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Are we ready for hydrogen cars?

A Honda FCX Clarity at a Southern California hydrogen refueling station.


A Honda FCX Clarity at a Southern California hydrogen refueling station.

It sounds like science fiction — a car that runs on hydrogen gas, spits nothing but water vapor out the tailpipe, and can take you from Washington to New York on a single tank.

But after a long and bumpy road from futuristic concept car to real-world production vehicle, the first mass-produced hydrogen-powered cars will hit U.S. dealerships this spring.

How soon you'll see them on the roads in your region remains to be seen, as auto manufacturers, fueling companies and policymakers look for ways to tackle serious challenges that now stand in the way — not the least of which is where do you refuel with hydrogen.

"It's coming, this is the next wave, and from what some of the manufacturers are saying, it's an even better bet than some of the alternatives already on the market," said Kevin Reilly, chairman of the Washington Auto Show. "Now all we need is the infrastructure to make it a viable option for drivers."

What are the advantages?

Manufacturers such as Toyota, Honda and Hyundai — the latter of which will soon begin selling its first hydrogen-powered vehicle in parts of California where fueling stations already exist — say this new propulsion system tackles the age-old pollution problems of standard gasoline engines without many of the limitations that have held back the market for battery-powered and other alternative fuel vehicles.

On board the vehicles, hydrogen and oxygen are combined in a fuel cell, causing a chemical reaction that yields electricity to power the car. The only other byproduct is water, which comes out the tailpipe as steam — so, no greenhouse gases, just like the plug-in hybrids and electric cars already on the road.

And while some processes used to extract hydrogen for fuel do emit greenhouse gases, research has shown that the overall "well-to-wheel" carbon footprint is lower for hydrogen-powered cars than for electric plug-ins and other alternative fuel vehicles.

Meanwhile, filling up at a hydrogen pump takes a few minutes, compared to several hours for even the fastest of electric charging stations. And fuel cells can be scaled to power trucks, whereas experts say it is currently difficult to stack enough batteries to power cars much larger than a sedan.

Most importantly, though, hydrogen-powered cars can travel upwards of 300 miles on one tank, giving consumers the same range they have grown accustomed to with gas engines. Conversely, the market for plug-ins continues to be limited by the fact that all but the most expensive models can travel no more than 100 miles on a full charge.

why we trail in the technology

With so many advantages to hydrogen, why are we so much further down the road on an electric charging network than we are on hydrogen fueling stations? It comes down to federal funding and the current administration's evolving stance on hydrogen.

During his first few years in office, then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu openly questioned the viability of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. Under his watch, the Energy Department cut by more than half its funding for fuel cell research.

Only three years later, though, Chu changed his mind, pointing to new techniques developed to extract hydrogen from natural gas as well as improvements and cost reductions in automotive technology.

At that point, though, the United States had already fallen behind the likes of Japan, Germany, Sweden, South Korea and the United Kingdom, all of which have made considerable government investments in hydrogen infrastructure.

Now in catch-up mode, and now under the watch of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, the United States has started to invest more money back into hydrogen. Last year, the agency launched H2USA, a public-private collaboration between fuel suppliers, automakers, government agencies and clean technology groups to coordinate research and map out a plan for a hydrogen infrastructure.

"It really needs a team effort," said David Danielson, head of the department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Are we ready for hydrogen cars? 02/19/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 6:10pm]
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