With newly-announced collaboration, will hydrogen fuel cell technology regain its luster?

Adam Morath
It was nearly 10 years ago to the day that the Bush administration announced a major initiative to push the development of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and infrastructure in the U.S. While the green car movement has come a long way since then, fuel-cell technology seems to be stuck in neutral. That could be about to change.

Today Daimler, Ford and Nissan have announced a joint research and development alliance to accelerate the commercialization of fuel cell vehicles across the globe. The three automakers plan to invest equally in the collaboration, which aims to leverage efficiencies and shared knowledge to lower the cost associated with fuel cell technology and speed hydrogen-powered vehicles to the mass market.

Recently, the development of fuel cell vehicles has taken a back seat to other, more cost-effective methods of improving fuel economy. The increase in hybrid, battery-electric and diesel powered vehicles indicated a movement away from hydrogen fuel technologies. Even incremental improvements to the internal combustion engine through existing technologies like direct-injection and turbocharging have allowed automakers to increase mileage without sinking money into the development of expensive new tech.

But with stricter fuel economy standards looming, automakers are now reevaluating what once seemed to be the most promising route to emissions-free driving. After all, hydrogen does happen to be the most abundant chemical element in the Universe.

"Having an alliance with Diamler and Nissan, we hope to accelerate the development of [hydrogen fuel-cell] technology [and] bring it to the customers faster," said Raj Nair, VP of Global Product Development for Ford. The three carmakers hope their alliance yields an affordable, mass-market fuel cell vehicle as early as 2017.

Like battery-electric cars, fuel cell vehicles are powered by electricity. But instead of sourcing their power from a wall socket, hydrogen-powered vehicles generate energy via an electro-chemical reaction in an onboard fuel-cell stack. Refueling is similar to a traditional gas vehicle: compressed hydrogen is pumped directly into a high-pressure tank onboard the vehicle (assuming you can find a station that serves hydrogen).

The best part: water vapor and heat are the only byproducts of driving a hydrogen fuel-cell car. Well, that and the positive vibes you'll get from saving the planet.

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