Honda’s FCX Clarity fuel-cell car, spotted in a parking garage in Los Angeles.

Ten years ago, the future for hydrogen-powered automobiles looked promising.

Hundreds of millions of dollars were being spent on research and development of fuel cells that could combine hydrogen with oxygen to produce electricity with only a bit of heat and water vapor as the byproducts. But fuel cells were prohibitively expensive and the required infrastructure overhaul seemed beyond the reach of a nation addicted to oil.

By 2009, Energy Secretary Steven Chu claimed that hydrogen-powered cars wouldn’t be practical in the next 10 to 20 years and the Obama administration changed its focus to gasoline-electric hybrids and battery electric vehicles, a move further bolstered by the introductions of the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf. Fuel cell research budgets were cut and hydrogen was placed on the back burner.

Over the past decade, though, progress has been made in cutting the costs of fuel cell stacks that convert hydrogen into electricity –- in part by using less platinum, an expensive metal needed to catalyze the hydrogen-oxygen reaction. Nissan, for example recently announced that it had developed a cell with 2.5 times the energy density of its 2005 stack at one-sixth the cost.

Meanwhile, Honda’s FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicle is available on a limited basis in California, and Mercedes-Benz has announced that it will have a fuel cell model in volume production by 2014.

One advantage of a strong emphasis on battery-powered electric vehicles is that they serve as a logical transition step on the road to a hydrogen transportation system. Because hydrogen fuel cells produce electricity, they will need the same electric motors, power management and control systems that have been developed for battery electric and hybrid electric cars. And building a plug-in hybrid that uses battery power around town and a hydrogen fuel cell as a range extender for longer trips could be the viable — albeit expensive — solution that finally replaces fossil fuels.

If fuel cells are edging closer to prime time, the issues of producing, transporting, and storing hydrogen onboard a vehicle remain formidable hurdles. Industrial processes that make large quantities of hydrogen tend to also produce large amounts of greenhouse gases. Hydrogen gas itself is a tiny molecule that tends to escape through seals and hoses and must be compressed to extremely high pressures to carry a sufficient amount on-board a vehicle for even a modest trip.

Still, none of this requires fundamentally new technology – there are even hobbyist education kits that allow you to build a small fuel cell at home. A concerted effort in the next couple of years could push hydrogen back into the big picture.

Photo by KayOne73 via Creative Commons

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