVs in the hands of consumers in its three-year Project Driveway.
Honda's FCX Clarity fueled by hydrogen will have up to 200 models on the road this year, many leased at $600 monthly, which represents only a fraction of the cost for the carmaker.
There are now about five dozen hydrogen fueling stations in the United States, and most serve only fleet vehicles.
One day retail hydrogen stations may rival the existing network of 180,000 existing U.S. gasoline stations.
Or, as in the case of a Shell station that opened last week in Los Angeles, hydrogen dispensers can sit at retail gasoline stations right next to the conventional pumps.
Rush said hydrogen machines like H2Gen's can be put on roofs of small markets or at Wal-Marts and car dealerships.
The footprint of the H2Gen machines range from about 7 feet (2.1 meter) by 7 feet (2.1 meter) to about 25 feet by nine-and-a-half feet
Roy Kim, spokesman for California Fuel Cell Partnership, said it's not clear how hydrogen stations will develop.
"This a new game," Kim said. "So there isn't a standing model. From the fueling standpoint, there are no set designs."
Kim said it's likely hydrogen stations will develop first in big cities and then it will be a matter of "connecting the dots" so driving long distances is possible.
It would take 12,000 hydrogen fuel stations to put one within a couple miles of 70 percent of the U.S. population and serve 10 million to 20 million cars, H2Gen said.
LESS COST PER MILE THAN GASOLINE
H2Gen makes three models of its hydrogen machines invented by the company's chief technology officer Frank Lomax, who founded the company with Sandy Thomas, H2Gen president.
Rush said H2Gen can make hydrogen for the cost equivalent of $2.50 per gallon of gasoline.
"The cost of producing hydrogen is no longer an issue," said Patrick Serfass of the National Hydrogen Association.
It would cost about $2 million in equipment to open a hydrogen station capable of filling 100 cars a day, Rush says.
Unlike gasoline stations which get their fuel from refineries often hundreds of miles or a continent away, hydrogen can be made at the station, Rush says.
The cost to distribute hydrogen over road in cryogenic liquid trucks or gaseous tube trailers rises with the cost of diesel. The U.S. government on Monday said diesel averages $4.65 a gallon nationally, up 64 percent in a year.
(Editing by John Picinich)