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Automakers’ plans stoke S.C. hydrogen hopes

By Chuck Crumbo
Published Feb. 18, 2013

Major automakers’ plans to bring hydrogen and fuel cell electric cars to market this decade promise to be a boon to South Carolina’s growing hydrogen community.

In late January, BMW and Toyota first announced an agreement to build a sports car and collaborate on fuel cell technology through 2020. Then, a few days later, Ford, Daimler AG and Nissan said they had reached a similar arrangement.

A BMW concept drawing shows how a fuel cell power system might fit into a BMW car. (Photo/BMW)

A BMW concept drawing shows how a fuel cell power system might fit into a BMW car. (Photo/BMW)

Hydrogen already has established a niche as a stationary backup power source or in portable applications such as powering forklifts. However, automakers’ plans to adopt fuel cell technology could be a breakthrough for the industry.

“It’s a game-changer,” said Shannon Baxter-Clemmons, executive director of the South Carolina Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Alliance. “That was really throwing the starting flag and saying we’re committed to these vehicles. This is something that’s really going to be happening.”

The auto manufacturers’ plans to build and market fuel cell cars are “just tremendous,” added Meghan Hughes, a project director for EngenuitySC, a public-private partnership formed to develop and grow the Midlands’ knowledge-based economy.

“It’s those industry giants that are solidifying that the technology is worthy of their research and development, and that they think there’s a real market value to making a commitment to these types of vehicles,” Hughes added.

South Carolina, ranked as a top-five state in the Fuel Cells 2000 annual State of the States report for 2012, has sought to encourage hydrogen research. Some of the key work in developing fuel cell and battery technology is going on at the University of South Carolina, Clemson University and the Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken.

Auto manufacturers say hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles appeal to consumers because the cars are more efficient than those that use conventional internal combustion engines and have greater range than battery-powered cars.

The electricity for a fuel cell vehicle is produced in an onboard fuel cell stack. It is generated by a chemical reaction between hydrogen, stored in a pressurized tank in the car, and oxygen. The byproducts are heat and water vapor. The use of hydrogen also would lower the United States’ dependency on foreign oil.

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