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Electric Avenue

Gas Prices Too High? Have You Considered Sewage?

Hydrogen cars aren’t taking off because hydrogen is hard to make and put in cars. But there is a lot of the gas in our waste treatment plants, and one in California will now let you fill up. Have they opened the door to a hydrogen economy?

In the future, instead of visiting the gas station, you may be going to the sewage treatment plant. Yes, sewage.

A six-month-old project at a wastewater treatment plant, in Fountain Valley, California, shows how communities could produce both electricity and heat from sewage—human and otherwise—while also giving drivers a completely renewable source of hydrogen. For the last few weeks, about 25 car owners a day have been filling up with hydrogen produced from excess methane.

Jack Brouwer, associate director at the National Fuel Cell Research Center, at UC Irvine, claims the project is a world first, and could be just the start of many installations to be built around the world in the next few years. Eventually, communities could become hydrogen-independent, he says.

"I don’t see people in their own backyards using their own waste to produce their own fuel. But communities that are large enough, that have a large enough flow of waste, could have a chance to do this with their waste streams," he says.

Brouwer says that, in the short term, sewage could produce 100% of the required volume of hydrogen to run fuel-cell cars. In the longer term, when there is greater demand, he estimates it could meet 10 to 15%.

Cars with fuel cells convert hydrogen into electricity to turn a motor, and potentially offer zero emissions, depending on the original fuel source. As well as sewage gas, it is also possible to produce hydrogen from wind and solar energy. But, Brouwer says sewage is preferable because it offers higher efficiency.

Hyundai, Honda, Toyota, and Daimler are all taking part in the trial, and several are planning to launch fuel-cell vehicles in 2015. However, hydrogen transportation is hardly booming. GM, Ford, and Renault-Nissan, have pulled research projects, and the Obama administration has said electric vehicles are more feasible at the moment.

But Brouwer says the Orange County Sanitation District project is showing the manufacturers involved that hydrogen does have immediate prospects, and that building a hydrogen fueling infrastructure may not be as expensive as feared.

"It’s almost a game changer for them, because California has mandated that 33% of all hydrogen dispensed here has to come from renewable resources," he says. "If they didn’t have this, they would have to make hydrogen from other renewables, like wind or solar, and that would be more expensive."

The Department of Energy is helping to fund the demonstration phase. The hydrogen costs the equivalent of $9.99 per gallon. But Brouwer says fuel-cell cars have 2 to 3 times the fuel economy of gasoline cars, so the price is similar.

"We get really excited about this project, because it completes the circuit for sustainable transportation," Brouwer says.

"It doesn’t have greenhouse emissions, it doesn’t have particulate emissions, and it doesn’t depend on foreign imports. It’s a holistic solution that addresses all of those challenges."