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The North American International Auto Show has marked the debut of a host of exciting new green car concepts, but few were as eagerly anticipated as Honda’s new CR-Z hybrid, dubbed the world’s first hybrid sports car. Yet despite its commitment to advancing electromotive technologies, Honda CEO and President Takanobu Ito was keen to promote the long-term benefits of a different technology.

“We continue to believe that a fuel cell electric vehicle is the ultimate solution to reduce CO2 emissions,” he said. “The development cost must come down and there must be a major expansion of the hydrogen fuelling infrastructure. But make no mistake, as a vehicle, the Honda FCX Clarity is ready now. Further, Honda is unique in making long-term investments to develop the refuelling infrastructure for alternative fuel vehicles.”

So can fuel cell vehicles really break into the mainstream?

Big name manufacturers backing fuel cells

Despite fuel cell vehicles suffering a number of funding setbacks last year that we examined in our article “Why we shouldn’t give up on fuel cells”, it now seems that major car manufacturers are once again willing to put their faith in hydrogen powered vehicles.

Nissan has delivered its first hydrogen X-Trail to a soft drinks company in California (see article). The vehicle, which is based on the X-Trail SUV, is fitted with a 90kW compact fuel cell stack, a compact lithium-ion battery and a high pressure hydrogen storage system. Versions of the car are said to be capable of 90mph and a cruising range of 300miles.

Toyota too has expanded its fuel cell demonstration program in the US placing vehicles with government agencies, universities and private companies in California and New York with the intention of adding more regional partners as more hydrogen stations are added. According to Irv Miller, Toyota Motor Sales group vice president of environmental and public affairs, the plan is to come to market in 2015 “or earlier” and he believes Toyota “will not be alone” in the fuel cell marketplace.

And if you thought it was just the Japanese that are latching on to the technology then think again – PSA Peugeot Citroen presented a demonstrator with the FiSyPAC hydrogen fuel cell range extender system at a show in Lyon, France, in December having successfully quadrupled the fuel cell’s lifespan and increased its efficiency by 20 per cent since work on the project began in 2006 (see article).

Why stumbling blocks remain

Despite a renewed commitment to the technology from major manufacturers, there are still a number of hurdles to overcome before hydrogen fuel cell vehicles can prosper – a point that was highlighted by Revolve Technologies’ technical director Paul Turner last week (see article).

During its efforts to convert Ford Transit vehicles to run on hydrogen fuel, the company has encountered not only technological problems but legislative ones too. With no laws yet governing the use of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, the Transits are technically unapproved for the UK’s roads and the company is now working closely with the Department of Transport to establish legislation relating to the storage, handling and dispensing of the fuel.

There remains a greater need too, for more hydrogen fuelling infrastructure. Though fuelling stations have emerged, such as through the California Hydrogen Highway program; the hydrogen highway between Mantova, Italy and Munich, Germany; and even the first hydrogen station in the UK at the University of Birmingham; progress remains comparatively slow. The bulk of Government funding, in the US and UK in particular, appears focused on promoting electric vehicles and building recharging points with hydrogen technology taking a back seat.

Our verdict

It would appear that hydrogen fuel cell technology is at something of a crossroads. Once seen as the natural successor to internal combustion engines, the technology fell by the wayside as funding was pumped into electric vehicles with criticisms focusing on the high costs of fuel cells and the lack of infrastructure.

However, as research and development programmes have continued there appears to be renewed faith in the technology from the leading manufacturers. With it now possible to produce hydrogen from water using renewable energy it could even be argued that fuel cell cars are a more environmentally friendly prospect than electric vehicles which still rely on fossil fuels for the bulk of their electricity production.

The key then as to whether the technology sinks or swims is whether there is serious backing from governments in the developed and developing worlds through funding and incentive programmes. We are on the brink of an electric car breakthrough thanks largely to government support: now the question remains as to whether hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will be afforded the same opportunities.

source: thegreencarwebsite

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