Cars that run on hydrogen and exhaust only water vapor are emerging to challenge electric vehicles as the world's transportation of the future.
At auto shows on two continents last week, three automakers unveiled hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles to be delivered to consumers as early as springtime.
Korea's Hyundai Motor Co. will be the first to the mass market in the United States with a small hydrogen-powered Tucson SUV for lease next spring, the company announced at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Honda revealed plans in L.A. for a car due out in 2015. At the Tokyo Motor Show Toyota promised a mass-produced fuel-cell car by 2015 in Japan and 2016 in the United States.
Hydrogen cars are appealing because, unlike electric vehicles, they have the range of a typical gasoline car and can be refueled quickly. But hydrogen cars still have a glaring downside: Refueling stations are scarce, and costly to build.
Consumers can expect costs in line with some luxury models. In Tokyo, Toyota promised a price of 5 million to 10 million yen (about $50,000 to $100,000).
Even as battery-powered and hybrid-electric cars took on conventional gas models in the past decade, automakers continued research into hydrogen fuel cells, said Paul Mutolo, director of external partnerships for the Cornell University Energy Materials Center. Hydrogen cars, he said, have an advantage over battery-powered electric cars because drivers don't have to worry about running out of electricity and having to wait hours for recharging.
Hydrogen fuel cells use a complex chemical process to separate electrons and protons in hydrogen gas molecules. The electrons move toward a positive pole, and the movement creates electricity. That powers a car's electric motor, which turns the wheels. Since the hydrogen isn't burned, there's no pollution. When oxygen is pumped into the system and meets the hydrogen ions and electrons, the only byproduct is water.
Hydrogen costs as little as $3 for an amount needed to power a car the same distance as a gallon of gasoline, Mutolo said. He estimates it will take at least 10 years for stations to spread nationwide.