Make us your home page
EarthTalk | By E, the Environmental Magazine

There's still hope for cars fueled by hydrogen

Q Not long ago we were reading a lot about hydrogen's role in a clean energy future, with cars transitioning from gasoline-powered engines to hydrogen-powered fuel cells. Where does hydrogen fit now in the mix with electric cars now coming on so strong?

A: Just a few years ago everyone was talking hydrogen fuel cells as the future of petroleum-free automotive transport. Fuel cell cars can run on infinitely renewable hydrogen gas with no harmful emissions. A 2005 Scientific American article bullishly reported that auto executives "foresee no better option to the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle in the long run." Likewise, the International Energy Agency said 30 percent of vehicles — 700 million cars and trucks — could be powered by hydrogen fuel cells by 2050.

But high development costs and implementation hurdles have kept FCVs out of the mainstream. And with a new crop of all-electric and hybrid-electric vehicles, some analysts wonder if the fuel cell's future is as bright as once thought.

Still, the technology is impressive, and potentially very promising. The concept was developed by NASA five decades ago for space travel and has since been used in lots of other applications. In a FCV, a stack of fuel cells under the hood converts hydrogen stored on-board with oxygen in the air to make electricity that propels the drive train. While automakers have been able to make fuel cells small enough to fit in and power a conventional-size car or truck, the price per unit is high. And the lack of widespread demand precludes cost-saving mass production. Also, a lack of hydrogen refueling stations limits the practicality of driving a FCV.

According to Richard Gilbert, co-author of Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil, another big issue is energy inefficiency. Creating hydrogen gas by splitting water molecules and then converting it into electricity uses most of the energy it generates. "This means that only a quarter of the initially available energy reaches the electric motor," Gilbert said. That doesn't stack up well against, for instance, recharging an electric vehicle like the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt from a wall socket — especially if the electricity can be generated from a renewable source like wind or solar.

But FCVs aren't dead yet. A few dozen Californians are driving Honda FCX Clarity fuel cell cars. General Motors is part of an effort to test FCVs and implement a viable hydrogen refueling infrastructure in Hawaii, one of the most fossil fuel-dependent states. Other efforts are under way including in the United States and Europe.

There's still hope for cars fueled by hydrogen 05/10/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 4:30am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item,

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Pinellas licensing board asks Sen. Jack Latvala for $500,000 loan

    Local Government

    The troubled Pinellas County agency that regulates contractors wants Sen. Jack Latvala to help it get a $500,000 lifeline from the state to stay afloat.

    State Sen . Jack Latvala, R- Clearwater, is being asked to help the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board get $500,000 from the state so it can stay open beyond February.  [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
  2. In advertising, marketing diversity needs a boost in Tampa Bay, nationally


    TAMPA — Trimeka Benjamin was focused on a career in broadcast journalism when she entered Bethune-Cookman University.

    From left, Swim Digital marketing owner Trimeka Benjamin discusses the broad lack of diversity in advertising and marketing with 22 Squared copywriter Luke Sokolewicz, University of Tampa advertising/PR professor Jennifer Whelihan, Rumbo creative director George Zwierko and Nancy Vaughn of the White Book Agency. The group recently met at The Bunker in Ybor City.
  3. Tampa Club president seeks assessment fee from members


    TAMPA — The president of the Tampa Club said he asked members last month to pay an additional assessment fee to provide "additional revenue." However, Ron Licata said Friday that the downtown business group is not in a dire financial situation.

    Ron Licata, president of the Tampa Club in downtown Tampa. [Tampa Club]
  4. Under Republican health care bill, Florida must make up $7.5 billion


    If a Senate bill called the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 becomes law, Florida's government would need to make up about $7.5 billion to maintain its current health care system. The bill, which is one of the Republican Party's long-promised answers to the Affordable Care Act imposes a cap on funding per enrollee …

    Florida would need to cover $7.5 billion to keep its health care program under the Republican-proposed Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017.  [Times file photo]
  5. Amid U.S. real estate buying binge by foreign investors, Florida remains first choice

    Real Estate

    Foreign investment in U.S. residential real estate recently skyrocketed to a new high with nearly half of all foreign sales happening in Florida, California and Texas.

    A National Association of Realtors annual survey found record volume and activity by foreign buyers of U.S. real estate. Florida had the highest foreign investment activity, followed by California and Texas. [National Association of Realtors]