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An alternative energy facility that converts solar and wind energy into hydrogen for fuelling special hydro-cell vehicles is seen at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam in Honolulu, Hawaii July 19, 2012. (HUGH GENTRY/REUTERS)
An alternative energy facility that converts solar and wind energy into hydrogen for fuelling special hydro-cell vehicles is seen at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam in Honolulu, Hawaii July 19, 2012. (HUGH GENTRY/REUTERS)

Driving It Home

The race is on to put fuel cell cars in showrooms Add to ...

So, is the touted fuel cell revolution real or just hype?

Here’s what we know. Mercedes-Benz has a timetable for selling a limited number of B-Class wagons powered by hydrogen fuel cells, notes Automotive News. The first ones will go on sale in a few markets in 2014, followed by a larger hydrogen-powered vehicle one or two years later. Honda Motor, Toyota Motor and Hyundai Motor are also aiming to sell new fuel cell vehicles as soon as 2015, adds the industry publication.

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As I have written, however, the enduring challenge for fuel cell developers is to cut costs, and the fuel cell stack is the biggest and most obvious place to do so. Klaus Berger, who runs Mercedes’ fuel cell operation in Burnaby, B.C., says his engineers are leaving no stone unturned in their efforts to cut costs.

They are looking to shrink the fuel cell stack if possible, refine the hydrogen recirculation system and shrink the volume of platinum used as the catalyst in the critical proton exchange membrane that separates the protons from the electrons that provide the electricity for a fuel cell-powered vehicle.

Interestingly, Daimler is not working alone. Daimler, Ford Motor, and Nissan Motor recently signed three-way agreement for the joint development of a common fuel cell system, for instance. The “collaboration is expected to lead to launch of world’s first affordable, mass-market fuel cell electric vehicles as early as 2017,” the companies said in a joint release.

The announcement is also a “clear signal to suppliers, policymakers and the industry to encourage the further development of hydrogen infrastructure worldwide,” they added.

“Fuel cell electric vehicles are the obvious next step to complement today’s battery electric vehicles as our industry embraces more sustainable transportation,” said Mitsuhiko Yamashita, who heads research and development at Nissan.

Meanwhile, BMW and Toyota have struck a deal to develop jointly “sustainable future technologies” such as fuel cells, electric powertrains and lightweight materials,” said BMW CEO Norbert Reithofer in a statement last year.

So what could go wrong in the race to put fuel cell cars in showrooms? Cost aside, the major hurdle is the near-total lack of a fuelling infrastructure. Fuel cell drivers obviously need to fill up and the most likely form of hydrogen will come in ultra-cold liquid form that requires special tanks and special filling equipment.

So it seems obvious that governments must get involved in driving forward not just a hydrogen highway lined with hydrogen filling stations, but a full network of stations devoted to servicing fuel cell vehicles. Who believes that will happen in the next 10, 20 or 30 years? Do you? And there’s the rub.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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