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Looking to Let Off a Little Steam

The hydrogen revolution has been just around the corner for more than 100 years. Is it finally here?

In his 1874 novel The Mysterious Island, Jules Verne envisioned a world in which water, split apart into hydrogen and oxygen, would furnish a free and inexhaustible fuel for heating, lighting, and transportation. In more recent times, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles have been the perennial cars of the future -- always said to be "coming soon" but never actually arriving in dealer showrooms. Fuel-cell enthusiasts keep on hoping, however, tantalized by the prospect of a car that runs on the most abundant element in the universe and emits nothing but a wisp of steam.

Finally, those enthusiasts have some news to cheer about. In February, Hyundai announced that a fuel-cell version of its Tucson mini-SUV would become the first hydrogen-powered vehicle to cross the threshold from concept car to mass production. The Korean giant plans to make 1,000 of the fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs) between now and 2015, then ramp up from there. A few weeks before the news from Hyundai hit, Daimler (Mercedes-Benz), Ford, and Nissan announced that they would collaborate on developing fuel-cell technology; the group's goal is to produce 100,000 FCVs as soon as 2017. Rounding out the list of big carmakers, both Toyota and Honda had already revealed plans to start mass-producing FCVs in 2015.


24 number of hydrogen FCV refueling stations in the state of California

55 number of hydrogen FCV refueling stations in the united states

75 percentage of matter in the known universe made up of hydrogen

Statistics: U.S. Dept. of Energy (1,2), Science for the Public (3)

For some time now, it has seemed as if the bright FCV future was being forestalled by a three-way game of chicken among carmakers, infrastructure providers, and the federal and state agencies that would need to regulate (and, for a while at least, subsidize) any nascent industry. The question was always: who will make the first move? Now that carmakers have decidedly done so, attention is turning to the other two players in this high-stakes wait-and-see game.

Hydrogen, while abundant, isn't abundant in isolation. To be used as fuel, it must be separated from the other elements to which it commonly bonds -- an expensive and labor-intensive proposition that helps explain the woeful lack of hydrogen infrastructure in the United States. Right now, the cheapest way to obtain pure hydrogen is through a process called steam reforming, which uses natural gas as a feedstock -- and, alas, generates carbon dioxide as a by-product. Even so, the greenhouse-gas emissions attributable to FCVs are "about half of what you'd get with a Toyota Prius," says Daniel Sperling, a professor of engineering and environmental science and policy at the University of California, Davis, and the founding director of its Institute of Transportation Studies. "That's because fuel cells are three times more efficient than internal combustion engines. So you need a lot less fuel per mile."

The United States already produces 10 million tons of hydrogen a year, 95 percent of it via steam reforming. Oil refiners and chemical companies use up most of it, although Sperling says that enough could be diverted to fuel the first generation of commercial FCVs. While this was happening, scientists would continue to make impressive strides in developing and scaling up cheaper, greener methods of isolating hydrogen.

The rosy scenario breaks down, of course, if government isn't willing to step on the gas. But here, too, there are hints that the momentum is shifting. After four years of giving hydrogen the cold shoulder, the U.S. Department of Energy announced shortly after Hyundai's news that it would be launching an initiative, H2USA, signifying a commitment to investing in infrastructure and new extraction technologies. Just how long it will be before hydrogen-powered cars are as plentiful as Priuses is still an open question -- but at least it's starting to feel as if the question begins with a when, not an if.

image of Craig Canine
OnEarth contributing editor Craig Canine lives in Washington State.  He enjoys riding the Amtrak Cascades (but wishes it were a tad faster).