electric car charging

Betting on Batteries

See how CSU faculty and students are keeping California at the forefront of sustainable fuel.

When Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 100, the 100 Percent Clean Energy Act of 2018, in September, it mandated that all electricity generated in California by the end of 2045 must come from renewable, zero-carbon sources such as solar, wind and hydropower.

That’s an ambitious target, to put it mildly. To meet it, California had to choose which alternative fuel sources to invest in. For now at least, the state has put electricity at the top of the list for vehicles (though there’s also a commitment to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles; more on that below).

“[California] has big concerns with accelerated climate change, and also, particularly in Southern California, we have a concern with air quality,” says David Blekhman, Ph.D., a professor in the college of engineering, computer science and technology at California State University, Los Angeles and a researcher in alternate and renewable energy, fuel cells and hybrid and electric vehicles (EVs).

“Transportation pollution really has decreased significantly due to the introduction of catalysts in vehicles, but there is more we can do—and it’s a transition to clean fuels like hydrogen and electricity.”

Read on to learn more about how CSU faculty and students are helping in this important effort. (This story is the second of three on how the CSU is researching alternative fuels as part of our transportation series.)

EV Cars Charging

Electric Vehicles: The Winner (For Now)

An earlier sign of the state’s all-in commitment to electric came in January 2018, when Gov. Brown announced a $2.5 billion initiative to establish 250,000 EV-charging stations, as well as 200 hydrogen fueling stations, throughout the state by 2025. (There are currently 381 EV-charging stations at 21 CSU campuses and the Chancellor’s Office. It remains to be seen whether governor-elect Gavin Newsom will commit to the goals put in place by Brown.)

“With the current technology, EV [already] has the ability to be the primary vehicle of transportation,” says Mohamed O. Badawy, Ph.D., assistant professor of electrical engineering at San José State University and director of the Center of Power Electronics Convertors Laboratory.

There's no question that California is leading the way when it comes to EVs: “Most of the new electric vehicle companies are based in California and that should tell us something,” notes Dr. Badawy. “There are tougher regulations and standards in California than in most other states in the country and that encourages more automotive manufacturers to produce more electric vehicles.”

What’s still missing, though, is the infrastructure to fuel up. There simply aren’t enough EV-charging stations, says Badawy, who conducts research with SJSU undergraduate and graduate students on developing power electronic converters for EVs along with their charging stations.

The 23-campus CSU system has nearly 5,000 vehicles in its fleet. Since 2011, the CSU has reduced the number of vehicles powered by gasoline; 40 percent of CSU vehicles are now electric.

Sustainability in the California State University: The First Assessment of the 2014 Sustainability Policy – 2014-17

Badawy also stresses that for EVs to be a truly clean alternative to fossil fuels, the way it’s charged must be clean as well. “For a complete solution, to say that we are able to decrease our carbon dioxide emissions and the pollution in our environment, it’s not enough to just drive electric vehicles,” he notes. “It still depends on where the EV batteries are getting charged from, and that's why we also need to rely more on renewable energy systems as the main source for powering our electrical grid.”

Hydrogen Fuel Cell under the hood

Electric vehicles get most of the limelight, but hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCV) have a lot to offer, too. Right now, though, if you have an HFCV, you won’t find many options for “filling up.” There are just 35 hydrogen fueling stations open to the public in California, with 29 more in the works, according to the California Fuel Cell Partnership. (Even so, the state has more than any other in the U.S. By comparison, California has over 8,000 gas stations and nearly 5,000 places to get diesel.)

One of those stations—and in fact, the very first hydrogen fueling station in the world licensed to sell hydrogen by the kilogram to the public—is at Cal State LA. Opened in May 2014, any HFCV can fill up at the Cal State LA Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility, which sits near the 10 and 710 freeways in Los Angeles.

Cal State LA’s Dr. Blekhman says HFCVs have multiple benefits: “Only water comes out of the exhaust tailpipe, and you can refuel real quickly [compared] to electric vehicles.” He notes, too, that hydrogen vehicles have a long range, so drivers can cover a lot of distance without needing to refuel. (To learn how hydrogen fuel cells power vehicles, see below.)

The Schatz Energy Research Center, Humboldt State

For Arne Jacobson, Ph.D., director of the nearly 30-year-old Schatz Energy Research Center (SERC) at Humboldt State University, hydrogen fuel cells are nothing new. “Most of the work that we did in the ‘90s was focused around hydrogen and fuel cells,” he says. “This is an area that the CSU has worked on for a long time through the work at the Schatz Center led by Dr. Peter Lehman and Dr. Charles Chamberlin.” 

Around 1997, SERC debuted the first street-legal hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in the U.S., and in 2008 the campus established its own hydrogen fueling station designed by Humboldt engineering students. These days, the Schatz Center team's work on clean transportation focuses primarily on ways to develop the fueling infrastructure for both hydrogen and electric vehicles.

How Water and Electricity Make Clean Fuel

Source: Schatz Energy Research Center
Brochure, Humboldt State

Fueling up a Hydrogen Fuel car

Fueling the first street-legal hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in the U.S.—created at Humboldt State University—at Sunline Transit, which put the vehicle into service, in Thousand Palms, California, in the late 1990s. The project involved collaboration with the city of Palm Desert, Sunline Transit and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. From left: Michael Johnston of Sunline Transit and Greg Chapman of the Schatz Energy Research Center (SERC) at Humboldt State.

Hydrogen Fuel car Team

The SERC team poses with the vehicle in 1998. From left: Greg Chapman, Lynn Reid, Ron Reid (sitting on vehicle roof), Christine Parra, Marc Marshall (behind vehicle), Jim Zoellick (inside vehicle), Ray Glover (behind vehicle), Arik Cohen, Charles Chamberlin, Peter Lehman (seated on front of vehicle), Mark Rocheleau (seated just behind Peter) and Denice McKahn.

With so few fueling stations for hydrogen fuel cell cars right now, it’s little wonder that sales for HFCVs aren’t anywhere close to that of EVs. But there is a market for these vehicles, says Dr. David Blekhman. “Forklifts are actually the most prevalent market right now,” he explains. “I would guess that around 15,000 hydrogen fuel cell forklifts are deployed in the United States. Most of them are in California. Wal-Mart, Sysco, Amazon and other corporations are using them in warehouses instead of electric.”

The benefits of HFCVs—quick refueling and no fumes—make the machines a good fit for commercial and industrial use. Similarly, says Blekhman, freight companies are looking at long-range trucks that run on hydrogen fuel cells rather than short-range electric trucks.

Blekhman believes that the industry will evolve to include both HFCVs and electric, with each used for different purposes: “I think we will have a similar situation to diesel and gasoline. Some applications are better with diesel. Some are better with gasoline engines. So they coexist.” 

Learn more about SERC’s work in transportation, hydrogen and fuel cells.

EV VS. HCFV: What's the Difference?

Toyota Prius

Electric Vehicle

How it works: Hybrid EVs combine an internal combustion engine (like a traditional gas-powered car) with a battery and an electric motor. Pure battery EVs run on electricity stored in batteries and have an electric motor.

Zero emission: EVs: yes; Hybrids: no, but emissions are typically very low

Time to charge/fuel: A full-size battery EV takes four to six hours to charge using a 220-volt charger. However, a fast-charging station can now charge a full-size EV in less than 30 minutes. For a hybrid, you can use gasoline or electricity to recharge. Using a 220-volt charger, a hybrid takes about an hour to recharge.

Range: About 70 to 300 miles for a battery EV, depending on the model; and 300 or more miles for a hybrid car in gasoline-electric mode.

Toyota Mirai

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle

How it works: A hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle is powered by a group of individual fuel cells, known as a fuel cell stack. It runs on compressed hydrogen fed into a stack, which produces electricity to power the vehicle.

Zero emission: Yes

Time to charge/fuel: 3 to 5 minutes

Range: About 300 to 400 miles per tank

Sources: DrivecleanCA.gov, California Fuel Cell Partnership

From CAL STATE LA to General Motors

One Cal State LA project, the EcoCAR competition, in which students are challenged to make a regular car more green using alternative fuel technologies, has given Dr. David Blekhman’s students highly marketable skills.

“What employers really liked from EcoCAR students was the multiple departments involvement—electrical and mechanical engineering, computer science—all these students working together,” he says. “When employers hire these students, they already have an understanding of the vehicle and have worked in adverse conditions where they’re taking classes and then add multiple hours on this project beyond their normal load.”

Three students who recently worked on the competition, which is co-sponsored by General Motors (GM) and the U.S. Department of Energy, were offered jobs at GM a year out from graduation. “Cal State LA has been ranked number-one in social mobility,” notes Blekhman. “I’ve had students from the poorest families ... and they will be getting a higher-tier engineer’s salary with GM when they graduate. They already have a job waiting for them.”

Cal State LA’s EcoCAR3 team completed their most recent challenge in May 2018 by creating a police service-dedicated hybrid Chevrolet Camaro. 

In October 2018, the team received a 2018 Clean Air Award from the South Coast Air Quality Management District for its work in training students and educating the public about energy-efficient vehicles. They were the only university in California to participate in the competition. "The team and I truly appreciate the multi-year support and assistance from university faculty, administration and staff," notes Blekhman.

The innovative work done by faculty and students at Cal State LA, Humboldt State and San José State is just part of the CSU story when it comes to finding sustainable fuel sources and improving the ones we already use. The California State University will continue to play an essential role in advancing the research that powers not just transportation but the future of the state.

This article is the fourth in a series on California's transportation problems and the ways the campuses of the California State University are working to solve them. Read our previous coverage on the CSU's role in finding solutions to California's gridlock, building better roads and making fossil fuels greener, and check back for upcoming articles on how the CSU is working to develop new biofuels and preparing the workforce of experts in air, land and sea logistics.

Story: Lorie A. Parch

PHOTOGRAPHY & Videography: PATRICK RECORD; courtesy of humboldt state and cal state la


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