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Why the Sudden Interest in Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles?

General Motors Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle Prototype
General Motors Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle Prototype

Well, hydrogen fuel cells have been around for a long time, and vehicles powered by them have been in the works for decades. Is “Now” the right time?

Even in his 2003 State of the Union Presidential Address, US President George Bush called for $1.2 billion in funding to develop hydrogen fuel cell technology. The problem isn’t the technology itself. Hydrogen fuel cells are quiet, relatively cool, fairly durable and long-lasting, and emit nothing but electricity and water vapor. Putting such technology in vehicles could greatly reduce emissions of the vehicle fleet.

There is the small question of cost though, some hydrogen fuel cell vehicle prototypes from Toyota costing as much as $100,000, not including development costs. General Motors’ fuel cell stack costs about $40,000 on its own. Developments in hydrogen fuel cell technology have been ongoing, to the effect that costs have been steadily falling and durability and efficiency have been on the rise.

This means that the vehicles that will be powered by hydrogen fuel cells can also be cheaper to produce and sell. After all, automakers, like all businesses, are in business to make money. Rumor has it that some automakers still lose thousands of dollars on their alternative fuel vehicles.

Hydrogen fuel cell costs coming down only means that it won’t be quite as painful to be first when it comes to finally producing a vehicle. General Motors and Honda Motors are partnering to develop the technology, and Toyota expects to have a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle on the road by 2015, for as little as $50,000.

Perhaps the final part of the puzzle will be eliminating the carbon footprint of hydrogen fuel itself, since most methods of generating hydrogen efficiently require some non-renewable fuels to get it done.

Like electric vehicles, carbon dioxide emissions depend largely on where you recharge, so if you live in West Virginia, which is 98% coal-powered, you’ll generate much more carbon dioxide than in Vermont, which is mostly wind- and hydro-powered. Ideally, hydrogen fuel could be generated, by electrolysis, backed by renewable energy, such as wind-, wave-, or solar-power.

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