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: