Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles making slow, steady progress

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Mercedes F-Cell

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, like the Mercedes F-Cell, still have far to go but are making strides. Photo Credit: Mariordo/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles seem the perfect evolution beyond electric cars and gas-powered cars because they don’t require charging or filling up at fuel stations. The technology is prohibitively expensive but is slowly and surely making strides.

Go electric without the plug

There are two methods of powering an electric car, though the bits like the motor and so forth are always the same. Car makers can use a battery pack, which is the dominant method, or a hydrogen fuel cell stack. Batteries store electricity and then have to be recharged. Fuel cells combine compressed hydrogen with oxygen, a process called hydrolysis, which produces an electric current that is used to power the car.

A fuel cell vehicle never needs charging and the hydrogen tanks can be brimmed with fresh hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, in minutes. FCVs, as they are called, are similar to traditional cars, as the driver only needs to fill the tank to power the car. The problem, according to CNN, is that the vehicles are not cheap to develop.

Cost coming down

It currently costs about $100,000 to build a single FCV, though that’s down from $1 million or more from several years ago. There’s no telling how expensive typical models will be once available to buy, but there are two currently available fuel cell vehicles from major car makers. Both are available for lease-only in California. Honda offers the Clarity FCX and Mercedes  is now offering the F-Cell, which is based on the B-Class compact.

The Department of Energy, according to Bloomberg, estimated in 2010 that Honda was spending $120,000 to $140,000 to build each Clarity, about the MSRP of an entry-level Aston Martin. It costs $600 per month to lease. The Mercedes F-Cell naturally costs more, according to AutoBlog, at $849 per month.

[You can’t yet buy a used automobile that runs on hydrogen]

However, more car makers are entering the fold. Toyota, according to Bloomberg, has been displaying the FCV-R concept car, which will form the basis of the production model scheduled for 2015. By 2020, Toyota plans to have “tens of thousands” on the roads.

General Motors, according to CNN, also has a fleet of 500 FCVs currently in testing.

Gimme fuel

The other hitch is the hydrogen infrastructure. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but separating it from other elements is expensive. There are some plans in the works, though.

For instance, according to CNET, Air Products and Fuel Cell Energy recently formed a partnership to start a pilot program selling a hydrogen-producing power plant they call Direct Fuel Cell plants. DFC plants use biogas or natural gas, gases with a high concentration of methane, and produce electricity, hydrogen and heat from the gases. Another source of methane is human waste, which is why the first DFC is being installed at a sewage treatment plant. BMW is launching a similar experiment at its factory in Spartanburg, S.C.





Bloomberg: http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=a693eL42oJHo

CNET: http://reviews.cnet.com/8301-13746_7-57398216-48/hydrogen-fueling-stations-theyre-coming/

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