PORTLAND — Automakers aren’t targeting Greater Portland to roll out fuel-cell-powered electric vehicles, but the city’s driving distance from Boston and New York makes it a logical place for a hydrogen fueling station, a developer of the technology said Tuesday.

SunHydro of Wallingford, Conn., and its affiliate, Proton Energy Systems, opened the first of nine hydrogen filling stations there last month for a planned “hydrogen highway” along the East Coast. The companies expect to open a second station next year in Braintree, Mass.

“If you’ve got a station in the Boston area, then you can link one up here,” said Steve Szymanski, business development manager for Proton.

Szymanski outlined his company’s vision for developing commercial hydrogen filling stations during a meeting at the University of Southern Maine that was sponsored by the Portland-based Hydrogen Energy Center. About 30 residents and businesspeople turned out.

“We want to get out the message that hydrogen fueling stations are real,” he said.

SunHydro has proposed an initial network along Interstate 95 from Portland to Miami. It would be the world’s first chain of privately funded stations for fuel-cell-powered cars and trucks, the company says.

Each station is expected to cost $2 million to $3 million, and would likely need a small local fleet of fuel-cell vehicles to create steady demand.

Szymanski couldn’t provide a timetable or a place for a station here, but one possible location emerged during the meeting. Bruce Albiston, chief executive officer of Maine Oxy, an Auburn-based provider of specialty gases, said he has offered the company’s property off Route 1 in South Portland.

Car makers such as Honda and General Motors have begun building prototypes of fuel-cell cars. Toyota, for instance, has made 10 Highlanders available for use at the station in Wallingford, Conn. Those vehicles have a range of roughly 350 miles, Szymanski said.

But car makers are reluctant to build large quantities of fuel-cell cars without convenient places to fuel them. Station developers, meanwhile, need greater demand to make an investment. Proton is working with auto companies, which have been eyeing California and the New York City area as the most likely startup markets.

Fuel-cell vehicles run on electricity produced from hydrogen gas and emit only water vapor. The key is producing the gas by separating water molecules, which typically is done with electricity generated by natural gas. Proton manufactures a commercial electrolysis system, and has adapted the equipment to make hydrogen at the filling stations with the help of solar-electric panels.

It also has developed a new system that’s capable of fueling 20 large cars or two buses a day, and plans to introduce a model for home use. One goal, Szymanski said, is to produce hydrogen that’s cost-competitive with gasoline.

The station in Connecticut is packaged in a 40-foot metal container, designed to be easily moved and set up. The boxy facade is covered with a graphic of green grass and a blue sky punctuated with the yellow SunHydro logo.

The home-station prototype is as big as a car; until it can be downsized, it will have to be installed outdoors.

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: [email protected]