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Energy giant BP, for example, has abandoned hydrogen. A spokesperson for the company said in an e-mail that its highly publicized Singapore retail station stopped producing hydrogen a while back, and the company is now favoring biofuels.

Price is another reason hydrogen seems to have fallen out of favor. Consumer fuel-cell vehicles will initially cost much more than comparably sized non-hydrogen vehicles. Toyota’s hydrogen-powered car costs more than $120,000. Its target for a consumer rollout a few years hence is $50,000—but a new gasoline-hybrid Prius starts at around $23,500, and the company plans to launch a version that also allows “plug-in charging” in 14 states next spring. The announced starting price for the plug-in Prius Plug-In is just $32,000.

What’s more, the technology isn’t quite living up to the hype, according to Timothy Maxwell, a mechanical engineering professor at Texas Tech University. One problem is that the transmission systems in fuel-cell vehicles use a lot of energy, cutting efficiency. Maxwell says GM’s last estimates for its Chevrolet Sequel, a prototype fuel-cell SUV revealed in 2007, were that the vehicle would travel 300 miles on about 8 kilograms of hydrogen compressed to 700 bar—twice the pressure, and hence twice the effective fuel capacity, of any other fuel-cell vehicle at the time.

Meanwhile, according to Patrick Serfass, vice president of the Hydrogen Education Association, the American political climate has stymied progress on fuel-cell vehicles. “We need to eliminate negative rhetoric about fuel-cell electric vehicles from elected officials in the federal government,” he says. “And we need to restore confidence in American companies to make the investments needed to graduate from our current level of deployment—preproduction vehicles and few fueling stations—to production vehicles with clusters of stations to allow the first several thousand early-adopter customers to conveniently refuel near where they live.” He believes government financial support could accelerate both installation of the infrastructure and manufacturing of vehicles, spurring the public to open its pocketbooks as well.

Countries including Japan, Norway, and Germany are adopting fuel-cell technology faster than the United States. Friedland says this is not because these countries have more money to support hydrogen fueling stations but because of government leadership. He points to Germany’s plans to have 1,000 hydrogen fueling stations operating by 2020, and a commitment by Japan’s government, national energy companies, and major automakers to coöperatively build an infrastructure for fuel-cell vehicles by 2015. 

“The U.S. government broadly does not have a similar will to move forward,” Friedland says. “The international community is moving forward with alternative energy at a much more rapid pace, not because they have necessarily stronger economies but they have much stronger political will.”

Indeed, a year ago the Obama administration often came up in conversations about hydrogen fuel, but that’s not always the case anymore. Herb Dwyer, an analyst with the consulting firm Kevin Kennedy Associates, in Indianapolis, says, “I don’t know what the Obama administration’s policy is at this point, and I am not sure they know. I think the bottom line is there are other potential applications, such as compressed natural gas,” that the administration is looking at first.

Unfortunately, Serfass says, the Obama administration has been promoting electric vehicles and ramping up funding for battery-powered plug-ins by factors of 10 while repeatedly cutting funds for fuel-cell electric vehicles. But to take full advantage of electricity for transportation, he says, “one needs more than batteries, unless you’re only going to design a small urban vehicle optimized for short trips at relatively lower speeds.”

Even assuming that the technical and price problems are solved, though, will the American public buy into fuel cells?

Dwyer says he doesn’t expect fuel-cell vehicles to take off unless they can directly replace existing gas-powered cars without any loss of performance, comfort, or safety, and for the same price. Still, he says, “the major challenge will be the infrastructure that is required to support it.” So far, that’s a problem that not even Tom Sullivan’s enthusiasm has been able to solve.

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Tagged: Energy, energy, hydrogen, fuel cells, transportation

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