Will hydrogen fuel cell vehicles supplant plug-in electric cars?

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high speed photo of water droplet

Water is the only emission from hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which could become an even more eco-friendly alternative than electric cars. Image: Flickr/spettacolopuro CC-BY-SA

The auto industry has launched a major effort to produce plug-in electric cars. But several automakers already have hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the road, even though the Obama administration’s energy secretary said it would take miracles to make fuel cell vehicles viable. For drivers who want to try a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, some companies have opened testing programs to the public.

Guzzle gas, or sip water

Fuel cells are made from layers of plastic film coated with platinum and sandwiched between metal plates. They create electricity in a chemical process that combines hydrogen and oxygen into H2O. Fuel-cell vehicles differ from battery-powered vehicles primarily in their power source. While plug-in electric cars rely on a power grid dependent largely on fossil fuels, fuel cell vehicles run on hydrogen gas. The two technologies share components such as electric motors and power controls, but the big difference is cruising distance. Fuel-cell vehicles are nearly comparable to conventional gasoline-engine cars in range, but instead of pathogens such as carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, benzene and formaldehyde, the only emission from a hydrogen cell is water so pure it’s drinkable.

The real car of the future?

A decade ago, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles were touted as the automobiles of the future. But automakers’ estimates that they would cost about $1 million per vehicle shifted the focus to battery-powered electric vehicles and hybrids. The Chevy Volt hybrid and all-battery-powered Nissan Leaf have made the biggest commercial splash so far. But GM and Nissan, as well as automakers such as Toyota, Honda, Mercedes and Hyundai, have continued to develop hydrogen fuel cell cars that offer greater range and faster refueling. This year at the North American International auto show in Detroit, Toyota said it is resolving the technical problems and cost challenges that have have kept hydrogen fuel cell cars from being commercially viable. Despite the fact that the government spent more on battery-powered vehicle research in the past two years than it did on fuel cells over the past 10 years, the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association said the technology will be commercialized by 2015 and that a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle could cost as much as a battery-powered car does now.

Available at a hydrogen fueling station near you

A current lack of hydrogen fueling stations is holding back the technology. Toyota and a dozen other companies plan to build 100 hydrogen fueling stations in Japan by 2015. In the U.S., Honda has been leasing its FCX Clarity Fuel Cell Vehicle since 2008. Qualifying drivers pay $600 a month to lease the car, which includes all maintenance and hydrogen fuel. Proximity to a hydrogen fueling station is mandatory, which limits the program to Torrance, Santa Monica and Irvine, Calif. Mercedes is leasing its hydrogen-powered B-Class F-Cell vehicle for $850 a month to 56 qualifying drivers in Los Angeles and the San Francisco bay area. General Motors is launching a fuel cell vehicle testing program in Hawaii with short-term loans of its Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell vehicle.





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