How green can the auto industry get? Well, that's hard to say at present, but most of the major players in the industry are hard at work developing green-minded technologies that are designed to 1) Clean up the environment by reducing carbon emissions, and 2) Decrease America's dependence on foreign oil.

One of the more intriguing green efforts is fuel-cell technology, and several automakers already have small numbers of fuel-cell-powered vehicles on the road in order to glean driver feedback -- and to see how they operate in longer-term, real-world driving conditions.

A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that combines hydrogen ions with oxygen ions in a controlled manner to generate electrical power. It produces electricity by separating the fuel (generally hydrogen gas) via a catalyst. When pure hydrogen and oxygen are supplied to the fuel cell, it produces electrical energy.

One benefit of the fuel cell is that it can operate at efficiencies two to three times that of the internal combustion engine, according to the Society of Automotive Engineers. Plus, it requires no moving parts. Since it converts hydrogen and oxygen directly to electrical energy, the only by-products are heat and water. And because combustion does not occur, fuel cells are virtually pollution-free, engineers say. While hydrogen is most frequently used to power a fuel cell, some companies are also in the early stages of developing a type of fuel cell that operates using methanol and oxygen.

At present, fuel-cell-powered vehicles are not in mass production, because while much progress has been made, there are still some hurdles that need to be cleared before they can be produced on a wider basis.

To address some of those hurdles, Daimler AG and Ford Motor Co recently announced a new joint venture, Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation, that will focus on developing fuel cell technology. With a share of 50.1 percent, Daimler AG will be the majority stakeholder, while Ford will hold a 30-percent stake and Ballard Power Systems will control the remaining of 19.9 percent.

General Motors currently has 100 fuel-cell-operated vehicles on the road, as part of its "Project Driveway" program launched in October. The program put Chevy Equinox crossover vehicles in the hands of 100 drivers in Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, D.C. GM is touting the program as the first large-scale market test of fuel cell electric vehicles anywhere.

First Drive: Hydrogen Powered Chevy Equinox

First Drive: Honda FCX Clarity

The drivers will have free use of the Equinox fleet and the hydrogen fuel it needs to produce the electricity onboard. The average family will get one of the vehicles for three months and be required to report their experience to Chevrolet.

"We're looking forward to the feedback from these folks," said Dan O'Connell, GM's Director of Global Fuel Cell Service, Support and Infrastructure.

"These vehicles have all been certified as perfectly safe -- they've all been crash-tested and had the tank tested for safety. I would put my own kids in the back seat on top of tank."

"After the three months in those cities, we hope to branch out and get some momentum going in terms of building up more of an infrastructure, so that we get closer to making them more available on a broader basis.”

Ford has a similar program. Presently, 30 hydrogen-powered Focus economy cars are being driven by regular folks in seven cities, including four U.S. cities -- Orlando, Fla., Sacramento, Cal., and Ann Arbor and Taylor, both in Michigan. The fleet has accumulated more than 700,000 miles so far. Like GM's program, this effort is generating information that is reported back to the company's fuel-cell engineers -- information that's being integrated into the company's future fuel-cell efforts.

"We're really pleased with the feedback we've been getting n terms of the system's durability," said Matt Zuehlk, Ford’s Test Engineer For Hybrid and Fuel Cell Vehicle Development.

One infrastructure item that needs to be addressed to make the fuel-cell technology more viable on a mass basis is the conversion of service stations so they can deliver the hydrogen fuel.

"We presently have about 170,000 filling stations in America, and we need to get about 12,000 of them converted to be able to deliver the hydrogen, in order for buyers of a fuel cell vehicle to be able to go coast to coast," said O'Connell. "If we could start by converting 10 each in Los Angeles, New York City and Washington D.C., and then move up to 40 stations in each of those places by 2010, we'd have an infrastructure in place. Then we'd want to move into the top 100 cities, and convert one every few miles in those cities -- and eventually, get one converted every 25 miles, along the highway, connecting those cities.

"The industry also needs to work on getting the cost down, and work on longer-term durability and get it light enough to fit under the hood of various vehicles," said O'Connell. "Look at the internal combustion engine -- it's been in development, and in production, for more than 100 years, and everything in that engine is very inexpensive, and you see it in a number of applications, from cars to lawnmowers to weed-whackers. We still need to clear some of the hurdles to high-volume production, but as we gradually produce more and more of them, we'll get there."

Ford's Zuehlk also cites the cost issue. "It's essentially the cost of the fuel cell hardware itself," said Zuehlk. "This is still a specialized business, where engineering and production costs of components are at a premium. Within the fuel cell stacks specifically, there is a catalyst that helps the electro-chemical reaction take place, and the catalyst is platinum -- which is expensive. We need to further reduce the amount of platinum needed to produce the necessary reaction, or find a more cost-effective catalyst.

"And since the fuel-cell systems aren't in mass production yet, we don't have the economies of scale that you have with gas engines, where some of the components are 2 or 3 cents each. Greater volumes will lead to the most significant cost reduction."

In May, a Chevy Sequel became the first electrically-drive fuel-cell vehicle to achieve 300 miles on one tank. The trip took place in New York state, starting at GM's Fuel Cell Activity Center in Honeoye Falls and ending in Tarrytown.

Ford has conducted an even longer-range test drive. In January, a new Ford Edge with HySeries Drive hit the road and accumulated 5,000 miles worth of real-world driving situations. Ford touts the Edge with HySeries Drive as the world’s first drivable fuel cell hybrid electric vehicle with plug-in capability. The HySeries Drive technology is designed to operate using a combination of a fuel cell and a small gasoline or diesel engine connected to an electric generator to produce electricity.

The Ford Edge with HySeries Drive combines an onboard hydrogen fuel cell generator with lithium-ion batteries to deliver a combined city/highway gasoline equivalent fuel economy rating of 41 mpg with zero emissions. For those who drive less than 50 miles each day, the average jumps to more than 80 mpg. It's built on a flexible powertrain architecture that will enable Ford to use new fuel and propulsion technologies as they develop without redesigning the vehicle.

The Ford Edge with HySeries Drive uses a version of the powerplant envisioned in the Ford Airstream concept unveiled last January at the 2007 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Because of aforementioned issues like cost, infrastructure and long-term durability, Ford's Zuehlk thinks that the industry is still several years away from widespread, mass-production use of fuel-cell technology. But of all the green technologies being explored by the automakers, he says, "I still think that this is the technology that's going to win out in the long-run picture. I think hydrogen presents the most plausible long-term path to widespread viability -- both due to the driving range advantages, and the zero-emission benefits."

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