It's amusing to reduce the development of next-generation electric- or hydrogen-powered cars to a binary paper-versus-plastic decision, but the companies making these cars and the infrastructure to support them are hoping there will be room for both. Hydrogen cars, in particular, have had a bumpy road thus far—the Obama administration has been at odds with Congress over whether to fund hydrogen fuel-cell research. Meanwhile, the first commercial models are not expected to hit the road until 2015, a few years after their hybrid and all-electric counterparts.
To help steer hydrogen back into the spotlight, carmaker Daimler, AG, teamed with the German government Wednesday at a press conference hosted in Washington, D.C., by the National Hydrogen Association* to present their case for the continued development of hydrogen fuel cell cars and the infrastructure to support them.
Public perception of late seems to be that battery-powered vehicles will be the key players in displacing gasoline-dependent internal combustion engines, "but we believe that hydrogen will also play a role, and that the two technologies are complementary," Klaus Bonhoff, managing director of Germany's National Organization Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Technology (NOW), said during the event, which Daimler sponsored. The German federal government created NOW, which is largely funded by private sector businesses, to manage hydrogen and other fuel-cell technologies developed by the German National Innovation Program (NIP). "In the public discussion people tend to say that industry is not interested in hydrogen, but it's the opposite. Activities are actually increasing," Bonhoff said.
NOW sees hydrogen cars as a key element in the German government's plans to reduce the nation's carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2050. One significant step along the way will be for Germans to be driving vehicles that produce no more than 60 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer by 2030, Bonhoff said, adding that hydrogen-powered cars have the potential to emit as little as 40 grams of CO2 per kilometer. He noted that even highly optimized internal combustion engines are not likely to emit less than 110 grams of CO2 per kilometer.
The hydrogen could come from a number of sources, including renewable energy such as a wind-to-hydrogen system and biofuels. "Hydrogen is a commodity in some industries," Bonhoff said. "We need to figure out how to make it available to the transportation industry."
One of the primary difficulties of introducing to the market an alternative to gas-powered cars—whether powered by a battery or fuel cell—is building up the number of new cars on the road while building out a new fueling infrastructure. Hydrogen supplies could be trucked in initially, but eventually pipelines carrying the fuel to filling stations would be required, Bonhoff said.
Perhaps the main impediment to success is breaking out of the chicken-and-egg cycle: Providers of the hydrogen infrastructure want assurances that there will be a lot of hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road, but carmakers cannot sell the cars without having the infrastructure in place. From Daimler's perspective, "the fueling infrastructure has not become real to the extent that we have wanted," Ron Grasman, Daimler's manager of fuel-cell vehicles, said at the event. Still, he added that the German government's stimulus plan is expected to fund new hydrogen filling stations to complement the four already located within the country.