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Hydrogen fuel cells versus battery-power: Which will reign supreme?

This column has been full of news about the historic arrival of battery-powered electric cars, but a lengthy conversation with Dr. Thomas Weber, head of R&D for Mercedes-Benz, has me once again thinking about hydrogen as the ultimate alternative to fossil fuels.

"There are serious limitations to the driving range you can ever expect from batteries. The hydrogen fuel cell provides zero-emission driving over long distances with short refuelling times," said Weber. He believes fuel cells are the answer to electro-mobility both for passenger cars and heavy trucks. Weber's opinion counts as he is a member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and head of Group Research & Mercedes-Benz Cars Development. "There is a role for battery-powered vehicles, but the opportunities for fuel cells are much greater," said Weber.

I'm sure everyone remembers former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger running around promising the "Hydrogen Highway" for his state several years ago. His grand plan never happened, nor did Ballard Power's plan to have a hydrogen fuel cell car in every driveway. The hype went away but the science moved forward. Fuel cell systems have become more efficient, less expensive and more reliable. I've written about my experience driving a section of the round-the-world trip successfully made by three Mercedes F Cell cars.

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While the U.S. government is throwing big incentives at the development of battery-powered cars, the German government is playing a different card. Seven hundred million euros of funding has been made to support the development and implementation of German fuel cell technology. Last month, the German federal government announced a further €200-million for research in hydrogen storage technologies while claiming that Germany has more than 300 companies and 65 research institutes specializing in fuel cell technology.

The missing link has been the availability of hydrogen. That's changing, too. Daimler and the Linde Group recently announced joint development of infrastructure for fuel cell vehicles. Subsidized by the federal government, the plan is to open another 20 hydrogen filling stations strategically placed across Germany. Given that the range of fuel cell cars on a three-minute hydrogen fill up is nearly 400 kilometres, this will enable "emission-free" driving anywhere in the country. They want 1,000 hydrogen stations in 10 years. Meanwhile, in Hawaii there's a plan, partially backed by General Motors, to build 25 hydrogen stations on Oahu by 2016.

Germany has put together the Clean Energy Partnership (CEP) which combines BMW, Daimler, and Volkswagen with Toyota, Honda, GM and Ford along with companies involved in hydrogen production. "Germany's economy is booming and the fuel cell industry is on the verge of a major breakthrough," said Dr. Juergen Friedrich, Chief Executive of Germany Trade and Invest in Berlin.

There's a Canadian connection in all this. Daimler will source fuel cells produced in Canada for its planned hydrogen fleet. When Ballard Power hit the wall it spun off the transportation applications of its fuel cell technology to concentrate on stationary applications. The transportation work went to a joint venture with Daimler, Ford and Ballard Power called the Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation (AFCC).

Daimler is now building its own factory in Burnaby, B.C. to use the shared AFCC technology to build fuel cell stacks for the commercial launch of F Cell vehicles in 2015. Ballard is about to drop out of the AFCC and Ford rarely mentions fuel cells in its public discussions of electrification. We'll see who stays and who goes shortly.

Thomas Weber convinced me that Daimler is deadly serious about exploiting the long term advantages of fuel cells over batteries. It would appear that the German government totally agrees. There's never a dull moment in the technology battle that's raging in the global automotive industry.

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