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With backing like that, Billings says, the hydrogen-car movement may finally convince the rest of us of the fuel's potential. Bolstered by the success of WideBand, the networking venture that's his biggest moneymaker, Billings last year revived his old company, Billings Energy. The old energy firm, having been taken over by stockholders in the mid-'80s, had folded.
But will Billings be able to take advantage of the rest of the country catching up to his vision of a hydrogen-powered world? The demise of the Farmland deal surely didn't help Billings' reputation, which had already taken a hit in recent years from the contentious Novell lawsuit and from his own penchant for hyperbole. But when he talks about a world where fuel is cheap and clean and wars aren't fought over oil, it's hard not to get caught up in some of the eccentric inventor's enthusiasm for the idea that hydrogen will transform the world -- and that Billings may be a part of it.
Hydrogen, however, has its own reputation problems, stemming mostly from the iconic explosion of the airship Hindenburg in 1937. Who would want to drive a car that could burst into flames?
But the kind of hydrogen cars that Billings builds don't have a propensity to blow up. They're electric cars that use fuel cells, drawing their electric power from reactions involving hydrogen. No hydrogen is sparked or explodes the way gasoline is ignited in today's internal-combustion engines.
In the fuel-cell car, hydrogen atoms are electrochemically split and then combined with oxygen atoms, producing electricity, heat and water. The electricity is then used to power the car. But part of the challenge for engineers is to find efficient ways to store the hydrogen atoms before they enter the fuel cell. One of Billings' insights was to fill his hydrogen storage tank with metal hydride, a combination of metals in powdered form. This enables more hydrogen to be compressed into the tank, allowing a driver to go 300 miles before refueling. The powder also makes the storage inherently safer in a collision.
The second-greatest challenge to hydrogen power is the relatively difficult fight it puts up in being "mined." Billings wants to see coal gasification plants built to create hydrogen from coal, a plentiful and cheap resource in the United States. He says that's the way to go until a cleaner way to make hydrogen can be found.
He still plans to build a plant to manufacture fuel cells in the metro area. One of the obstacles right now to widespread use of hydrogen cars is the lack of infrastructure, and Billings dreams of Kansas City being the first city in the country to show that it can be done. He says he has hired consultants to help him try to figure out how to extract hydrogen from a rare underground hydrogen deposit that was discovered in the 1980s by a wildcat driller seeking natural gas. Billings Energy now owns the site. It's a long shot, but it makes for a good story.
Billings leans back in his chair and waves his arm as if he could magically convert Kansas City to hydrogen with one gesture. His eyes shine again as he envisions his dream city.
Anyone in the metro area, he says, could visit Billings to have his or her car converted to run on hydrogen. Local car dealerships would start converting old cars and selling new hydrogen cars. Every service station in Kansas City would have three types of pumps: regular, diesel and hydrogen. "You just pull up, fill it up with hydrogen," Billings says. "I think we'll get a lot of incentives and credits for people to do it." He smiles widely.