George W. Bush vs. Elon Musk

Who was right about the future of hydrogen cars?

Honda FCX Clarity

The Honda FCX Clarity is a hydrogen fuel-cell car. Remember those?

Courtesy American Honda Motor Co., Inc.

Look back a decade, and hydrogen was the fuel of the future, and a not-too-distant one at that. “Hydrogen fuel cells represent one of the most encouraging, innovative technologies of our era,” President Bush said in a 2003 speech announcing a $1.2 billion initiative aimed at making hydrogen fuel a competitive energy source.

Almost anyone who has switched to a vehicle running on something other than gasoline or diesel since then, though, has bought a hybrid or electric car. Hydrogen hasn’t been an option, and it’s dropped off the radar for many of us.

But hydrogen cars didn’t really go away, and they are finally starting to hit the road. Honda already leases a limited number of the hydrogen-powered Clarity (price: $600 per month), and the company has teamed with GM to further develop hydrogen technology. Earlier this year, Toyota announced that it will begin selling a $50,000 hydrogen fuel-cell-powered car in 2015. Hyundai, Ford, Daimler, and Renault-Nissan are all investing in the technology.

In hydrogen cars, the hydrogen isn’t so much a fuel as an energy-storage device. It’s comparable to batteries that store energy in electric cars, but hydrogen wins out over batteries in a few key areas. Hydrogen fuel-cell cars are more efficient than electric vehicles, in part because they’re a lot lighter. The batteries in an electric car add about 1,000 pounds. Moving all that weight requires more energy. Also, electric batteries lose a little bit of energy when they’re not being used, and they take a long time to recharge. Hydrogen doesn’t have the waste problem, and refueling takes just minutes.

Still, the public isn’t clamoring for hydrogen fuel-cell cars. The development of these vehicles has been driven in large part by California’s zero-emissions mandate. To meet the mandate, car companies will need to sell about 1.4 million new vehicles that are powered by electric batteries or hydrogen fuel cells in California in the 2025 model year. If other states follow California’s lead, manufacturers will need to produce an additional 600,000 zero-emissions vehicles.

Electric vehicles already on the market, such as the Tesla Model S and the Nissan Leaf, have been a hard sell. They are expensive, run out of juice quicker than a gasoline car, have a more limited range, and take a long time to recharge. Plus, finding a place to charge up—by plugging into an electrical outlet—can be difficult, and it can be nearly impossible for city dwellers who park on the street.

For many people, hydrogen fuel cells might be a better option than electric batteries. To convert the hydrogen to energy, a device called a polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell first strips electrons off the hydrogen atoms, creating positively charged hydrogen ions. Those ions combine with oxygen from the air to form water as a waste product. The electrons provide the energy that drives the car’s electric motor.

One of the major selling points for hydrogen technology has been that it produces no pollutants, just water. There’s no soot to create smog, no hydrocarbons or nitrogen oxides that would combine to form ozone, no poisonous carbon monoxide and, best of all, no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. Electric cars can also be green, but only when the electricity that runs them comes from sources like wind and solar. With much of the nation’s energy still coming from coal and natural gas, hydrogen could be the greener fuel. Plus, as the technology’s supporters are quick to point out, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe.

The problem with this last point, though, is that none of that hydrogen is easy to get. It’s tucked away in the molecules that make up living things, in fossil fuels and in water, and it’s fusing into helium in the cores of stars. It’s possible to split water into its components, hydrogen and oxygen, but the process is energy intensive. Because of this, only a small fraction of current hydrogen supplies comes from water. About 95 percent comes from fossil fuels, mostly natural gas, and this is not a green process. In addition to the environmental toll of natural-gas extraction, pulling the hydrogen out of hydrocarbons creates carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

Toyota FCV-R
The Toyota FCV-R looks cool, but is its hydrogen safe?

Courtesy Toyota Motor Corporation

Safety is another issue that frequently comes up in discussions of the hydrogen future. Hydrogen is a flammable gas—the gas that filled the Hindenburg. But exactly why the zeppelin met its fiery end in 1937 has never been determined, despite the fire being caught on film. There seems to be a new explanation every year. One recent experiment, for example, blames static buildup from an electrical storm for sparking a tiny hydrogen leak. But others have shown that the coating on the zeppelin was a bigger contributor to the disaster.*

In the past half century, hydrogen as a fuel source has undergone a lot of safety testing: Large quantities of the fuel have been spilled, on purpose, and set on fire. Hydrogen tanks have been filled and emptied over and over, undergone extremes of temperature both high and low, dropped from heights, dumped into bonfires and shot with armor-piercing incendiary rounds. Officials have concluded that hydrogen is no worse than any other flammable fuel. (There’s a slight worry about hydrogen leaking and building up in a well-sealed garage. But for now, at least, hydrogen cars are being targeted mainly at warm places like California and Hawaii, where garages aren’t as tightly sealed against the cold.)

In the past 10 years, engineers and designers have made many improvements to their hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. The cars now have a range of 300 miles, better than electric cars. Fuel cells no longer contain as much platinum, which has allowed the cost of the vehicles to drop precipitously. The fuel cells are more efficient and smaller, leaving more space in a car for passengers and all their stuff.

But one of the biggest hurdles to a hydrogen future is that there’s very little infrastructure for distributing hydrogen. Supply lines have to be built. There are only 10 public hydrogen filling stations in the entire country (53 if you include private stations), and nearly all of them are in Southern California. Why would anyone buy a car they can’t fill up? But if no one has hydrogen cars, there’s little incentive for building the necessary infrastructure. California is funding the creation of a few more stations, but building the stations and supply lines across the country would require billions of dollars. The federal government, faced with pressure to pinch pennies and headed by an administration that isn’t as much a fan of hydrogen as the previous one, is unlikely to pony up the funds. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem that doesn’t have a solution yet.

Fuel cells have their detractors. Elon Musk, head of electric-car maker Tesla, not surprisingly calls hydrogen cars “stupid” and says they should be renamed “fool cells.” Another car company CEO, Martin Winterkorn of Volkswagen, says that now is not the time for hydrogen. “I do not see the infrastructure for fuel cell vehicles, and I do not see how hydrogen can be produced on large scale at reasonable cost,” Winterkorn said through a translator at a press conference earlier this year. “I do not currently see a situation where we can offer fuel cell vehicles at a reasonable cost that consumers would also be willing to pay.”

Winterkorn’s remarks get to the last hurdle for hydrogen success: price. If car manufacturers can make hydrogen vehicles that are cheaper to buy and run than gasoline-powered cars, then the technology has a chance. At best, though, experts say that hydrogen won’t take off for 10 or 20 years. And if our current strong supply of natural gas goes bust and no one manages to ramp up technologies for getting hydrogen through renewable sources, failure is an option. If a person can’t even slap on a green halo for switching to a new technology, there’s little incentive to bother.

Correction, Aug. 27, 2013: This article originally referred to the Hindenburg as a blimp. The Hindenburg was a zeppelin, which, unlike a blimp, has a rigid frame. (Return.)