There are only two things that thrill my heart more than science: Jesus, and a place for the underdog to be heard and honored. This article is about the third love, science–in particular, fuel cell technology. I took a walk this morning on a (finally) warm spring day and dreamed about ownership of a brand new fuel cell car. Unfortunately, fuel cell cars, such as the Honda Clarity, Toyota Mirai, and Hyundai Tucson, are only available for lease in California. Sleepy Ohio is a far cry from radical California. Then an idea struck me: Why shouldn’t Ohio be the second state to have fuel cell cars?
Fuel cell vehicles possess a few advantages over both typical combustion engine vehicles and electric vehicles. First, fuel cells are more efficient and cleaner than your typical combustion engine vehicle. Ideally, a fuel cell harnesses electrical energy from the chemical reaction where hydrogen from fuel combines with oxygen from air to produce water. The reaction garners significantly more usable energy from the hydrogen fuel than a combustion engine extracts from gasoline. Further, the only by-product is water, and there are no harmful emissions. In reality, the process is a bit more complicated, and not all fuel cells are truly zero-emission. However, fuel cell vehicles still maintain significant efficiency and environmental advantages over combustion engine vehicles.
Also, although electric vehicles compare favorably with fuel cell vehicles in the clean energy world, they require significant time to recharge (on a scale of hours) and have a limited driving range before recharging. Refueling of fuel cell vehicles, on the other hand, occurs in a matter of minutes, on a similar time scale to standard gasoline refueling. The range of newer fuel cell cars comes close to 300 miles or more, which is much the same as a gasoline car. Fuel cell vehicles present a clear advantage.
With all the benefits, why aren’t more fuel cell vehicles operating on U.S. roads? The number one issue (other than money, of course) is the lack of hydrogen refueling stations (which is probably tied to money). Suppose you bring your brand new fuel cell car home one day. All week you drive around town, to work, to the grocery store, etc., and on Saturday you drive from Canton to Toledo. Sunday you turn around to come back home, and partway through the trip, you realize you’re almost out of gas–I mean, hydrogen. Every other exit boasts a gas station that is just off the exit, or, worst case scenario, four miles off the exit. No hydrogen stations to be found. You might as well be on the search for a space station. Most of the country sits in a similar rut.
California, however, boasts 35 open, functioning hydrogen stations and 30 more at various stages of preparation. While the number is significantly less than the number of gas stations, the viability of fuel cell vehicles in California rises every year.
Not many people would set Ohio in the same category as California. Despite its reputation, I have seen a different side of the cloudy Midwestern state. Consider first of all that, by the end of this year, SARTA, a public transit agency based in Stark County, Ohio will own and operate ten fuel cell buses. They already have their own hydrogen fueling station, and several of their fuel cell buses are currently in operation. With ten such buses, SARTA will be the largest non-Californian operator of hydrogen fuel cell buses in the U.S. Also, the U.S. Department of Energy lists a total of three private hydrogen fueling stations located in Ohio. Further, the state houses approximately 100 significant industries that supply components, materials, and testing services for fuel cell technologies, as well as the fuel cell manufacturer LG Fuel Cell Systems Inc. (formerly Rolls-Royce Fuel Cell Systems Inc.). Additionally, Ohio State University, Kent State University, Cleveland State University, and NASA Glenn Research Center actively research fuel cell technology and infrastructure. Stark State College and Lorain County Community College provide workforce development and training specifically in the area of fuel cell technology. Even Walmart utilizes more than 250 fuel cell forklifts at its Ohio distribution centers alone. These activities represent only part of the advancement of fuel cell technology in Ohio.
With such a strong foundation, Ohio is already considered among the top five fuel cell states (along with California, Connecticut, New York, and South Carolina). California might be first, but the step to common use of fuel cell vehicles and a vibrant hydrogen refueling infrastructure is not inconceivable in humble Ohio. Who says innovation must occur only at the coasts? The Midwest has a lot to offer, and it’s about time we reach for second place. (Looks like I snuck in a little honor for the underdog after all).
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