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[The Star-Ledger]

Old Ford takes on a new challenge

Hydrogen-fueled truck to join high-tech rally

Sunday, May 05, 2002

Star-Ledger Staff

When the Tour de Sol road rally for alternative fuel vehicles kicks off next week, a battered, but lovingly restored, 22-year-old pickup will take its place along some of the most technologically advanced vehicles from the big manufacturers.

Christened "Electric Blue" by the local group of engineers, college and high school students who built it, it will be the only vehicle powered by hydrogen fuel cells in the tour, which starts next Sunday and runs through May 18.

"The message is, this stuff is real," said Mike Strizki of East Amwell, an engineer who is one of the leaders of the Electric Blue project.

He formerly worked for the state Department of Transportation and helped build two vehicles for the tour while there. Those vehicles cost millions of dollars to develop. Now, he's doing it largely on his own, and with a lot of help from volunteers and a few donations from corporate sponsors.

"What's unique about this project is that we've taken the oldest modern-day electrical vehicle out there and put space-age technology in it," Strizki said. "We've done it with no budget, just a bunch of grassroots volunteer students and engineers. I'm doing it for a few thousand dollars, not $4 million."

The vehicle they've fixed up for the tour is a 1980 Ford Courier pick-up that had been modified by Jet Industries, a company that converted gas-powered cars into electric vehicles.

"This one we rescued from a scrap yard, " Strizki said. "It took me and a lot of students many hours to restore the truck to original condition. The truck only had 8,000 miles, but had a lot of rot."

The students and other volunteers had to replace fenders, the hood, the doors, replace the interior, replace the dry rotted tires, overhaul the brakes and electrical wiring.

Jared Camins-Esakov, 16, of Pennington worked on the car for several weeks.

"I helped clean the rust off, cut off some of the sheet metal," he said. "I also documented and diagrammed the electrical system."

Mike Skelly Jr., 19, of Willingboro said he did some of the bodywork and worked on the electrical systems. He will be one of the drivers on the tour.

His father, Mike Skelly Sr., is president of Eco Living Fellowship, a nonprofit organization that runs educational and environmental programs.

"We've got students from four counties, three colleges, some high schools, as well as experts and companies to sponsor the project," he said. "The students work on everything, electrical systems, bodywork. It's been quite a process."

Strizki said the truck is using technology that has been around for a few years. The truck's frame was modified to accept two large battery packs of gel-cell batteries. The batteries are sealed and don't give off hydrogen when their charging, nor is there any liquid electrolyte to spill out if anything happens.

H Power of Belleville donated two 500-watt hydrogen fuel cells, each the size of a large bread box, which are installed in the bed of the truck.

Hydrogen is stored between the fuel cells in a 3,800-pounds-per-square-inch composite storage tank, about the size of a big watermelon, which holds enough hydrogen to run the vehicle for eight hours.

"Hydrogen is produced many different ways," Strizki said. "It's the most abundant element in the world and can be produced renewably." The hydrogen they'll be using for the tour is produced by a hydroelectric plant in Canada. To fill the tank costs about $30.

The hydrogen is fed into the fuel cells from one side, oxygen from another, and they react with a membrane in the fuel cell to produce electrical energy, water and heat.

"That's why this technology is so appealing to environmentalists and to anyone who has to deal with auto emissions in general," Strizki said.

Another sponsor, Advance Power of Milford, donated a converter that takes the voltage produced by the fuel cells and boosts it to the level needed to charge the batteries that power the electric motor that drives the car.

"We don't have enough fuel cells and power to run it entirely on hydrogen," Strizki said. "It's a range-extender. Instead of 60 miles we can get 100 miles on a charge. We can charge up off the hydrogen in the fuel cells over night."

Strizki said fuel cell prices have come down and the technology has gotten better.

"The cells are more reliable and there are a whole lot more people in the game," he said. "People are investing, automakers, power utilities. Anything that requires batteries or power is a candidate for fuel cells right now. Everybody is scrambling to be the first and biggest and best."

He said the Electric Blue team is looking for volunteers and donations from sponsors.

Entrants will drive their vehicles from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., before turning north and completing various stages on their way to the finish line in New York City. Also known as "The Great American Green Transportation Festival," the tour is run by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association.

The Tour de Sol, which stops in Trenton from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 17, offers visitors a chance to learn about alternative fuel sources that are available today or will become available in the future, reducing dependence on oil and cutting pollution.

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