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Are Hydrogen Cars Better than Electric Ones? Sure, If You Can Find a Place to Fill it Up

Don't expect hydrogen vehicles to generate the same excitement as EVs. The charging infrastructure just isn't there.

Perhaps you've noticed the glut of hybrid and electric vehicles set to enter the market in the next few monthsthe Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt, and Ford Focus Electric are just some the EVs coming down the pipeline. Electric vehicles get the majority of the attention from car companies looking to build next-generation vehicles. It makes sense; major automakers have been working on hybrids, all-electric vehicles, and charging stations for years. But there's a dark horse in the race to switch to alternative fuels—a fuel that allows drivers to fill up in a matter of minutes for the same price as gasoline: hydrogen power. Does it stand a chance?

Hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles use a fuel cell (an electrochemical cell that turns a fuel—hydrogen, in this case—into an electric current) to power an electric drive train. Fuel cells convert hydrogen and oxygen into water, producing electricity in the process. Batteries also turn energy produced by a chemical reaction into electric power—but fuel cells don't lose their charge as long as hydrogen is available.

Hybrid fuel cell vehicles come with both a fuel cell and a battery or a fuel cell and an ultracapacitor.

Hydrogen can be produced in a number of ways, including water electrolysis, coal gasification, and steam reforming from hydrocarbon (a process that forces fossil fuels and steam to react at high temperatures). The gas can also be produced using solar and wind power.

A number of car companies have worked on fuel cell vehicles over the years, starting with GM's Electrovan Fuel Cell vehicle, which debuted in 1966, and continuing to the present day with cars like the Mercedes Benz F-Cell Roadster and the Kia Borrego FCEV-Fuel Cell. Toyota has concrete plans to produce a $50,000 hydrogen sedan by 2015, and GM hopes to get a hydrogen-powered vehicle on the road by the same year. While Ford originally planned to cancel its fuel cell program in 2008, the company's test fleet proved so robust that the company extended the program through 2011 (26 out of 30 original cars produced in 2005 are still running). The company acknowledges, however, that large-scale commercialization is at least a decade away.

But even if every major automaker releases a fuel cell model in 2015, the industry can't get going without a fueling infrastructure. Electric vehicles have major players like GE working on building out EV charge spots in major cities and highways around the world. And the U.S. Department of Energy's EV Project will see 15,000 EV charging stations built in 16 cities throughout the United States. Plans for a hydrogen vehicle infrastructure are considerably smaller.

There are projects popping up, to be sure. Germany has a vague plan to develop a countrywide hydrogen fueling network by 2015, the Hawaiian island of Oahu is set to receive 20 to 25 hydrogen stations by the same year, and a company called SunHydro is building a privately funded network of nine hydrogen fueling stations spanning from Maine to Florida. But so far, hydrogen just isn't getting as much funding as EVs.

So why bother at all? Well, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles do have a number of advantages compared to EVs. SunHydro claims, for example, that drivers can fill up on hydrogen in a fueling station in just three minutes. The process is much like filling up a tank of gasoline—drivers simply attach a hydrogen-filled nozzle to the vehicle's fuel receptacle.

EVs, on the other hand, take hours to charge. That makes hydrogen-powered vehicles better suited to long distance trips where drivers don't have time to stop for long periods of time (Better Place gets around the issue by offering "switch stations" where EV drivers can quickly swap out batteries). Fuel cell vehicles also don't strain the power grid like EVs, which can potentially overload utilities if they aren't prepared to meet the increased demand for electricity.

Still, it will be surprising if hydrogen fuel cell vehicles take off in the coming years. There just isn't enough moneyor timeto build out fueling infrastructures for both hydrogen and EVs before petroleum supplies become even more depleted. And at the moment, most of the auto industry's efforts are aimed squarely at EVs.

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