Hydrogen powers amazement

Xavier Corley’s eyes widened as he approached the deep candy apple red Honda Clarity parked in the exhibit hall of the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.

Then a broad grin broke across his face.

“Ooh man,” the Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School senior exclaimed as he peered in the windows. “I like that. I like the way it looks. I like that it doesn’t run on gas. I want one just like it.”

Corley was one of about 2,000 people — from grade school students to retirees — who poured into the convention center Wednesday for the National Hydrogen Association conference and expo.

The crowd broke the association’s previous public participation record of 500 people in the first 75 minutes of the conference, as busloads of students from across the state pulled up.

“It’s a crescendo that has been developing in Columbia and South Carolina for the past few years,” Hydrogen Association president Jeff Serfass said as he watched the crowds roll through. “We knew it would be big.”

The public was treated to a Segway, hydrogen-powered go-kart and robot demonstrations, hydrogen fuel pump displays, prototype hydrogen cars and lots of science from companies around the globe.

Convincing the public that hydrogen is safe and the technology is real is as important to the conference as the science, Serfass said.

“This is where we connect with students, who are the future, and adults, who have the ability to influence political leaders,” he said.

Hydrogen recently has lost momentum as the fuel of the future, as many governments seek out quicker fixes to dependence on foreign oil.

But Serfass called the road to hydrogen-powered automobiles “a marathon, not a sprint” and said public acceptance of the technology will lead to more governmental support for it — like that it enjoys in South Carolina.

Serfass noted that Honda, Kia and other companies plan to have hydrogen cars in the showrooms by 2015 — but they will expensive. Hydrogen cars priced comparably with gas-powered automobiles should be available by 2023, he said.

That future was today outside of the convention center as people queued up in a line two dozen long to drive hydrogen cars by Honda, Kia, GM and Daimler once around the block in the Vista.

“It drove just like a normal car,” said Zack White as he emerged from a spin in a hydrogen-powered Kia Borrego SUV. “It had good power. But when you were stopped, you couldn’t tell it was running.”

When told the prototype he was driving cost $450,000 to build, White blanched slightly: “I’m glad they didn’t tell me that.”

Former Columbia City Council member Anne Sinclair said the public’s interest here in hydrogen was born from the city’s and USC’s outreach programs and efforts by such organizations as EngenuitySC and the SC Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Alliance.

“There has been a lot of talk and a lot of publicity in the newspaper and television the past few years about hydrogen and fuel cells,” she said. “And today, people could finally come down and see that these things are real.”

One of those people was 62-year-old retired probation officer Ken Hudson of Columbia. He said he was fascinated by the technology on display, particularly one Ohio University demonstration of how hydrogen can be made from animal urine on a farm. “It’s amazing what they can do,” he said, chuckling. “This could change Columbia forever.”

Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495.