MTD unveils zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell buses


George Phelan

A newly designed MTD bus parks at the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District Maintenance Department on Oct. 14. MTD recently unveiled their zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell buses that solely emit water vapor.

By George Phelan, Staff Writer

On Oct. 14, the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District unveiled two new hydrogen fuel cell powered buses to the public. Unlike electric vehicles, the buses can be refueled in a matter of minutes. 

The hydrogen is produced using solar power, making the project entirely zero emissions. The process begins at the on-site solar plant, where electricity is produced in order to create hydrogen from water.

“The water comes in, the electricity comes in, there’s a rectifier that transfers it to DC current, and then there’s an electrolyzer that basically separates the oxygen and the hydrogen molecules,” said Eric Heiden, regional manager for operations at the hydrogen-production facility. “It then goes through a compressor system to be stored, and then it goes out to the vehicles.”

According to Heiden, the facility will produce hydrogen to meet the demands of the buses in use and is expected to be in operation indefinitely.

“We’re hoping this will be a long term project, and there’s room for expansion as (MTD) gets more vehicles,” Heiden said.

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After the hydrogen fuel is used to charge the buses’ electric batteries, the water vapor that is emitted from the process is clean enough to drink.

Senator Richard Durbin was present at the event, describing in a speech how the new buses could be used as a model for further zero-emission efforts in Illinois.

“It’s not a surprise to me that our downstate Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, would step up and be leaders when it comes to bringing this new technology into reality,” Durbin said. “Champaign-Urbana is taking its commitment to zero emissions even further, by using solar panels to power the on-site hydrogen production station that powers the buses.”

According to Durbin, each hydrogen fuel cell electric bus will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 135 tons a year and will save more than 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel annually.

Nuria Fernandez, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, was also present. The project was funded in large part by grants from the federal government, as a part of the current administration’s climate agenda.

“MTD is certainly at the cutting edge because this is going to emit only water vapor instead of greenhouse gases,” Fernandez said. “By producing the hydrogen-based fuels with renewable energy, MTD is going to improve the air quality for residents of Champaign-Urbana.”

While hydrogen fuel cell production is still relatively novel and expensive, the two buses added to the MTD’s fleet are still a monumental first step in a zero-emissions future for transportation.

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