Hydrogen-powered cars are coming

The hydrogen electric engine of an Opel car during a presentation by the French industrial gas group Air Liquide of Hydrogen electric cars in Marcoussis, near Paris on Oct. 4, 2011. It might be a while before hydrogen cars hit U.S. roads.

Kai Ryssdal: With the nationwide average for a gallon of regular gas at $3.829 this week, we're pleased to be able to tell you this: A number of car companies are soon going to be making cars that run on hydrogen. The hydrogen powers fuel cells that generate electricity without pollution.

The bad news is you're not going to see them on the roads any time soon. From Washington, Sabri Ben-Achour explains.

Sabri Ben Achour: In 2009, American Hydrogen died.

Steven Chu: This was a tough call. Hydrogen for vehicles is not near-term.

That's Energy Secretary Steven Chu three years ago explaining to senators why the Obama administration had decided not to place its bets -- and taxpayers' money -- on hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Chu: There are real issues. The most problematic, in my opinion, is we still have not figured out how to store hydrogen in a compact form. The other is the infrastructure: We would have to create a totally new infrastructure for hydrogen vehicles to be fueled.

That didn't stop foreign car companies including Toyota, Daimler and Honda from pushing ahead. Hydrogen cars are coming.

Craig Scott: Certainly the goal is to commercialize the vehicle in a big way.

That's Craig Scott, manager of advanced technologies at Toyota. Toyota has already developed tanks to store hydrogen in a compact form. He says its car will be three times more efficient than a Prius. It'll debut in 2015 at an estimated starting price of $50,000 that he says will drop sharply after that.

Scott: The plan is to roll them out into select markets that have infrastructure that can support the car.

That is basically code for Germany and Japan, where hundreds of hydrogen fueling stations will be built in the next few years.

That's not happening in the U.S. Joe Romm is author of the book "The Hype About Hydrogen."

Joe Romm: I just don't see anyone who has the money.

It'd cost at least tens of billions of dollars. In other countries, the government has subsidized this process, but not in the U.S. But Romm says there's another reason not to push hydrogen here -- it's not that much cleaner.

Romm: The overwhelming supply of hydrogen in this country is made from natural gas. It releases greenhouse gases when you convert it to hydrogen.

Technology may resolve that problem in the long-term, but emissions aren't actually the point right now, says Alan Crane. He's a senior scientist with the National Research Council.

Alan Crane: The big advantage of the fuel cell is that it's much easier to get an equivalent vehicle to what people have now functionally. It's easy to get several hundred miles range. You could refuel very rapidly.

So really what'll usher in the age of hydrogen will be consumer convenience -- for consumers in Germany and Japan. In the U.S., we're going to have to wait a while.

I'm Sabri Ben-Achour for Marketplace

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.
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Maybe Apple could invest some of its spare hundred billion dollars into alternative fuels.

Sure would be nice if reporters would learn to treat press releases with some skepticism and ask relevant questions. For example, Craig Scott, from Toyota, says that their hydrogen-powered car "will be three times more efficient than a Prius." What does that mean? How is "efficient" defined? Is this plausible? Does this include the energy required to make the hydrogen? Questions not asked and therefore not answered.

Hydrogen could solve the problem with wind energy which is the intermittent nature of wind. Wind energy creates electricity which can be directly transformed into hydrogen. While most of the hydrogen made today is made from natural gas, wind and solar energy are coming on strong. Why not use hydrogen as a kind of battery that is light, not heavy like most batteries, as a way to store renewable power? Hydrogen combustion in fuel cell cars creates only water vapor as exhaust. This is the right path to a sustainable future for automobiles. In my view, Steven Chu made the wrong call. Japan and Germany, not to mention Iceland, are all on the right track.

Hopefully, the U.S. will wait forever. Hydrogen is a dramatic, silly mistake. Everything that's possible with hydrogen is easier with methanol. Gas tanks are smaller, and lighter, because it's a liquid at normal temperatures and pressures. It has a higher energy density than hydrogen. Existing flex-fuel cars can already burn it, that is, there's no technology barrier at all. Methanol fuel cells are well-developed. Adding a turbocharger, and the right engine control software even makes internal combustion cars able to use the very high octane efficiently (the flex-fueled engine becomes a "variable compression" engine). Best of all, there's very little or no infrastructure impact: Conventional gas stations can already sell it. If you care about greenhouse gases, make it from biomass; unlike ethanol, methanol, otherwise known as "wood alcohol" can already be easily and quickly made from cellulose and other organic wastes.

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