California’s Fuel-Cell Cars Could Be Powered by Poop

Hydrogen  /   /  By Bradley Berman

Most hydrogen today is produced from natural gas, a fossil fuel. But if we produced hydrogen by tapping into biogas from waste water treatment plants and landfills—you know, poop and trash—there would be enough fuel to support 11 million fuel-cell vehicles, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL).

As reported last week by the Los Angeles Times, California is one of the most biogas-rich states in the nation. Los Angeles, which has the most hydrogen fuel-cell cars in the country, also ranked as the top county in terms of potential to produce hydrogen from landfills. The city of LA ranked No. 2 in the nation in potential specifically to produce hydrogen from sewage plants.

“Sewage sludge is completely untapped today as a fuel source,” Yoshikazu Tanaka, chief engineer of the Toyota Mirai, told the Los Angeles Times. “We believe it’s very promising and would bring ultimate self-sustainability to communities.”

Does the idea of poop-powered cars sound like a joke or a fantasy? Well, after a $12 million investment from the Japanese government—and research, design and construction help from Mitsubishi, Toyota and Kyushu University—drivers of fuel-cell cars in Fukuoka, Japan, are now rolling by and powering up at a local sewage plant. The station works 12 hours a day to produce enough hydrogen for 65 cars. The number of daily customers that could increase ten-fold if all the plant’s biogas was harnessed.

Mitsubishi Chemical Engineering, which built the Fukuoka station, wants to sell its technology and services for turning sewage into vehicle fuel to customers in the United States and Europe. At its current small scale, production costs are high—but that could change at higher scale. (In June, New York-based Plug Power Inc. announced a partnership with HyGear, a supplier of industrial gases, to provide on-site low-cost hydrogen from biogas to its customers.)

Waste-Powered Cars in California

There are only a few hundred fuel-cell cars on the road in California today, but that number is expected to grow to 10,500 by the end of 2018 and 34,000 by the end of 2021. Toyota, the industry leader, has sold 1,000 units of its Mirai fuel-cell sedan in Japan and about 200 in California. Yet, the company has a backlog of about 2,000 customers who have placed orders and are waiting to receive their car next year. Honda and Hyundai also offer fuel-cell vehicles.

The San Francisco Bay Area and and Sacramento are not far behind LA in their ability to use landfills and sewer plants to make hydrogen. NREL projects the region could support about 527,300 fuel-cell cars with biogas-sourced hydrogen.

The idea is not new to California. In Fountain Valley, Calif. FuelCell Energy Inc. started operating the world’s first tri-generation plant in 2013. The facility converts sewage into electrical power and renewable hydrogen for transportation fuel. The proof-of-concept station produces enough hydrogen to fuel about 50 cars per day.

According to the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, approximately 40,000 waste treatment facilities in the United States could be modified to generate hydrogen.

The Fountain Valley system, run from the Orange County Sanitation District’s municipal wastewater treatment plant, uses anaerobically digested biogas to power a fuel cell to produce hydrogen—as well as electricity and heat—making it a so-called tri-generation system. It was funded in part by a $2.2 million grant from the US Department of Energy. FuelCell Energy has also installed three similar fuel cells in San Diego.

“One of the biggest benefits that hydrogen has is that it can be produced locally from local resources,” said Chris White, communications director at the California Fuel Cell Partnership, in a 2014 interview with Scientific American. “If you’re in a really water-rich state like Washington and Oregon, you can make a lot of hydrogen from electrolysis. If you’re a state that’s really rich in agricultural waste, like California, you can make it from that.”

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