Germany will become the first country completely accessible to fuel cell vehicles in 2015, when carmaker Daimler and the Linde technology group will build 20 new hydrogen filling stations. The result will quadruple the number of public stations available and make it possible for a fuel cell vehicle to reach any location in the country.

Daimler's plans to start mass-producing fuel cell vehicles next year were severely limited by the lack of public hydrogen filling stations in Germany. The carmaker realized that if its vision of battery-powered electric vehicles gaining mass appeal in tandem with fuel cell electrics was to come true, it needed to so something about the lack of hydrogen infrastructure.

Installation of the hydrogen refueling pumps will begin next year at existing gas stations currently operated by various oil companies. Daimler and Linde said their investment would be "in the tens of millions of euros," declining to be more specific. They said they were open to teaming up with other potential partners in the fuel, energy and automotive industry.

"The time is ripe for electric vehicles powered by fuel cells, and we must now address the subject of the relevant infrastructure," said Dieter Zetsche, Daimler's chairman and the director of its Mercedes-Benz Cars unit. "Car drivers can only benefit from the advantages of technology if there are enough hydrogen filling stations available: long ranges, short refueling times and no local emissions."

Fuel cell vehicles are essentially a different kind of electric car. Fuel cells generate electricity in a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, which yields only pure water vapor. In a battery electric, the electricity is already stored in the battery. In both cases, the electricity powers the vehicle's engine.

Of the 30 hydrogen filling stations operating now in Germany, only seven are available to the public. According to Daimler, you would need at least five to 10 filling stations to supply a major city. While building 20 new stations over three years won't accomplish that, it will allow the connection of major cities like Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart and Munich with hydrogen filling stations along main traffic routes.

This will make it possible for a fuel cell vehicle to reach any distant corner of Germany without fear of running out of hydrogen before finding another refueling station. It is as close as it gets, for now, to a comprehensive network of hydrogen filling stations and will mean that Germany will have the most advanced hydrogen infrastructure in the world.

Not waiting for government support
"It's not clear yet if the government will support this, but we'll build the hydrogen refueling network anyway," said Matthias Brock, communications manager for Daimler's research and development department.

Daimler and Linde's network is not subsidized by the government, but it builds on some programs that are. There is the H2-Mobility project -- which works to slowly increase the number of hydrogen filling stations. There is also the Clean Energy Partnership -- which tests the system compatibility of hydrogen in everyday use. It also tests hydrogen's clean and sustainable production, transportation and storage. The programs are supported by Germany's National Innovation Program for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology.

There are less than 100 publicly available hydrogen refueling stations worldwide. Government funding is less than $1 billion globally, with successors to completed programs in Japan, Korea and Germany not yet announced. The U.S. Department of Energy has also cut its research and development spending in this area.

"The development of electrical mobility will be largely characterized by the hydrogen fuel-cell," Wolfgang Reitzle, Linde's chairman, said in a statement. "We are delighted to be able to shape this development in cooperation with Daimler. We see ourselves as a forerunner in the field, and aim to promote the market maturity of hydrogen-powered vehicles."

The aim now for Daimler and its allies is to ensure that the number of fuel-cell powered vehicles running on generatively produced hydrogen is constantly increasing, demonstrating the market maturity of the fuel cell solution.

"We are building 200 cars for Germany, Norway and the United States this year," Brock said.

Seventy of those will be Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL vehicles going to California. Daimler began manufacturing a small series of this model in late 2009, then quickly decided to make it the first fuel cell passenger car it would mass-produce. It has an operating range of about 250 miles and a 700-bar hydrogen tank, and its electric motor develops an output of 100 kilowatts with a torque of 290 newton meters. The engine's power is similar to that of a 2-liter gasoline engine, and the car has a top speed of 106 mph.

For about $100,000, you get silence and power
"The difference is the silence while you drive; you hear almost nothing from the engine," Brock said. "It also has very powerful acceleration because you have high torque from the beginning. It's very fun driving it."

Daimler won't reveal exactly how much the B-Class F-CELL costs, but industry analysts generally say a fuel cell car costs about $100,000 today. The cars are currently leased by manufacturers at a loss to build public awareness of the technology and to test performance. By 2015, carmakers hope to be able to reduce costs to about $50,000 per vehicle.

The most aggressive is Hyundai, which plans to build 1,000 fuel cell cars already next year and 10,000 per year by 2015. Toyota, Nissan and General Motors have also said they aim to have fuel cell cars for sale to the general public by 2015.

The main technical obstacles to the fuel cell technology used to be range, longevity of the fuel cell and operation at cold temperatures. Fuel cell cars can now start at temperatures below minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit, as experiments in Iceland and Norway and during the Vancouver Winter Olympics have shown. The range before refueling has become acceptable, as well, after manufacturers switched to high-pressure 700-bar tanks. But there's still room to improve the lifetime of the fuel cell.

Daimler also makes a fuel cell city bus, the Mercedes-Benz Citaro. It has a hybrid system with fuel cell, electric motor and lithium-ion batteries. It stores 77 pounds of hydrogen in seven cylinders on the roof, which give it a range of 125 miles. The water-cooled lithium-ion batteries have a capacity of 27 kWh, which is sufficient to power the electric motors at a constant 120 kW, or 163 horsepower. The bus emits no pollutants and is almost completely silent, with a top speed of 65 mph.

The 4-minute refueling
Three Citaros operated successfully every day for three years in punishing weather conditions on the streets of Iceland's capital, Reykjavik, before the financial crisis and the collapse of the country's biggest banks postponed Iceland's dreams of becoming the world's first hydrogen-powered economy.

Now Iceland says it is more likely that its future vehicle fleet will combine fuel cell vehicles with battery-powered electrics, which suits Daimler just fine.

"We think we will have a mix of vehicles in the future with various powertrain options," Brock said. "That's why we are concentrating on building high-technology combustion engine cars, hybrid cars, as well as electric cars powered either by batteries or fuel cells. The battery-powered cars are good for short trips and city driving. The fuel cell electric cars are better for longer ranges and have shorter refueling times. You can fill a hydrogen tank in three or four minutes."

Fuel cell vehicles have been overshadowed recently by battery electric vehicles. Models like the Tesla Roadster, Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt have been launched with great fanfare. Innovative companies like Better Place and Nuvve are testing speedy battery replacement systems and ways to sell power from battery electrics back to the grid, respectively.

Daimler is also active in the battery electric arena. It has 1,500 Smart electric cars on the road now. Next month, it will roll out a new version of the Smart Fortwo. The newer version has more power and a longer range. Daimler plans to boost production to 10,000 Smart electrics. "We'll build a number of battery-powered cars in the five-digit range every year," Brock explained.

Infrastructure limitations may prevent manufacturers at first from rolling out fuel cell cars on the same wide scale as electric vehicles, but they will be on the streets in increasing numbers by 2015. They will tend to be larger and more high-end than the electrics, and they will have a bigger range, while battery electrics may be mainly city cars, Brock added.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500