This Fueling Station Fills Vehicles With Clean Hydrogen From Dirty Water

There aren't very many hydrogen cars on the road these days, but there might be soon. And when there are, it will be possible to take the dirty water from your toilet and turn it into fuel.

Wastewater—the stuff that goes down the toilet when you flush—is often treated and used for everything from creating artificial snow to watering golf courses. But this is perhaps the most palatable option for reusing the stuff that we've heard in a while: Hydrogen fueling company Air Products just opened a fueling station that turns methane gas from a local wastewater treatment plant into hydrogen gas that can be used to fill fuel cell vehicles—a first in the hydrogen fuel cell industry.

The Orange County, CA station uses methane gas from the Orange County Sanitation District's municipal wastewater plant. The methane is funneled into a purification system, where it is fed to a fuel cell and turned into hydrogen. Electricity and heat from the fuel cell is used at the wastewater facility, while excess hydrogen is used at Air Products' filling station. The station can produce enough hydrogen to fuel up to 50 vehicles each day.

"This is the epitome of sustainability, by taking human waste and transforming it into electricity which we need, and transportation fuel that we need, as well as thermal product heat that could serve the process of transforming the feed waste into productive products," said Professor Scott Samuelsen, director of National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California, Irvine, in a statement.

Samuelsen is correct—it doesn't get more sustainable than this. Scaling Air Products' wastewater fueling technology, however, may be a challenge. Because for now, automakers are largely focused on electric vehicle technology. There just aren't enough hydrogen cars to support a network of hydrogen filling stations.

That may change when the fuel cell vehicle market really starts around 2014, when the cars start rolling off production lines. In 2015, the real test begins: GM plans to build a hydrogen fueling infrastructure for Hawaii. And if Air Products' wastewater fueling station is successful, GM might want to consider adapting the technology in the future.

[Image: Air Products]

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2 Comments

  • Paul West

    I think it is odd articles always seem to promote the complex shiny new expensive solutions and ignore the simple less shiny cheaper solutions. Or perhaps I’m not educated enough to understand the finer details here.  Methane is, by another name, Natural Gas. If you wanted to be eco and green you could call it Bio Natural gas, I guess.  So why is the article so excited about converting Methane to Hydrogen to power a car using a fuel cell? A comparison of Natural Gas/Methane car vs. a Hydrogen fuel cell car. Most cars could run on Natural Gas with very little modification (outside the United States this can be done with a $150 kit in the US we are still waiting for companies to pay the EPA 2k per engine line for a certification). Hydrogen requires fuel cells that are extremely expensive. Looking around the internet the price seems to be somewhere around $200,000 per car for just the fuel cells. This is why all hydrogen cars to date are test beads leased to individuals not mass market cars. Hydrogen gas is also much harder to store then Natural Gas. This is because Hydrogen H2 molecules are much smaller then Natural Gas NH4 molecules. Hydrogen molecules so small, as a matter of fact, special tanks have to be manufactured to prevent leaking. This is like you might experience if you fill up a rubber balloon with helium after about 24 hours the balloon is a deflated shadow of itself.  So what am I missing? Why are solutions that are more complex and less likely to be mass marketed promoted over something that might actually work?

  • Olesses

    The by-product generated by the usage of Hydrogen is water. Zero environmental impact, even better that this clean water will be thrown back to the environment. If the "hydrogen factory" runs by itself and it´s left-overs serve as fuel, it will generate the perfect sustainability model. You are right to point out the cost of production/maintenance today, but these are values for an industry that barely started crawling. Maybe 2015 is too optimistic (they need to create a buzz on every newspiece), but one can´t help on wondering about how things will be and how much they will cost as soon as this starts to be mass-produced.

    Added now nanotech discoveries enhancing the process of generating hydrogen fuel, things will shape up pretty neatly on the near future.