Running on hydrogen

South Routt men convert car engines to run on alternative fuels

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Fred Robinson and his son, Tai, have dreams of changing the world one vehicle at a time.

Fred Robinson first converted a truck to run on hydrogen in 1975, and since then he has built a successful "Intergalactic" auto shop at his solar-powered Stagecoach home, where he has converted numerous petroleum-powered engines to run on cleaner alternative fuels.

"I don't think there's a car I couldn't convert to run on hydrogen," he said.

Engines that run on hydrogen produce almost zero emissions because water comes out of the exhaust instead of smoke. Burning hydrogen cleans the air by reducing carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide in the air, Fred Robinson said.

At his shop, he converted a go-cart, a generator and many cars and trucks to run on hydrogen, natural gas or vegetable oil.

This week, the Robinsons are converting a Hummer for the Angel's Nest Retreat -- a sustainable living community in Taos, N.M., where residents grow their food, produce their own energy and treat their own water.

Tai Robinson, 28, is a former U.S. Ski Team member. Now, like his 54-year-old father, he is a mechanic and an engineer. When father and son are together, they are also educators. In the spring, they went on a two-week, 20-city media and educational tour from Santa Monica, Calif., to Washington, D.C. The objective of the tour was to promote clean-burning, renewable energy sources and decrease the United States' dependence on foreign oil.

On Oct. 2, they returned home from rallies in Sonoma, Calif., and San Francisco to test the best available technologies for "environmentally positive" vehicles.

The rally, called the Michelin Challenge Bibendum, featured vehicles from almost every major manufacturer and brought together manufacturers, designers, energy suppliers and technical and industrial partners.

During the rally, Tai Robinson drove a hydrogen-powered Toyota Tacoma that he converted himself, and his father served as co-pilot. The truck was rated as one of the best vehicles at the rally, even among the major manufacturers who spent millions of dollars on their creations, he said. His truck had one of the lowest emission ratings of all the vehicles in the challenge.

While they were in California, the Robinsons dropped by a for a meeting with Arnold Schwarzenegger -- before he was elected governor -- who is endorsing a "hydrogen highway," an idea to put a hydrogen filling station every 20 miles on the interstates of California.

The Robinsons love the idea but don't want it to stop with California. They want to bring hydrogen power to the rest of the world, including Steamboat Springs.

Because the Steamboat Springs City Council is considering the purchase of two new buses, Fred Robinson said he plans to ask the council to purchase natural gas-powered buses.

The U.S. Department of Energy gives incentives to cities and towns that use cleaner fuel for municipal duties. The department's "Clean Cities Program" supports public-private partnerships that organize alternative-fuel vehicles and support alternative-fuel infrastructure, according to the Clean Cities' Web site. One of the department's goals is to have 1 million alternative-fuel vehicles operating by 2010.

"Gasoline is a sinister poison," Fred Robinson said. "Our air is nasty. Not nearly as bad as California, but ... the point is, the air could be much cleaner."

But the vehicles that most people drive, including gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles and pickups, only make up a fourth of the harmful petroleum emissions, Tai Robinson said. The other three-fourths come from heavy-duty vehicles such as tractor-trailers, garbage trucks, delivery trucks and buses.

Many heavy-duty vehicles used for municipal purposes are unregulated for emissions, Tai Robinson said.

If the city of Steamboat Springs purchased natural gas-powered buses, it would see 70 to 80 percent cleaner emissions than they would through the black smoke from a gasoline or diesel-powered bus, Fred Robinson said.

"We have just a small portion of the world's population, but we use half of the world's energy," he said about the United States. "Future conversations will have people looking back on us as the evil generation -- how we've squandered so many of our resources while we drive big huge vehicles that drive our inflated egos."

His son added that even though the federal government is helping ease pollution problems and slowing the greenhouse effect with its Clean Cities program, in the big picture, the government hinders the introduction of alternative fuels into the mainstream. He believes that is because wealthy, elite oil companies heavily influence the U.S. government.

Costs for certification and emissions tests are so high that converting a vehicle to run on hydrogen or natural gas can cost as much as $12,000 in the United States, where it only costs about $600 -- mostly for the parts -- in Argentina and other South American countries.

"These countries want to reduce their dependence on foreign oil, and they're doing it," Tai Robinson said. "We want to, but most can't afford it right now."

"Capitalism, I'd call it criminalism," he said. "Private companies are working with the government so that there is no real free enterprise. I think of myself as a conservative, because I'd like to conserve the government our forefathers gave to us."

The Robinsons have plenty of work to keep them busy until the next Challenge Bibendum, which will be in China next year.

"It's going to be a lot harder to get there," Fred Robinson said. "It's a long drive."

-- To reach Nick Foster call 871-4204

or e-mail nfoster@steamboatpilot.com

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