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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Gas pumps of the future

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There are five hydrogen refueling stations already in operation around the GTA, but you can't use most of them — yet. Right now they're for commercial fleets, like Purolator's fuel-cell hydrogen trucks or GM's hydrogen-powered forklift trucks. But Ry Smith, manager of the Hydrogen Village initiative, says those stations could easily open to the public if there were enough hydrogen cars on the road.

Hydrogenics, a fuel cell and hydrogen electrolyzer company, has one station in Mississauga, and GM has a private refueling pump in Oshawa. Within the city limits, there are three stations where, in theory, future drivers of fuel-cell hydrogen-powered vehicles could refuel. The public has access to a refueling station at the base of Toronto's Exhibition Place, which opened in 2004. Purolator opened a station at Kipling, north of the Queen Elizabeth Way, in 2005. This private site is being used to fuel up Purolator's fleet of hybrids but will be made accessible to individuals. A third unrestricted station going up in a public works yard at Dufferin and Finch will open this winter.

Dan McGillivray, managing director of the Centre for Energy at Ontario Centres of Excellence, says that not only are there logistical challenges to building or retrofitting hydrogen stations across an entire city, but the fuel itself is far from perfect. "Hydrogen burns clean," McGillivray says, "but it's dirty to create."

Not necessarily, says Smith. "There are a lot of different ways to make hydrogen. It's a byproduct of industrial processes — pulp and paper mills, for example, generate waste hydrogen when they create chlorine to bleach paper."

Smith says a plug-in hybrid with hydrogen for range extension (to allow for those long highway trips) is the most convenient option for future drivers. "It's much more realistic than personal vehicles on electric rails." Ford and BMW are already working on using hydrogen in a traditional internal combustion engine, which would make stopping at these refueling stations as easy as filling up with gasoline.

So will these five stations multiply to become hundreds? "To try and replace all existing infrastructure overnight would be very expensive," says Smith. He sees this developing over time, leapfrogging on the rollout of hydrogen cars. "It starts with local fleets, then existing stations become retail forecourts."