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Summary:

The dream of the “hydrogen highway” in recent years has morphed into a tech for industrial applications like to power forklifts and fleet vehicles. Pike Research estimates that there will only be 5,200 hydrogen fueling stations throughout the world by 2020.

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The dream of the “hydrogen highway” is roadways lined with hydrogen fueling stations that can fill up cars powered by fuel cells. But in recent years the term has almost morphed into a phrase that indicates a stalled technology. While some politicians still use the term, back in 2009 the Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu decided to cut federal funding for the much-delayed technology.

So whatever happened to the dream deferred? It’s now thoroughly focused on industrial applications like to power forklifts and fleet vehicles. Pike Research estimates that there will only be 5,200 hydrogen fueling stations throughout the world by 2020. That’s a pretty low number given the time frame is almost a decade down the road.

The largest application for these industrial fuel cells is forklifts, which Pike estimates will take 36 percent of the available hydrogen fuel, and light duty vehicles are expected to consume another 33 percent. Back up uninterruptible power supply units (or UPS) are supposed to be responsible for consuming another 27 percent of hydrogen fuel, while buses and scooters will consume a small fraction of the fueled hydrogen.

So why hasn’t the technology taken off on a larger scale, and particularly as a power source for consumer cars? Partly because hydrogen fuel requires a whole new set of infrastructure and fueling stations, not to mention brand new fuel cell cars. Biofuels in contrast can be blended with gasoline and used in internal combustion engines, and electric vehicles can be plugged in via the power grid (though, the deployment of EVs also needs smart chargers to be optimized).

But even with all these hurdles, and delays some mainstream auto makers are still working on building fuel cell cars, like Mercedes-Benz (the luxury brand from Daimler). The company has made 200 of its F-Cell fuel cell sedans, which it’s renting out for $850 per month, for up to 36 months. See below our video test drive of the F-Cell fuel cell sedan:

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  1. Breath on the Wind Wednesday, July 20, 2011

    An extremely brief distillation of the problems of hydrogen down to only the issue of infrastructure. The essential purpose of the article seems to be to advertise another article on fuel cell powered forklifts. We deserve better. Tell us about why commercial applications seem more attractive than consumer applications of the technology. Is it kickbacks or legit paybacks? For a more complete survey and a better overall look at the issue see: http://www.technologyreview.com/business/22651/?nlid=2027

  2. If hydrogen UPS are “responsible for consuming another 27 percent of hydrogen fuel” then someone is expecting an awful lot of power failures! The fuel cell in a fuel cell UPS only draws hydrogen when the power has failed.

    This is poor reporting of the type that has led to the public being massively badly-informed regarding fuel cell development. It was the media that hyped fuel cells, not the fc engineers. Then when it didn’t keep up with the media hype the same reporters rubbished them.

    Fact is, they’re here, they’re good in some applications and they WILL be good in some other applications when enough development has been done. Meanwhile, get real and report meaningful facts, please.

    Tom.

  3. Katie, I think your readers would be interested to know that the hydrogen highway concept only appears to be going the way of the do-do here in the USA. Germany and Japan are both agressively moving ahead with plans for hydrogen refueling infrastructure. This is to meet the market potential of five or six major auto manufacturers who will be releasing commercial ready fuel cell vehicles by or before 2015.
    So, the question is more what happened to the commitment to this technology in the United States? On a global view, vehicle and refueling station development is continuing toward deployment within 5 years.

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