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A Toyota hydrogen fuel-cell semi-truck parks next to a Toyota Mirai, one of three FCVs coming to Canada this year.STEPHEN LAM/Reuters

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These days, all the talk of the future of transportation seems to centre around battery-powered electric cars (BEV). But this year, Canada is going to be introduced to a new form of clean transport in the form of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (FCV). Three automakers will offer this new technology in their dealerships – though, just as in the early days of electric cars, don’t expect to see a lot of them on the road for now.

Here’s a primer of what fuel-cell vehicles are and what to expect in the near future.

Read more: The trouble with electric vehicles – winter

Review: Is a hydrogen-powered car the next big thing?

Opinion: Will the vehicles of the future be powered by electricity or hydrogen?

How it works: the technology

You’d be forgiven for thinking fuel cells are new, but they were actually invented in 1838, and used in NASA’s Gemini space missions in the 1960s.

Basically, a fuel cell is a device that generates its own electricity through a chemical process, using hydrogen from a sturdy tank in the car and oxygen from the air passing over anode and cathode plates, respectively. That same chemical reaction also results in the production of a small amount of heat and water – its only “tailpipe” emission.

The direct-current electricity is transformed to alternating current and sent to a small battery – basically used as a buffer just to help with acceleration. The battery sends the power to the electric motor that powers the wheels.

What’s coming: the cars

The Honda Clarity was the first FCV to be leased in 2008, but only in California, Japan and Europe. This year, the new Clarity, along with the Toyota Mirai and the Hyundai Nexo, will be in showrooms for purchase; the Mirai is already available in California for around US$57,000 – prices for all three cars have not been announced for Canada, but they will most certainly come in at higher costs than comparatively sized conventional cars. General Motors is co-operating with Honda on the technology and also has an FCV in the works, but it won’t be ready until at least 2023. At present, Honda has no plans to bring the Clarity fuel-cell to Canada.

On the road: how they drive

At its core, an FCV is basically an electric car, so you can expect the same instant torque and quiet performance as you would find in a Nissan Leaf or Chevrolet Volt. But because the hydrogen tanks can be hundreds of kilograms lighter than a BEV’s battery pack offering comparable power storage, the FCVs should feel better in the curves.

The biggest difference, though, is range: of today’s electric cars, only the Tesla Model S 100D, with its massive battery, can get more than 500 kilometres, but FCVs are getting more on a single tank of hydrogen (the Hyundai Nexo gets 600 km, the Honda Clarity goes 589 km and the Toyota Mirai gets a little more than 500 km).

How they compare: FCV vs. BEV vs. ICE

There are pluses and minuses to every sort of vehicle here; a BEV is the most efficient when you consider the “well-to-wheel” scenario, as its power goes from the electricity source to battery to wheel. An FCV has to have hydrogen produced, transported, stored in tanks at up to 10,000 psi, fuelled to the car and converted to electricity, which then goes to the wheel. A gasoline-powered internal-combustion engine (ICE) car is even worse, however, with oil being drilled, transported, refined, transported again and fuelled to the car, where it then produces toxic emissions when burned. But a BEV can take hours to recharge, where both an FCV and ICE take around three to five minutes to refuel. And let’s not forget the limited range of BEVs compared with the other two.

Another variable is fuel cost: according to Natural Resources Canada, the cost of running a BEV is two to three cents a kilometre (at 13 cents a kilowatt), while an ICE vehicle runs around seven to eight cents a kilometre (with gas at $1 a litre). And while the government does not yet have official statistics for fuel-cell cars, Daryl Wilson, president and chief executive of Hydrogenics in Mississauga, says the running cost of an FCV will be similar to a gas-powered car.

What’s holding them back: infrastructure

There’s a hydrogen filling station in Quebec City, one in Vancouver, others opening up in Montreal and Mississauga – and that’s about it, at least for now. Toyota and Honda are teaming up with various companies in Canada to jump-start the infrastructure, and in the short term are focusing on fleets; the Quebec City station, for example, is to go along with 40 Toyota Mirai cars the Quebec government has on test. Hydrogenics is opening a fill station at its own headquarters and has plans for more across Canada.

One way to make hydrogen is through electrolysis, using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Because of that, hydrogen production makes sense here in Canada: Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia have an overabundance of hydroelectricity, which on off-peak hours is currently either purged from the system or sold to the United States for cut-rate prices. That excess electricity can be instead converted to hydrogen, stored and transported. Also, many hydrogen filling stations have an “electrolyzer” on site that can produce the gas on the spot, negating the need for transportation.

Better, worse or just different?

It’s difficult to say if hydrogen-vehicle sales will overtake those of BEVs, but maybe they don’t have to. For example, while Toyota has been developing its fuel-cell technology for years, it certainly hasn’t given up on hybrids and plug-in hybrids. “Toyota has said for a long time that electrification is a spectrum of technologies, that runs from hybrid to plug-in hybrid, to BEV and fuel cells, and potentially other things,” says Stephen Beatty, vice-president of Toyota Canada. “All about using an electrified powertrain to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions from transportation. All of those technologies are complementary to each other, they’re not in competition. They’re technologies to a greater or lesser degree for specific types of use cases.”

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