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Hitting the national park trail on hydrogen

As a scientist working at Lawrence Livermore National Lab on the research projects supported by the United States Department of Energy (DOE), Fuel Cell Technology Office, Tadashi Ogitsu has, in recent years, been focusing on renewable hydrogen production and storage technologies. As he sees it, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles offer a nearly identical range, refueling time and driving experience as gas engines, making them the ideal complement to battery electric vehicles, which are better suited to regular short-range use. For this avid road tripper and nature enthusiast, hydrogen is the perfect alternative fuel for admiring — and preserving — the beauty of our planet!


Tadashi posing before his zero-emission vehicle

Why did you choose to work on hydrogen energy?

My original training was in condensed matter physics, which is an intellectually stimulating field. However, I wanted to do something more practical that might make an impact in my lifetime. I’ve always been concerned about the state of the environment, so when I learned about the DOE’s hydrogen initiatives, which started in the early 2000s, I decided to write up and submit a proposal in this field.

By driving a hydrogen car, you are also an early adopter of the technology you help to create. How long have you been driving a fuel cell car?

My one year anniversary is coming up on April 6! I chose a Honda Clarity because it offers the farthest range and fastest refueling time on the market among all available zero emission vehicles. Fuel cell cars offer the exact same driving experience as regular gas-engine vehicles — except that they are quiet and generate zero emissions.

Some people try to oppose hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCV) and battery electric vehicles (BEV). Are these technologies truly at odds or can they coexist on our roads?

That argument is nonsensical. People claim that battery electric vehicles won’t require as much infrastructure, but that is only true if everybody adapts to charging their car at home every night. BEVs need to offer much faster charging times if they are to replace gas-engine cars. Batteries are also much less cost effective for large scale energy storing, which is needed during winter or rainy seasons. Having said that, BEVs deliver excellent performance if used correctly. In my opinion, HFCVs and BEVs serve different purposes and they can absolutely coexist. It’s like apples and oranges! Many households already have multiple cars, so in this case they might have a battery car for short commutes, and a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle for longer trips.

How do you see the hydrogen station network expanding in coming years?

Charging up is not an issue for me since I live near a fueling station in San Ramon, California. I fill up about once a week on average. I’m hoping to see more and more stations in the coming years: after Volkswagen’s emissions scandal, the settlement paid to California is now used to improve the state’s infrastructure for zero-emissions vehicles. I’ve already given them input on where the next hydrogen fueling stations should be installed!

When you think about it, if you truly love nature, you have to realize that driving a gas-powered car just doesn’t make sense.

In addition, Nikola Motor Company from Utah is planning to develop nationwide hydrogen fueling stations for their trucks. At least in the United States, the wheels are in motion: it’s just a matter of how fast things will move. My hope is that hydrogen fueling station development will pick up if there is enough demand, which will also drive charging prices down. Public perception is crucial to making that happen.

Tadashi drives to secluded spots to snap breathtaking pictures

You also like to take road trips in your hydrogen car, while taking stunning photos along the way. Why did you decide to do this project?

Photography has always been a hobby of mine, and then I got interested in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. It was a very natural thing for me to combine these two elements. When you think about it, if you truly love nature, you have to realize that driving a gas-powered car just doesn’t make sense. It’s hypocritical: on one hand you believe nature is beautiful, but on the other hand your activities are destroying it.

Where have you traveled to so far?

I love the national park system, and California is home to many amazing parks. I’ve been to Yosemite, Sequoia, Joshua Tree… I think I’ve been to nearly every national park in California in my hydrogen-powered car, except for Death Valley, which is just out of reach for me right now. I would love to visit the moving rocks in Racetrack Playa, but I would need at least one hydrogen fueling station inside Death Valley to make the roundtrip. Another spot I’m dying to visit is Lassen Volcanic Park.

Have you ever gotten stranded anywhere?

Fortunately not! I have gotten close a couple of times, but so far I’m doing very well! I try to test the limits of my car’s range during the summer. It takes a little patience, but you can extend the range just by avoiding highways. My record is 474 miles on one tank!

Do you have any other memorable stories from your trips?

I wanted to go all the way to the east side of Yosemite, which is farther than I usually go. I decided to use elevation to my benefit: I drove to Lake Tahoe, where the elevation is 2,000 meters, so that most of the returning trip would be downhill. That enabled me to make the 350-mile drive through Yosemite National Park from the East Entrance and get some great snapshots along the way, like the Milky Way over Half Dome.

I also went to Glacier Point in Yosemite during the Orionid Meteor shower. Since the meteor shower was taking place on the same day as I was flying home from a conference, I had to leave as soon as I got back. That meant my only option was to drive directly to Glacier Point, which is almost at the limit of my driving range. I would never have had enough time to charge an electric battery. If I drove a battery electric car, I would have missed the meteor shower!

Can you explain the method you use to calculate the car’s range?

A picture of the iconic Yosemite El Capitan, shot by Tadashi

All the cars have their own built-in range indicators, but you have to take those numbers with a grain of salt. To keep a consistent range from one day to the next, you have to remember to drive in a very consistent way. Several factors impact range, such as elevation. For example, the drive out to Yosemite is uphill, so when I get to the top of the mountain my indicator tells me I won’t have enough fuel to get home, because the computer assumes that I will keep driving uphill. However, the way home is all downhill, so I know I’ll have enough range because I’ll get much better mileage. Another factor I have noticed is air resistance: driving at higher speeds, such as on highways, creates more air resistance, which lowers your mileage.

Would you trade your hydrogen fuel cell vehicle for another type of car?

I would definitely stick with hydrogen for the various reasons I mentioned. Sometimes I have to drive a gas-powered car because of where I’m going, and I don’t have a choice. I thought about getting a battery electric vehicle as well, but hydrogen is a better fit for my lifestyle. They are different vehicles that serve different purposes. For my hobby of taking photos in national parks, battery is not an option. I need the range and quick fueling of my hydrogen fuel cell car.

What factors do you think could help expand fuel cell development in coming years?

It’s hard to say, but I think we need to develop a bigger market for fuel cell vehicles. These cars need to become more affordable and also offer more model options: not just sedans, but also SUVs, sports cars, and other vehicle types. Something like camper would be nice. I think the most important factor will be expanding the fueling station network. Once people realize that there is nothing different about driving a hydrogen fuel cell car, then I think they will buy into it.

Any upcoming road trips in the pipes?

I’m a little busy with my work for the Department of Energy until early June. I might try to go back to Joshua Tree and test out new ways to take photos, but I’m open to ideas!