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Are Hydrogen Cars About to Take Off?

By Katie Spence – Jan 25, 2014 at 10:30AM

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In 2015, all-new fuel cell vehicles will invade America.

Toyota FCV Concept at the 43rd Tokyo Motor Show, 2013. Photo: Toyota Motor.

Over the past few years, battery electric vehicles, or BEVs, such as Tesla Motors' Model S, have gained significant popularity. Unfortunately, they still exhibit a number of problems, including limited range -- although that's not as much of an issue with the Model S -- and long charge times. Consequently, widespread adoption is slow in coming.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, or FCVs, on the other hand, perform much like an internal combustion engine vehicle -- they refill in minutes and get a similar range. However, they, too, have significant barriers to widespread adoption. But these barriers are eroding rapidly, and major auto manufactures including Toyota Motor (TM -1.30%), Honda Motor (HMC -2.34%), and Hyundai Motor (HYMTF 0.53%) are releasing their FCVs, and soon. A hydrogen future may be closer than you think.

Toyota FCV Concept bare chassis. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The allure of hydrogen
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. However, to get it in its pure form on Earth, it must be extracted. Doing so has proved to be inefficient, and costly. But those issues may soon be solved.

In November, Stanford researchers published a study detailing the creation of a silicon-based water splitter that's both low-cost and corrosion-free. Further, the entire process is sustainable and emits no greenhouse gases, according to Stanford News. Even better? John Turner, a renowned hydrogen water-splitting expert and a research fellow at the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, stated about Stanford's discovery, "Producing hydrogen directly from the sun -- and in a way that is commercially viable -- is more a reality, less a pipe dream."

Moreover, Stanford isn't the only one in the water-splitting game. HyperSolar, in conjunction with the University of California at Santa Barbara, is in the process of developing a self-contained photoelectrochemical nanosystem, which produces renewable hydrogen using sunlight and any source of water -- even wastewater. The company already has a working prototype and also said that in the process of creating its nanotechnology, it developed a commercial hydrogen-extraction solution for today's renewable hydrogen market, called the H2Generator.

The first hydrogen fueling station in the U.S. fed directly from an active industrial hydrogen pipeline. The station is a collaborative effort among Toyota, Air Products and Chemicals, Royal Dutch Shell, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, and the Department of Energy. The facility will provide hydrogen for demonstration FCV fleets in the Los Angeles area. Photo: National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

Overcoming the lack of infrastructure
Another large deterrent to FCVs is the current lack of infrastructure, but the H2Generator is a standalone, self-contained solar hydrogen generator that HyperSolar says "is intended to be installed almost anywhere to produce hydrogen fuel for local use." The company continues: "This distributed model of hydrogen production will address one of the greatest challenges of using clean hydrogen fuel on a large scale -- the need to transport hydrogen in large quantities."

But whether the H2Generator takes off or not, the U.S. Department of Energy has already launched a public-private partnership called H2USA that intends to "pave the way for mainstream hydrogen vehicle infrastructure." More importantly, the Energy Department released three new reports showing that the U.S. is "one of the world's largest and fastest-growing markets for fuel cell and hydrogen technologies," and that hydrogen technologies have seen considerable advancements and cost reductions.

Reducing the use of platinum
One of the big drivers of cost for FCVs is the use of platinum in the fuel cell. However, Argonne National Laboratory, in cooperation with the Energy Department, is working on a polymer electrolyte fuel cell, of PEFC, which would replace the platinum cathode with a cheaper catalyst. Argonne states:

Argonne investigators have studied copper, iron, cobalt, and nickel base metals alloyed with the noble metal palladium. Oxygen reduction activities that are 75% of those of commercial platinum catalysts (per gram of platinum-group metal) have been achieved; these results could lead to a 60% reduction in the cost of the cathode electrocatalyst. Argonne scientists are currently determining the durability of these materials in an operating PEFC. 

The reduction of platinum in fuel cells is potentially great news. However, CellEra, an Israeli company, already has developed a platinum-free fuel cell, or PFM, that it recently displayed at an expo at the Fuel Choices Summit in Tel Aviv. According to CellEra, the "heart" of the PFM uses a new, catalyzed solid polymer electrolyte, which makes the fuel cell's chemical environment alkaline -- as apposed to acidic, as in a traditional proton exchange membrane fuel cell. This alkaline environment allows for the use of a low-cost transition-metal-based catalyst, instead of platinum.

A Mercedes-Benz B Class F-Cell car fueling up with with hydrogen at NREL's National Wind Technology Center. Photo: Dennis Schroeder/NREL.

What all this leads to
There's no guarantee that these advancements in fuel cells will make it to commercial production. But they do show that there's a ton of research, and promising technology, coming down the pipeline, and that means hydrogen's future could be about to take off. Moreover, auto giant and hybrid pioneer Toyota, moved up the U.S. launch of its FCV to 2015 -- it was initially slated to launch in 2016. Hyundai and Honda are also planning on releasing their hydrogen vehicles in the U.S. in 2015.

In other words, all three manufacturers believe there's room for hydrogen's success, and soon. Yes, BEVs have a considerable head start on FCVs, but the benefits to FCVs are substantial. Consequently, if you're looking to invest in the future of green technology, you might want to take a look at these three manufacturers that are betting on hydrogen.

Fool contributor Katie Spence and The Motley Fool have no position in any of the stocks mentioned. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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