Local continues lifetime of work in alternative fuels
November 9, 2008
In Fred Robinson’s auto repair shop near Stagecoach, items that can run on alternative fuels abound.
There’s the H2-H2, a Hummer Robinson converted to run off a combination of hydrogen, natural gas, ethanol and gasoline. There’s the H-racer, a tiny hydrogen fuel cell car made by Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies. And there’s the wood-burning stove pumping warm air into the room – it’s not burning a fossil fuel, so Robinson says it counts as alternative.
A busted-up Volkswagen that Robinson has been repairing rests on a jack on the shop floor; the three decades of car parts and alternative fuel memorabilia line the walls.
Weaning the world off petroleum has been a passion for Robinson since 1975, when he worked with a friend in Tampa Bay, Fla., to convert a diesel engine to run partially on natural gas. The next year, he built a solar-powered house in Henderson Park, with picture windows offering sunlight for heat and views of the now defunct Stagecoach ski area.
As the founder of Intergalactic Hydrogen – a car conversion and educational company he runs with his son, Tai – Robinson experienced a surge of interest in his varied knowledge of alternative fuel sources this spring, when national gas price averages toppled the $4-per-gallon mark and kept going up.
“I did a lot of presentations during that period,” Robinson said, explaining that interest in his resources is closely linked with increasing and decreasing prices for fossil fuels. That interest has waned recently, as national gas price averages hit $2.34 a gallon Friday, according to a report from The Associated Press.
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“We have a message. And right now, with cheap gasoline, nobody’s listening,” Robinson said, adding that while some interest remains, he’s not getting as many calls to convert gasoline engines to run on natural gas. Last summer, he worked on four of those conversions.
In his workshop Thursday afternoon, Robinson proudly displayed a collection of “thank you” cards he had picked up from Steamboat Springs Middle School the day before. He said the sixth-grade students asked more direct questions about how cars can run on hydrogen than many adults do.
“I’ve been doing this around here for five years, and this is the biggest reward I’ve gotten so far,” Robinson said, holding an oversized card decorated with markers. Since he worked on his first diesel engine conversion more than 30 years ago, Robinson has devoured information coming out of the world of alternative fuels, reading up on the subject and going to as many fuel meetings and energy conferences as he can afford.
“I’ve just fallen into it. There were several times where I’ve been in the right place at the right time, and it’s just meant to be,” he said, explaining his seemingly effortless understanding about the scientific processes that allow 20 percent of a ground-up tree to be converted into usable hydrogen, or make it possible for algae to produce renewable fuels.
Robinson’s persistence in seeking funding and curiosity for that science has paid off. In his next project, he plans to convert two diesel trucks to run on natural gas. The hope is to work hydrogen into the mix as a primary fuel source.
“Hydrogen is our goal; that’s the one we want most. But we have to go through the others to get there,” Robinson said. Using hydrogen as fuel is expensive, but Robinson thinks that once the infrastructure is there, production prices will go down. In any case, it’s not likely Robinson’s need to build or fix things will go anywhere.
“I’ve always been a mechanic. As soon as I was old enough to walk and talk, I was playing with cars and making funny noises,” he said. Even if – as Robinson disparagingly said – he hasn’t achieved anything concrete locally, he’s sure to keep trying.
“It feels good. It’s hard to explain, especially with all the negative publicity about the climate and the politics and the economy, but if I’m driving down the street and I know I’m not using any gasoline, it’s really empowering,” he said.
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