During the gubernatorial recall election, under pressure from opponent Arianna Huffington, Arnold Schwarzenegger promised to convert one of his Hummers to hydrogen as soon as the technology was possible. Over in the sleepy little ski town of Sandy, Utah, Tai Robinson, 29, heard Schwarzenegger’s promise and took it as a challenge. He decided to build the world’s first “Green Hummer.”
At a glance, Robinson was an unlikely candidate for the job. He has no formal training as an engineer and no real pedigree as an environmentalist. Back in the early ’90s, Robinson was an aerialist on the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team. He had a number of top World Cup finishes, and in the 1994 Olympics he placed fifth in the qualifiers, two spots short of making the trip to Lillehammer. In 1998, while trying again, he blew out his knee. Around the same time, his son was born. “That changed everything,” recounts Robinson. “Going after a gold medal was fine, but I realized I needed to do something better for the planet.”
When a friend told him about hydrogen as a gasoline alternative, he went to the Web site of the American Hydrogen Association out of curiosity and took a conversion course it offered. He learned that for about $3,000, any engine in any vehicle currently on the planet could be retrofitted with an additional fuel tank and made to run on hydrogen.
As it turns out, he did have a family precedent: Back in the ’70s, his father, Fred Robinson, an auto mechanic and engineer of some prowess, had been hired by a group of investors, including Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, to try to convert diesel boat motors to hydrogen and to build an electrolysis system capable of turning seawater into hydrogen to run these motors. He’d had successes on both fronts, but not enough to bring the product to market. Thirty years later, however, when Tai decided to give it a go, Fred already knew the basics. Together they set about converting everything from go-cart motors to water heaters to a Toyota Tacoma to run on their new fuel. They drove the Tacoma to California in support of Dennis Weaver’s “Drive To Survive,” a cross-country road rally of eco-friendly vehicles designed to pressure Congress to raise fuel standards and support alternative fuels.
In California, the Robinsons met Terry Tamminen, then the director of Environment Now, currently the head of California’s EPA. Soon after Schwarzenegger made his conversion announcement, Tamminen contacted the Robinsons for a quote. The governor’s hope was that the whole changeover would take two weeks and would cost about $20,000. It was an unrealistic hope. The Robinsons could meet Schwarzenegger’s demands, but it would be a demonstration model only and not street legal. For everything he wanted the actual cost would be $400,000, including parts and certification. They eventually got that number down around $100,000, but still no dice.
At that point, Angel’s Nest Retreat, an off-the-grid, eco-friendly yoga spa outside of Taos, New Mexico, stepped in. They needed a four-wheel-drive vehicle to navigate the rough terrain around their property and a prestige vehicle to fetch clients from the airport. A Hummer was perfect — a green Hummer even better.
Instead of building a Hummer that could run only on hydrogen, the Robinsons built one that could run on all available alternative fuels. To do this they added three new tanks. Atop one wheel well they installed a 1-kilogram hydrogen tank (this tank can also hold natural gas); atop the other they put a 24-gallon heated-veggie-oil tank; and in the storage compartment in the back they added a 100-gallon biodiesel tank. Biodiesel is a fuel made from used vegetable oil, restaurant grease or animal fats. It contains no petroleum, but can be used straight or blended with normal diesel. Straight, it is a completely clean renewable energy source.
“We made it compatible with all the alternative fuels, because all those fuels need to come together,” says Robinson. “Right now they’re all fighting against each other. But we’re all working toward the same goal: changing the type of fuel we use.” The end result is a Hummer that is quieter and cleaner, gets better miles per gallon, and has more horsepower than a traditional Hummer.
There are two small drawbacks. Since the Green Hummer is not an exclusively hydrogen-powered vehicle. Hydrogen acts as a booster rather than a straight fuel, and needs to be controlled manually by a knob on the dash (not one of the world’s safest configurations). “We built it as a demonstration vehicle,” says Tai Robinson. “Schwarzenegger said he wanted a Hummer that runs on hydrogen. Well, this one does.” Currently, the Robinsons are building a second Hummer, an H2, to run on three fuels — gasoline, natural gas and/or hydrogen — all pedal-controlled like a normal car. “It’s the fulfillment of our dream,” says Fred Robinson, “to make an “H2H2.”
Tai Robinson contends that nothing he’s doing is new. He’s sure that the military has already done the same thing but refuses to tell anyone. “All of this technology is possible now, but the reason you’re hearing so much about fuel cells is because fuel cells are 20 years down the line. By talking up fuel cells, it gives the people currently in power — people who have ended up in power because of their oil-industry connections — enough time to pass the legislation they need to stay in power. They want you to believe that you need a fuel cell to run a car on hydrogen. You don’t need a fuel cell. You need an extra gas tank and some additional wiring.”
As for Schwarzenegger, he backed off from his original announcement, releasing a statement saying he would buy the first commercially available alternative-fuel-powered Hummer. Nothing has happened so far, but CALEPA communications director Michele St. Martin says, “I don’t want to steal the governor’s thunder about what he’s doing with the Green Hummer. But he always keeps his promises.”
Meanwhile, Tai Robinson is offering a Green Hummer for $159,000 on his Web site, intergalactichydrogen.com. So far, no takers.