Shell station in LA to offer hydrogen

The filling station, which will also dispense gasoline, is a baby step toward "mini networks" of fuel cell vehicles and ultimately, cleaner energy sources for hydrogen.

BOSTON--Shell is preparing to open a fueling station in west Los Angeles later this month that will dispense gasoline or, for the right car, hydrogen.

Duncan Macleod, vice president of Shell Hydrogen, gave the keynote talk on Tuesday at the CTSI Clean Technology conference, where he said that the Santa Monica Boulevard station will be followed by a few more in the coming months.

The Los Angeles station will use an electrolyzer to manufacture hydrogen from electricity on site.

GM's fuel cell vehicle, the Chevy Equinox. GM

The Los Angeles station was part of a U.S. Department of Energy hydrogen research program with Shell and General Motors. But Shell will build a few more stations in Los Angeles area on its own in coming months, Macleod said.

In his talk, Macleod argued that fuel cell vehicles will be mass-produced by 2020. To make that happen, "mini networks" of hydrogen filling stations in densely populated cities need to take root now.

Macleod said that fuel cell vehicles are at a pivotal point in development: With the proper government incentives and technology investments now, hydrogen can be produced in cleaner ways.

Options for making hydrogen
Hydrogen has been touted as the successor to gasoline for many years. Automakers believe that they could make money from fuel cell cars because there are fewer parts. Environmentally, the big advantage of fuel cells is that they emit only water. But making hydrogen requires an energy source--which, ironically, can be polluting fossil fuels.

The electrolyzer used in hydrogen stations can run on electricity from renewable sources, as Shell is doing with wind power in the Netherlands and geothermal power in Iceland.

But electrolyzers cannot scale to serve thousands of passengers, Macleod said. That means that hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles in the short and medium term will be made at petrochemical plants that make hydrogen as part of their industrial process.

"We can make hydrogen from anything," Macleod said, but the input into a petrochemical plant or refinery is either oil or gas. "That means you are making hydrogen from hydrocarbons, which isn't a long-term sensible way of doing things."

There are also several technical challenges, not the least of which is making hydrogen cost-effectively.

To get to cleaner sources, Shell Hydrogen envisions the manufacture of hydrogen from fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage . That would mean natural gas would have hydrogen split off from it to be used as a fuel (or generate power with a turbine), while the carbon dioxide would be pumped underground.

Farther out, Shell is doing research on making hydrogen from renewable bio-feedstocks or even municipal solid waste .

Macleod said he anticipates that hydrogen will become one option among several power sources, including electricity, biofuel, and gasoline.

"I don't now think that hydrogen is the ultimate fuel, but it is part of the answer," he said. "It's not the energy companies that decide. It's the governments and the consumers."

 

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