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Hyundai's ix35 fuel cell vehicle has been on the road for several years (Photo: Hyundai)

OFFENBACH, Germany -- Frank Meijer seems resigned to the fact that it will be a while until hydrogen-powered electric vehicles are a significant part of the car market. "It's a marathon, not a sprint," said the head of Hyundai Motor Europe's fuel-cell vehicle program. "We won't sell thousands of these vehicles overnight."

Fuel-cell cars, which use hydrogen to power an electric motor and thus produce zero emissions, received a boost in the public attention when Toyota said in November it would start commercial production of the Mirai in 2015. The newly developed hydrogen-powered car will retail for 59,000 dlrs in the US and will have a fuel cell stack as its main power source. Toyota joined other carmakers, including Audi, Daimler, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai and Nissan, which have already invested in the technology and plan to have a commercial presence in the market at some point.

Hyundai has had a hydrogen-powered vehicle, the ix35 Fuel Cell SUV, on the road since 2013. It has a range of almost 600 km, has no emissions and is available through a leasing program. At its plant in Ulsan, Korea, Hyundai plans to build 1,000 fuel cell cars next year. The European division of the Korean automotive group recently organized a "Fuel Cell Forum" at its headquarters in Offenbach, Germany, to give an update on the technology's prospects.

Refueling infrastructure needed 

Executives from companies with a stake in a potential fuel-cell revolution were unanimous in their assessment that it will take time for hydrogen-powered vehicles to get traction in the market. That's mostly because of the absence of a fueling-station infrastructure and not because of any shortcomings in the technology.

Bert de Colvenaer, who runs a European Union supported joint initiative to fund hydrogen-related R&D projects, listed two of the long-term advantages of hydrogen power. Energy security is a given, he said, because hydrogen is available in abundance everywhere. And he cited hydrogen's potential as a stabilizing factor in the electricity grid. That's because the gas can be generated when there is excess electrical capacity available and returned to the grid when there is high demand.

There also are practical advantages for hydrogen-powered cars. For example, Hyundai's ix35 Fuel Cell car has a range that's almost four times bigger than the distance an average battery-powered EV can travel today before recharging. And the car can be recharged in just three minutes, compared with much longer times needed to charge an EV battery.

That should go some way to alleviating the so-called "range anxiety" that prevents many people from buying a conventional EVs. "Seventy percent of people interested in a battery-electric vehicle end up not buying one because of range anxiety," Meijer said.

Strong interest

toyota-mirai-smallest-300x167 Toyota's Mirai fuel-cell car will go on sale in 2015 (Photo: Toyota)

Alex Stewart, an associate director at UK-based energy consultants Element Energy, said growing air quality concerns, the relatively low cost of producing hydrogen and its varied usage potential are boosting the market opportunities for the gas. "Interest in hydrogen has never been higher," he said. The availability of hydrogen also is growing, Stewart said. "The network now is sufficient for early adopters," he said.

Nevertheless, the biggest obstacle facing fuel-cell powered vehicles is the lack of refueling stations. The numbers are growing, but with few fuel-cell cars on the road, it's still difficult to make a strong business case for a privately operated refueling station. Said de Colvenaer: "The product is ready for the market, but we need to get the market ready for the product."

Philippe Mulard, hydrogen mobility director at industrial gas group Air Liquide, agreed that, even with government incentives, making a business case for a hydrogen refueling station is difficult because of the low volume of fuel-cell cars on the road today. "Underuse is the major challenge," he said.

Europe now has 30 stations and 13 of them are in Germany. The German total is set to rise to 50 by the end of next year and, if all goes as planned, the country will have 400 by 2023. In the UK, there are nine stations today and there will be 17 next year. By 2023, the country should have 65 refueling stations open.

Though that projected growth rate is impressive, it still won't mean drivers of hydrogen cars will be able to refuel as easily as those with conventionally powered gasoline or diesel vehicles.

California has taken a lead role in providing tax and other incentives for fuel-cell technology and, as a result, it has the most advanced infrastructure and a relatively large number of hydrogen-powered cars on the roads. For example, its goal is to have 87 percent zero-emission vehicles by 2050. The state has 13 research hydrogen fueling stations and nine public stations. It expects another 19 in the next few years.

Incentives needed

Automotive and hydrogen-industry executives say similar incentives will be needed in Europe to speed up the acceptance of fuel-cell cars. Mulard noted that, similar to California, Denmark provides "very favorable treatment" of hydrogen vehicles, which has helped acceptance. Element Energy's Stewart said: "The California incentives provide an enormous pull; it's something we're not yet prepared to do in Europe."

But Meijer predicted European incentives will catch up. Said the Hyundai executive: "Mechanisms such as those introduced by local governments in California I expect to see in Europe in the next six-to-eight years as well."

 -By Arjen Bongard