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September 05, 2008

Are You Curious How Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles Work?

Hydrogenfuelcelequinoxbs_0192 I had an opportunity to drive General Motors's head-turning hydrogen fuel cell-powered Chevy Equinox sport-utility vehicle at the beginning of summer: On the last day of school, I pulled up in front of my son's high school and waited for him to be let out. On the sidewalk was a troop of his teenaged brethren, rolling up and down the sidewalk on skateboards, and I was alarmed when one of them slipped, sending the board like a missile toward my extremely special GM HFCV SUV.  (I've been dying to make alphabet soup with all these acronyms!)

As I stopped the rolling projectile with my foot, I warned the not-quite-hooligans to be careful around General Motors' multi-million dollar prototype vehicle, opening the way for an assortment of questions, which included "Does that thing really run on water?"

2008_chevy_hydrogen_equinox_fcv_18_ I had been fore-armed for their questions and was able to pass out special flyers that explained the mystery of these Hydrogen-powered vehicles - thankfully provided by Angela Coletti at the beginning of the vehicle loan for exactly such inquiries. And no, that thing does not run on water! At least, not exactly.

In addition to Chevrolet's hydrogen Equinox which, as part of GM's Project Driveway, is being used in a wide variety of test situations (even by the US Postal Service ), several manufacturers are introducing hydrogen-powered vehicles into their specialty fleet, including Volkswagen's Hymotion Tiguan sport-utility vehicle,  Honda's Clarity FCV sedan, and BMW's Hydrogen 7 sedan.

Honestly, how a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle actually works is a mystery for many people - and explaining it clearly is difficult, even for me, and it's been explained to me many, many times.

2008_chevy_hydrogen_equinox_15_engi Essentially, in a fuel cell vehicle, hydrogen (the most common element in the universe) combines with oxygen (another common element) in a proton exchange membrane (which looks a lot like ordinary kitchen plastic food wrap) to generate electricity, which is used to power an electric motor, or is stored in onboard batteries. Water (as steam) is the only by-product. Sounds easy enough, yes?

In this easily educational video, GM's director of environment and energy Mary Beth Stanek, and GMNext's Matt Kelley explore some fuel cell fundamentals and explain why people should be excited about this propulsion system of the future. (Having trouble viewing the embedded video? Then click to watch it here at 

Want a more detailed explanation of how it works? Then you can try to decipher this technical description found at The Green Car Journal.

2008_chevy_hydrogen_equinox_20_emis Another common misconception led through history by none other than the infamous Hindenburg, causes some people to fear hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for their potential flammability. According to General Motors experts, hydrogen is 14.4 times lighter than air and escapes at a rate of 45 mph.  If there was a puncture or leak in the hydrogen tank of the fuel cell vehicle, the gas would dilute quickly into a non-flammable concentration as it diffuses into the air. General Motors has done ample safety testing of their tanks, including shooting the shooting the tanks with bullets and dropping them out of planes. They've also done educational training to first responders who might have to attend accidents involving such vehicles. All in all, it certainly appears that Equinox passengers will be much safer than those aboard the Hindenburg!

If you want a hands-on educational experience, consider attending a public tour of California Fuel Cell Partnership's (CaFP) West Sacramento facility. Tours are held on the fourth Friday of each month, and pre-registered visitors can learn about CaFCP, tour a hydrogen station, and take a ride in a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle! CaFCP is a collaboration of organizations including auto manufacturers, energy providers, fuel cell technology companies, and government agencies working together to promote the commercialization of fuel cell vehicles and educate the public about how hydrogen and fuel cell vehicle technology will contribute to our long-term strategy for air quality, climate protection, and energy diversity. More information about the California Fuel Cell Partnership is available at

I'm certainly excited about our potential to have hydrogen-powered vehicles in our future!

Brandy_schaffels_s By Brandy Schaffels
AskPatty Editor

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