North Coast Journal



The magic car

by Marie Gravelle

If you thought "flubber," was neat, wait until you see what's cooking in an old Arcata garage.

Like that old Disney movie starring Fred McMurray, there is a professor (or two) involved. And, like the movie, the goal is to power a vehicle.

But in the 1995 version, cars don't fly and bad basketball players don't win.

We're talking reality here.

We're talking about a vehicle that will cruise down the road without any of the nasty by-products of an internal combustion engine. To go a step further, this vehicle doesn't use battery power either.

"It's magic," said Peter Lehman, an engineering professor at Humboldt State University and director of the Schatz Energy Research Center/garage near campus.

It works like this: Start with water. Rip the molecules apart and sew them back together. By doing this, you create electricity. And with that, you can fly to the moon.

But Lehman's got some more research to do first.

"We're at the point now where the automobile industry was 100 years ago," he said.

The trickiest part so far has been the fuel cell, the place where hydrogen and oxygen are recombined.

You don't find a gadget like that at the corner drug store.

"We thought we could just write a check to the fuel cell company and get a fuel cell," Lehman said. "That was not to be the case."

Creating a fuel cell at the research center wasn't easy. Years of trial and error produced a fascinating, simplistic, yet nearly incomprehensible, accordion-shaped series of plates. In goes hydrogen and oxygen, and out comes usable energy and water.

And the vehicle moves. Once it's fueled, the hydrogen fuel cell pumps out up to six horsepower, or four kilowatts. That can be compared with the eight to 12 kilowatts used by a typical car at cruising speed. But hydrogen is much more efficient than gasoline. It can go faster and farther using less energy.

As you walk into the garage/laboratory across the street from the main HSU campus, you can feel the human energy. Concentrated on computer terminals or buzzing from room to room, engineers in white lab coats leave a trail of computer printouts. Incongruously scattered about are old-fashioned nuts and bolts.

Move into the next room and you'll see electronic equipment, wires and parts that frazzle the mind. Then, in a room of its own, you see it.

There's a mist of hope surrounding it. While not the first of its kind in the world, it's the first step in an optimistic scheme that could bring this technology to your garage.

Just don't call it a golf cart.

"It is a golf cart," Lehman admits, but he loathes the description. It sounds so trivial, as if it can't live up to the aspirations of those inside the building.

As an internal-combustion engine roared to life just outside the building, Lehman pointed to his cart and said, "This is going to change the world."

He is not alone in his belief. About 16 full- and part-time Research Center employees are walking on air these days, only weeks before their car is set to prove itself.

Then there's the program's benefactor, 83-year-old L.W. Schatz.

Owner of General Plastics Manufacturing Co., Schatz has pumped more than $4 million into Humboldt's hydrogen energy program in the past several years.

It all started in 1988. "On a very small scale I did exactly what Dr. Lehman is doing now," Schatz said in a recent telephone conversation from his Southern California home. "I built it on my back patio and proved it could be done."

Then, he said candidly, "It wasn't a question of choosing Humboldt State because I like Humboldt State. It was because people there are performing these activities in an efficient manner.

"And they are interested in the environment."

The environmental consequences of hydrogen-fueled automobiles is the crux of the issue. There's zero pollution.

Instead of noxious, toxic fumes emanating from an exhaust pipe at the rear of your vehicle, this vehicle emits water.

Lehman even followed the antics of other hydrogen nuts by drinking the first glass of exhaust.

"It was great," he said.

Besides environmental issues, there's a host of political advantages.

"You can make the fuel from solar and wind energy," Lehman said. "You can make it here in America. The fuel comes from water."

There's a hydrogen fuel system already in the works in Humboldt County at HSU's Marine Lab in Trinidad. Solar panels capture the energy used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Oxygen goes out into the air and the hydrogen is stored. When needed, hydrogen is sent through a fuel cell, recombined with oxygen, and electricity is created. The fish tanks are aerated, the fish are happy and no batteries or oil are involved.

There are critics, of course. Talk about hydrogen and the safety question always comes up, primarily because the zeppelin Hindenburg blew up in 1937. Filled with hydrogen gas, the blimp caught fire and 15 passengers, 20 crewmen and a line-handler were killed.

But to Lehman, the tragedy must be put in perspective.

"Hydrogen is flammable, but is it worse than gasoline?" Lehman asks. "The answer is no.

"People would be freaked out about the danger of switching from hydrogen to gasoline if that were being considered today."

And if you compare hydrogen power to battery power, hydrogen still comes out ahead. Batteries, even those high-tech jobs in the new battery-powered Impact by General Motors Inc., have a serious hazardous-waste problem and a limited range of under 100 miles. Plus, they take hours to recharge.

"Hydrogen is a fuel," Lehman said. "There's a gas tank. You run out of gas, you put more in."

Lehman and his cohorts are taking their show on the road this month with a trip to Palm Desert, Calif. On Nov. 5, a citywide, all-electric vehicle parade will wind its way through the Southern California city. Civic leaders there have already agreed to help fund a service station and fuel pumps in town, if HSU can get a U.S. Department of Energy grant to build eight more vehicles.

"Why'd we pick Palm Desert?" Lehman asks. "Because it's the belly of the beast. It's where the problems are and where there's really dirty air, the dirtiest in the country."

And Palm Desert is also a city with a mission. It's one of the few places in the nation to grant street-legal status to golf carts.

Lehman and others realize they're not the first in the hydrogen fuel market. A city in Canada uses two hydrogen-powered buses and similar vehicles are being considered in Chicago.

However, the HSU vehicle is unique in that it does not need an air compressor and can operate at low pressure. That means less space is needed for the fuel system and the entire vehicle can ultimately be cost effective. A patent is in the works.

To date, Lehman said, he has put about $20,000 into developing the fuel cell and retrofitting the golf cart.

"But we've had engineers putting this together by hand," he said. "We're using the crawl, walk, run strategy. Right now we're in the crawling stage."

The politics of tinkering with traditional automobiles is always tricky. Lehman's facing the same skepticism and roadblocks encountered by those who developed battery-powered vehicles.

Although GM has produced a battery-powered car, other automobile companies aren't leaping into the market. To date these industry giants have sucked up most the federal research money, something Lehman hopes will change.

"They've taken that money and buried it," Lehman said. "But we have something those fancy labs don't have: We have passion."

That passion is shared by the entire magic car team from students and graduate engineers working on the nuts and bolts of the project, to the 83-year-old millionaire benefactor.

"He calls me all the time, excited, asking what happened when you did what," Lehman said. "It's like I've gotten a second father."

And someday as you're driving down the freeway, that belch of air-polluting carbon monoxide just might be replaced with a drip, drip, drip of harmless water.

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