Fuel-cell vehicles stalled by price tag

Politicians and scientists have been touting hydrogen as the fuel of the future for years. But as the price of oil tops $100 a barrel and more alternative energies find their way to market, consumers might be wondering: Where are the hydrogen fuel cells?

“It’s a very difficult technology to bring to the real world,” said Taras Wankewycz, vice president of Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies, a Singapore company that makes products powered by fuel cells. “The ability to run your car on something that doesn’t burn or something that doesn’t pollute is still considered very futurist.”

A fuel cell creates electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen in a chemical reaction. Water and heat are the only byproducts.

The technology dates back to 1839, but its first modern use was to supply power to command and lunar modules during the Apollo space program. In 2003, President Bush announced a five-year, $1.2 billion Hydrogen Fuel Initiative to speed up the development of fuel-cell vehicles and supporting infrastructure. The Energy Department program set targets for lowering the cost of hydrogen and making fuel cells last longer.

Fuel cells now in use are mostly limited to industrial applications such as forklifts or air-conditioning systems. Every major car company is exploring fuel-cell technology, but most hydrogen-powered vehicles are still in testing or development.

The technology faces several large obstacles, beginning with cost. The labor involved in designing a fuel cell is expensive because it requires the help of highly educated scientists. Most fuel cells use platinum, which costs more than gold. One 200-horsepower fuel-cell system costs about $75,000 to make, according toPlunkett Research of Houston.

Then there’s the availability of fuel, likened to a “chicken and egg” predicament. That is, consumers won’t buy hydrogen-powered cars if hydrogen refueling stations aren’t easily accessible, but energy companies won’t build the infrastructure if the market isn’t there.

There are public relations hurdles, too. Companies will have to persuade consumers that fuel-cell vehicles are safe, since hydrogen is known to be a flammable gas.

“I think there’s still a fear and lots of misconceptions about hydrogen,” said Tom Fuller, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and director of the school’s Center for Innovative Fuel Cell and Battery Technologies. “It’s not nearly as dangerous as people think when you compare it to a tank of gasoline or a large lithium battery. … It’s going to disperse into the atmosphere and probably not cause a major problem.”

Starting this summer, American Honda Motor Co. plans to lease a limited number of fuel-cell vehicles to customers in Southern California. The company introduced its FCX Clarity at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November, boasting zero emissions and a fuel range equivalent to 68 miles per gallon of gasoline.

A Clarity will cost $600 a month for a three-year lease — a deal that doesn’t cover the cost of the car, Honda spokesman Todd Mittleman said.

“Widespread commercialization is nothing we’ll see in the next few years, but it is the ultimate solution,” Mr. Mittleman said.

More than 175 fuel-cell vehicles are already on the road in California, which has 24 hydrogen refueling stations, according to the state’s Fuel Cell Partnership, which lists models from Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen.

Some entrepreneurs are not waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with California. They are focused instead on introducing fuel cells to the world in everyday applications.

“We believe that the technology isn’t just about cars,” said Mr. Wankewycz, of Horizon. “Anything that uses electricity could be powered by this technology.”

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