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Information Trends (as reported by Parts & People Magazine) has published a report stating that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, with zero emission capability, represent the future of the automobile and will be the fastest growing segment of the auto market by 2050.

The report also says that by 2020, 4 years from now, the hydrogen refueling infrastructure will be in place in several regions of the world and that 20 million hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will be sold by 2032.  Early adapters will be vehicle fleets and high-end consumers although greater market acceptance will occur as the infrastructure expands.  Projections suggest that most of the sales will occur in the United States.

According to the report, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai have already rolled out hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and several other major automakers are poised to enter the market.  All these fuel cell cars have ranges in excess of 300 miles and refueling time, assuming available infrastructure, is comparable to refueling a gasoline car. 

Will this threaten the future of electric cars?  The Tesla, which costs $80,000 plus, is the only electric car that can even exceed 250 miles on a full charge (the rest are at 100 miles or less) and the minimum time to recharge one to even a half charge with a high end charger is 20 minutes.  So, barring some game changing technology, hydrogen fuel cells will eventually replace most battery systems.  The exceptions will be individuals and small fleets using electric cars for short trips and who have their own chargers, thereby  eliminating trips to a fueling station. 

How does the technology work?  According to my internet research hydrogen fuel cells produce electricity which drives electric motors much like a gasoline hybrid car, such as the Toyota Prius.  The fuel cell combines hydrogen (from the fuel tank) and oxygen (from the air) to produce only electricity, heat, and water - no pollutants.  Fuel cells are often compared to batteries.  Both convert the energy produced by a chemical reaction into usable electric power.  The difference is that the fuel cell will keep producing electricity as long as fuel (hydrogen) is supplied, never losing its charge. 

While hydrogen is plentiful, clean efficient production is still a work in progress as most hydrogen today is produced from methane (natural gas) with some unsavory waste byproducts.  Cleaner sources exist but are more expensive to exploit.  The cost of cleaner production will come down as volume goes up and the technology improves.

By Allen L Phillips

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