By Bill Moore
Las Vegas has always been a city of contradictions.
Despite being located in the middle of a bone dry desert valley,
This remarkable growth has also created the usual growing pains including traffic congestion and air pollution. As a result the city is responding with a number of innovative projects including the construction of a new airport-linked monorail system, experimentation with a zinc-air transit bus, the daily use of some 30 CNG commuter buses, the utilization of 15 hybrid-electric cars (14 Priuses, one Civic Hybrid) and now the installation of the world's first hydrogen reforming, fuel cell refueling station.
Officially opened in the fall of 2002, the project participants include Air Products, Plug Power and the city of Las Vegas. The station is located on the northwest side of the city and is part of its fleet maintenance facility, one of four scattered around the metropolitan area.
What makes the Las Vegas installation unique among the handful of hydrogen refueling stations in the world is its reformer and its ability to not only provide pure hydrogen to fuel cell vehicles but also a hydrogen-compressed natural gas blend.
The hydrogen dispensed by the station is reformed from natural gas inside a building the size of a small mobile home. Located behind a locked, barb wire-topped, chain link fence, the entire complex occupies about a quarter the size of an American football field. The natural gas is steam-reformed into its hydrogen and carbon components by a Harvest Energy Technology, Inc. reformer. The hydrogen is then either fed into a 50 kW Plug Power PEM fuel cell about the size of a travel trailer or compressed for storage in a bank of six long, thin hydrogen storage tanks.
According to my tour guide, Alex Feister, the city is still waiting to get access to a fuel cell vehicle that can use the pure hydrogen. So, in one respect, the project is a bit ahead of its time. There are a handful of fuel cell cars operating across the Sierra's in California, but it may be a while before a carmaker decide to test their vehicles in Las Vegas.
Fiester noted that current operational regulations require that anyone using the pure hydrogen pump to refuel a vehicle must wear fire-proof coveralls. He added, however, that he expected this requirement to eventually be dropped as the city gains more experience with hydrogen as a fuel. He explained that there were similar restrictions when Las Vegas introduced natural gas vehicle refueling.
While the city waits for a fuel cell vehicle, the coalition is experimenting with an interim solution, a blend of 20% hydrogen and 80% natural gas. Blending the two fuels offers some distinct advantages, which Feister explained to EV World as he demonstrated a prototype Ford F-150 V8 pickup fueled by the H2/CNG blend.
One of the drawbacks of CNG is its comparatively low energy content relative to gasoline. CNG has about one-third the energy of gasoline, which translates into less range and/or more sluggish performance.
However, by blending hydrogen with natural gas and then adding a supercharger, the modified Triton V8 engine performs as well as its gasoline cousin. Feister demonstrated this by laying rubber and squealing the tires on the big Ford.
As we took the truck around the block, he explained that mixing the hydrogen in natural gas helps reduce the emissions of the vehicle and allows H2 to be burned in the engine without significant modification.
Of course, it should be pointed out that since the hydrogen for this project comes from natural gas, there really isn't any net gain in efficiency or CO2 reduction. In fact, there would appear to be a net loss since it takes energy to reform the hydrogen.
The program ultimately needs to derive its hydrogen from a renewable source like the abundant sunshine that bathes the surrounding valley or the wind that gusts through the gap in the mountains through which Highway 95 runs towards the northwest and distant Carson City and Reno.
Of course, cracking hydrogen from water using solar or wind energy also requires water, an increasingly scarce commodity in the drought-parched American West. Lake Meade, which supplies most of Las Vegas' water is some 67 feet below its normal level. It hasn't rained more than a trace in the area in more than over a year. But in principle, the idea is a good one and the project is intended to investigate the issues involving the use of hydrogen as a transportation fuel.
While the program currently is limited to a single F-150, donated by the US Energy Department, the city has an ambitious plan in place to deploy other vehicles that utilize the H2/CNG blend.
The first project beyond the F-150 is an 18 passenger para van which is being converted to run on the blend. The city will also gradually convert its six 30-passenger special services buses, which currently burn CNG, to run on the fuel.
According to early tests by the firm developing the engine for the buses, they will be cleaner than California's SULEV emission standards which are very tough, already.
The four-year project will pioneer some promising new ground, perhaps providing a pathway to move us from complete fossil fuel dependence to an increasingly carbon-free energy system. Las Vegas is a city used to gambling on the future, but this particular wager seems more a sure thing than a long shot.
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