Argentina makes push for hydrogen fuel

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[BUENOS AIRES] A small Argentinean city has started building the country’s first wind-powered hydrogen production facility, which will be the first of its kind in Latin America.

The pioneering project, funded by the city government of Pico Truncado in the southern Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, will experiment with different ways of using the gas. It aims to provide a greener and cheaper alternative to oil.

One of its main tasks will be to fuel public transport for the city’s 15,000 inhabitants by 2005. As a first step, within the next couple of months the city will convert its diesel-powered municipal service vans to run on hydrogen fuel cells, at a cost of US$10,000 per vehicle. Instead of using internal combustion, fuel cells work by combining hydrogen with oxygen to create electricity.

The city is investing US$500,000 in building the plant and a hydrogen-dispensing gas station. The Canadian government has donated a 5 kW hydrolisator, which uses electricity to separate hydrogen and oxygen from water.

Despite the start-up costs, the city’s mayor, Osvaldo Pérez, believes it will save money, as Argentina’s economic problems have reduced the peso’s value against the US dollar, pushing petrol prices ever higher. Cleaner than petroleum-based fuels, hydrogen also attracts a government payment of 0.01 pesos (about one third of a US cent) for every kW/h produced, thanks to a law promoting renewable energy sources.

Two 600 kW wind-powered generators will provide Pico Truncado’s hydrogen plant with the energy needed to separate hydrogen from water by electrolysis. As well as the plant and the gas station, Pico Truncado will host a centre where the region’s scientists will conduct research and development.

“We already have students from all over the country wanting to do internships,” explains Juan Estigarribia, secretary of public services and environment for the city of Pico Truncado. “The centre is also for local people: we want to show the benefits of clean fuel.”

At present, the city generates 36 per cent of its electricity from wind power. The new plant will enable some of this electricity to be converted into hydrogen for use as fuel, and will also create useful by-products. “The oxygen generated by the electrolysis process will go to the local hospital and nearby factories, and the heat will be for our centre,” says Estigarribia.

The idea for the hydrogen plant was conceived in 2001 and agreed between the city government and the Argentinean Hydrogen Association — which is providing technical input — in January 2003. Building work started in April.

The project has already caught the attention of other cities nearby, such as Caleta Olivia. There are talks of building a bigger wind farm to harness Patagonia’s 60 km/h winds that blow strongly almost all year long.