May 11, 2009 / 4:43 PM / 11 years ago

Fuel-cell car rally opens Norway's hydrogen highway

DRAMMEN, Norway (Reuters) - Norway opened a 560 kilometer (350 mile) “hydrogen highway” on Monday with more than a dozen hydrogen-powered cars rallying along a scenic route between its capital city Oslo and North Sea oil hub Stavanger.

Norwegian oil and gas producer StatoilHydro has built several hydrogen filling stations between the two places to cater for cars with fuel-cells that generate electricity from a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen or burn hydrogen in a combustion engine similar to those in petrol cars.

These zero-emission vehicles have short ranges but promising results, and in the longer-term, Statoil may link the road to a hydrogen autobahn in northern Germany. Japan and California already have hydrogen highways.

“The torque in an electric car is fabulous,” professional rally driver Henning Solberg told Reuters before taking off in the Viking Rally’s No. 1 car with Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon.

“In acceleration, you could get as fast a car as you want with an electric engine,” said Solberg, whose hydrogen-powered Ford Focus nevertheless began the rally without the customary engine-revving and screeching of tires.

Touted as future alternatives to carbon-dioxide emitting petrol engines, the still-experimental hydrogen engines emit only clean water, though it takes energy to produce hydrogen.

Unlike electric motors which take hours to recharge, the nearly silent hydrogen cars can be refueled in a matter of minutes, much like conventional cars.

“We have to look for additional sources of fuel for the future and we believe hydrogen is a good option, especially as it has the characteristics of a zero-emission fuel and ... you could produce hydrogen from many sources,” said Ulf Hafseld, head of hydrogen business development at StatoilHydro.

DOWNHILL CHARGE

Some cars in the race can accelerate from zero to 100 km per hour in four seconds, drivers boast, though the three-day rally is not about speed but reliability and efficiency, they said.

On the road in the rally’s first stage to Drammen, west of Oslo, the talk in a specially modified Toyota Prius hydrogen hybrid, raced by team Statoil, is about fuel conservation.

“We have good downhills we can use for charging here,” said driver Anne Marit Hansen, referring to a function that recharges the car’s batteries by gently braking on as it coasts downhill.

Her Prius can travel some 170-200 km before refueling and fills up with about 2 kilograms of hydrogen gas. Its top speed is a little over 100 km per hour.

StatoilHydro sells hydrogen in Norway at around 40 Norwegian crowns ($6.28) per kilo, which it says is roughly equal in energy terms to the price of petrol. The company seeks to keep its hydrogen clean by using energy from Norway’s vast hydropower-plants to split water into oxygen and hydrogen gas.

Hydrogen can also be produced as an industrial by-product, or even from waste gases such as methane. But all these processes are energy-intensive which limits the attractiveness of hydrogen-powered cars from an environmental perspective.

“A rich country like Norway should help test both hydrogen and electric cars, but I already know what I will be driving in 20 years,” said Frederic Hauge, the founder of the Bellonna think-tank, getting into his Tesla, a sporty electric roadster.

Participants in the rally say such driving tests will help improve their vehicles and gradually reduce costs, although state subsidies remain key for any larger-scale projects.

“Oil companies and industry produce a lot of hydrogen, but it’s a political issue whether we want to exploit this in the automotive industry,” said Fiat researcher Paolo Delzanno, racing a hydrogen fuel cell-powered Fiat Panda.

Editing by Louise Ireland

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