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Michael Vaughan in China on the F-CELL World Drive.
Michael Vaughan in China on the F-CELL World Drive.

The Green Highway

Hydrogen technology, two centuries later Add to ...

I found a statement in a recent Daimler publication that was not written by the P.R. department: "The energy of tomorrow will be water that has been split by an electric current. The elements, hydrogen and oxygen, thus recovered from the water will provide the Earth's energy supply for an unforeseeable time to come."

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It was written by Jules Verne in 1874.

Verne, of course, was the pioneer of science-fiction and wrote about air travel, space travel and underwater travel long before such things could be accomplished. Hitting on hydrogen as energy in 1874 seemed like an incredible shot in the dark to me until I learned that the basic electrochemical principle that is the basis of today's fuel cell technology was discovered in 1839 by Sir William Grove. He produced electrical energy by combining hydrogen and oxygen. Verne picked up on the idea 35 years later, more than 100 years before the automotive industry did anything about it.

They're making up for lost time. Mercedes-Benz is promising to have a zero-emissions hydrogen fuel cell car commercially available in the thousands beginning in 2013 which will cost no more than one of its diesel-electric hybrids. To demonstrate that its technology is mature and ready for everyday use in comfortable, safe vehicles - and not just rolling science experiments - Mercedes launched an around-the-world tour of three F-Cell pre-production vehicles. The cars left Stuttgart at the end of January. Last week I drove a section through northern China.

By the time I got in, the fuel cell cars had made it 20,000 kilometres. They drove across Europe, flew to Florida, covered the United States and up to Vancouver, flew to Australia and drove across it, flew to Shanghai drove up to northern China. I joined the parade in Lanzhou - it's a city I'd never heard of but it has a larger population than Toronto. I drove 800 kilometres in total and outside of the cities it was mostly through desert in a part of China had been poverty stricken until the country went capitalist. Now there are highways and high-speed rail lines and jobs for the millions of people who live up here. However, where the highways were under construction it was unbelievably rough - but the little cars held up.

Daimler says these F-Cell cars have a range of 400 kilometres before they need to be filled up with hydrogen again. We filled up more often than that. The problem was of course that there are exactly zero hydrogen filling stations out there - or in most other places for that matter. So Daimler had to bring its own filling station around the world with cars. Hydrogen is the most common element on the planet - it's found in both air and water. It's expected that hydrogen will be produced where it's used in future, which is a much better idea than having a huge tanker truck follow you around.

Sure, we've all been oversold on the marvels of hydrogen fuel cell cars that never seem to arrive. The skeptics say they'll never be in your driveway or mine. I disagree. I've driven various iterations of fuel cell vehicles over the years and many had so much weird looking plumbing hanging together that you wondered if it was all going to fall apart before you left the lab. These F-Cells are different. We gave these things a real torture test of hard running and tough conditions. They ran brilliantly and never let us down. We had air conditioning, quiet ride, comfortable seating and full safety systems. We could easily zoom past most anything else on the road because fuel cells produce electricity and the electric motor in the cars has lots of torque for terrific acceleration. Mercedes has built about 200 of the F-Cell cars that we drove. These cars are one full generation before the stuff that will be commercially available in 2013 but it seem like they're ready for prime time now.

The purpose of the trip was to show that fuel cells are a mature technology suitable for everyday use in comfortable, safe vehicles. I came away convinced. I also came away convinced that whatever it is that China is doing - call it capitalism or something else - it's transforming that country in a positive way at a remarkable rate. That's not something you haven't heard before - but maybe China's like a hydrogen fuel cell car - you have to see it to believe it.

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