The gospel of hydrogen power

Ever since Musk called fuel cells "staggeringly dumb," there has been a fierce rivalry between lithium-ion and hydrogen backers

By Roy Furchgott
Published: Dec 31, 2020

bg_autos electric hydrogen 4The hydrogen fuel cell of a Toyota Mirai, one of the two Toyota Mirais owned by Mike Strizki, at his home in Ringoes, N.J., Dec. 1, 2020. Strizki powers his house and cars with hydrogen he home-brews; Image: Kat Slootsky/The New York Times

(Circuits)

In December, the California Fuel Cell Partnership tallied 8,890 electric cars and 48 electric buses running on hydrogen batteries, which are refillable in minutes at any of 42 stations there. On the East Coast, the number of people who own and drive a hydrogen electric car is somewhat lower. In fact, there is just one. His name is Mike Strizki. He is so devoted to hydrogen fuel-cell energy that he drives a Toyota Mirai even though it requires him to refine hydrogen fuel in his yard himself.

“Yeah I love it,” Strizki said of his 2017 Mirai. “This car is powerful, there’s no shifting, plus I’m not carrying all of that weight of the batteries,” he said in a not-so-subtle swipe at the world’s most notable hydrogen naysayer, Elon Musk.

Strizki favors fuel-cell cars for the same reasons as most proponents. You can make fuel using water and solar power, as he does. The byproduct of making hydrogen is oxygen, and the byproduct of burning it is water. Hydrogen is among the most plentiful elements on earth, so you don’t have to go to adversarial countries or engage in environmentally destructive extraction to get it. The car is as quiet to drive as any other electric, it requires little maintenance and, because it doesn’t carry 1,200 pounds of batteries, has a performance edge.

His infatuation with hydrogen began with cars, but it didn’t end there. In 2006 he made the first house in the United States to be powered entirely by hydrogen produced on site using solar power. Nine years later he made the second. He says he has built hydrogen-power home systems for conservationists and celebrities — one of his systems reportedly powers Johnny Depp’s private island in the Bahamas.

Strizki is using his retirement to evangelize for the planet-saving advantages of hydrogen batteries. He has faced opposition from the electric, oil and battery industries, he said, as well as his sometimes supporter, the Energy Department. Then there is the ghost of the 1937 Hindenburg explosion, which hovers over all things hydrogen. The financial crash of the high-flying hydrogen truck manufacturer Nikola has not advanced his case.

Strizki’s expertise has made him a cult figure in hydrogen circles, where he has consulted on notable projects for two decades. He has worked on high school science projects as well as a new $150,000-ish hydrogen hypercar that claims to get 1,000 miles per fill-up.

“Oh, I know Mike Strizki very well, very well,” said Angelo Kafantaris, chief executive of Hyperion, the company that makes that Hypercar, the XP-1. Using a federal-standard dynamometer test, the XP-1, which claims a 0-to-60-mph time of 2.2 seconds and a top speed of 221 mph, is said to achieve a range of 1,016 miles on a single tank. “I think Mike is an integral part of everything we do at Hyperion,” Kafantaris said.

Strizki, 64, wasn’t always a conservationist. He said he spent a decade drag racing at the Englishtown Raceway in New Jersey with a succession of cars, including a Shelby GT350 with a Boss 302 engine transplant.

“The car was hot,” he said. “I didn’t see the ground for the first two gears.”

He discovered hydrogen power while working at the New Jersey Transportation Department’s Office of Research and Technology. Batteries that powered electric message signs didn’t hold a charge in severe cold. Strizki was tasked with finding a solution. He turned to hydrogen fuel cells like those NASA used in space.

He left his state job for the private sector where he worked on Peugeot’s hydrogen concept car, a mini fire engine and then a Chrysler hydrogen minivan, the Natrium, which was a modified Town & Country and went zero to 60 in a glacial 16 seconds.

Although Strizki lacks Ivy League credentials — he attended a community college and then got a “life experience” master’s from an unaccredited online college — he is whom the Ph.D.s often turn to for solutions, said Doanh Tran, an alternative-energy consultant who was a manager of fuel cell vehicles and technologies at DaimlerChrysler, and who has a doctorate.

“You can design almost anything on paper,” Tran said, “but to make it work is a whole different animal. You need the patience and creativity.”

Bringing hydrogen vehicles into wide use on the East Coast strained even Strizki’s talent for invention. On the West Coast, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former California governor, who owned a hydrogen Hummer, cleared regulatory barriers with a pen stroke in 2004. The East has a series of bureaucracies to navigate. For instance, hydrogen is not authorized to travel via bridges and tunnels.

“We wouldn’t want to put out a vehicle that you couldn’t drive into Manhattan,” said Gil Castillo, who tracks regulations at Hyundai Motor North America.

Ever since Musk called fuel cells “staggeringly dumb,” there has been a fierce rivalry between lithium-ion and hydrogen backers. Cooler heads see a place for each. Electric is suitable for people with a garage who travel limited distances and can charge overnight. But for long-haul trucks, hydrogen doesn’t add weight or reduce cargo space the way batteries do. Furthermore, hydrogen tanks can be refueled in minutes.

You wouldn’t know if you were driving next to a hydrogen car. Toyota, Hyundai and Honda each have had company demonstrator cars near the Air Liquide stations. But you would know if it was Strizki’s. On the side is an illustration of the motor and systems that lurk beneath the sheet metal.

“People think it’s some kind of advertising, but it’s good; I can educate people,” he said, especially at car shows. “People are fascinated. They don’t believe this exists, then they say, ‘Why don’t we have this?’”

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©2019 New York Times News Service

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