Dallas/Fort Worth Airport will begin using hydrogen-powered shuttle buses next year, according to airport and Ford Motor Co. officials.
The airport is making the change as scientists worldwide are racing to find efficient ways turn hydrogen, the most common element, into an eco-friendly fuel. If they succeed, in theory, the resulting technological shift could doom the petroleum engine and end U.S. dependence on fossil fuels.
D/FW is already a national leader in alternative fuel use, but this will be its first venture into the new technology of extracting hydrogen from natural gas.
"It is not surprising to me that this type of innovation is coming from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport," said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, which is the Metroplex's planning organization. "This approach will be monitored by air-quality experts and scientists from around the world."
The experimental shuttle buses won't look any different. But the traditional internal-combustion engines that power them have been modified to run on hydrogen instead of gasoline.
Scientists hope to create efficient hydrogen fuel cells for vehicles, but they are years away.
In an Aug. 30 memo, Robert Barker, the airport's vice president of energy and asset management, said testing of the new technology will likely begin in less than a year.
Jim Crites, D/FW executive vice president of operations, called the new technology exciting.
"We are keenly interested in fuel cell technology and continue to explore with both industry and government to find ways to evaluate and field new applications that will benefit our region's air quality, while enabling us to be less dependent on traditional fossil fuels," Crites said.
No agreement has been signed yet.
D/FW has reasons for pursuing hydrogen power:
Hydrogen fuel cells, electrochemical devices similar to batteries (except that their reactants can be replenished), are likely to be widely used in the future to power electric vehicles.
Hydrogen-powered vehicles operate more cleanly than vehicles that run on compressed natural gas. The greater Metroplex area continues to violate federal ozone standards.
As D/FW's fleet of compressed natural gas vehicles ages, airport officials are finding it harder to find replacements as companies and researchers shift toward hydrogen power.
D/FW is seeking federal and state funding for the project through the council of governments, the federal Energy Department and the Texas Emissions Reduction Program. No one knows yet how much the project will cost.
Hydrogen power is an old idea with car designers going back to Swiss inventor Francois Isaac de Rivaz and his 1807 engine, an early attempt to build an engine that did not run on steam.
Over the decades, the main problem with hydrogen has been that it burns too fast. Recent hydrogen engine designs, however, have improved both range and power. The Ford shuttle bus has a range of about 150 miles, depending on road conditions and vehicle load.
A lack of fueling stations is another key impediment to expanding the use of hydrogen-powered vehicles.
That's why a key part of the D/FW project is to build a hydrogen fueling station and a fuel processor that would extract the hydrogen from natural gas, said Bill Liss, executive director of Gas Technology Institute's hydrogen energy systems group.
The institute announced an agreement this month with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to develop a hydrogen fueling station. The institute will team with GreenField Compression of Richardson on the station.
Hydrogen makes up 90 percent of the universe. It can be extracted from many sources, including petroleum, coal, animal waste and garbage.
But 90 percent of hydrogen currently used for fuel comes from natural gas, Liss said.
"The most conventional route is called `steam methane re-forming.' It's really a combination of both methane and water converted into hydrogen," Liss said. "The hydrogen comes out of what we call a fuel processor."
The processor purifies the hydrogen, compresses it and delivers it to the vehicle's tank.
D/FW will adapt the hydrogen technology for use with the filling station used by airport vehicles that have run on compressed natural gas for several years, Crites said.
The high-pressure hydrogen dispensers, the compressor and storage bottles will look very similar to those at the compressed natural gas fueling station, D/FW officials said.
So far, 581 of the airport's 629 vehicles run on compressed natural gas or propane, according to D/FW energy manager Jerry Dennis. The program has worked well.
D/FW would be the third entity in the United States testing the Ford shuttles.
In February, Ford announced that it would send eight shuttle buses to Florida for passenger and employee transport at Orlando Airport. Delivery is scheduled for 2006, said Sarah Williams, spokeswoman for the Florida Environmental Protection Department.
In May, Ford announced a coalition with an influential American Indian tribe and a clean-cities group in Palm Springs, Calif., for tourist transport between the airport, hotels, downtown, casinos and sightseeing sites.
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