Make the environment clean
Stuttgart/Munich (dpa) - Cars powered by hydrogen, a fuel which is virtually inexhaustible, are making a comeback.
Hydrogen was a buzzword at the recent Davos economic summit, where carmakers and the heads of some of the world's oil giants pledged to push forward with a green technology which has taken a back seat to electric power in recent years.
Of course it could be argued that hydrogen never had a foothold in the first place, although this is not strictly true.
German carmaker BMW experimented for decades with combustion engines which ran on hydrogen, and around the world there are dozens of city buses using hydrogen fuel-cells. The latest are double-deckers for use in London.
The company bosses in Davos say a fresh hydrogen push using fuel cells is part of global efforts to reduce global warming. They also said it had a unique part to play in greening the planet.
When used to drive a vehicle, hydrogen is fused chemically with oxygen from the air to make water. During the process electricity is released and this is used to power an electric motor.
Hydrogen power produces zero pollution and the only tailpipe emissions is water vapour. Filling a tank with hydrogen is also much quicker than replenishing batteries.
It sounds ideal yet there are technical challenges to be overcome.
"This is a global initiative", said the head of gasmaker Air Liquide, Benoit Potier. He signed a declaration from the Hydrogen Council initiative which aims to boost investment in developing and commercializing the hydrogen sector.
Other signatories include the bosses of BMW, Daimler, Honda, Hyundai, Kawasaki and Toyota, as well as mining company Anglo American, Air Liquide and its rival Linde.
The automotive sector has high hopes for hydrogen and in a survey among 1,000 managers carried out by the KPMG consultancy cooperative 78 per cent said they believed the hydrogen fuel-cell could bring about a breakthrough.
Only 62 per cent of respondents in the survey thought a breakthrough was possible using conventional plug-in battery-powered electric cars charged from the mains.
"The sector agrees that the hydrogen fuel cell is the only meaningful solution," said car expert Peter Fuss who works for the Ernst & Young consultancy.
Modern fuel cells are not used to drive an electric motor directly but charge up batteries which release their power during driving.
"This technology is more comfortable to use than regular electric cars," said Fuss. This is because filling up with hydrogen takes minutes, far less than the hours an electric car spends at a charger.
The bugbear with hydrogen is its heavy infrastructure cost.
"One hydrogen refuelling station costs 1 million euros (dollars)," said the expert.
Precious metals such as platinum are needed to make the latest fuel cells and this pushes up their price in view of the low number of cars likely to be produced. Economies of scale would only kick in if hydrogen fuel cell cars went into volume production.
The number of hydrogen-powered cars on the market at present is tiny.
Japanese maker Toyota and Hyundai of South Korea are the only two automakers with fuel cell cars in their ranges.
Germany's Daimler has meanwhile promised to come up with sporty off-roader featuring hydrogen technology, albeit it as a plug-in hybrid. The car will have batteries which can be charged using both mains electricity and a hydrogen fuel-cell.
Critics of the futuristic fuel say they are more worried about the explosion hazards. Hydrogen is explosive by nature. It is stored under high pressure with special sensors to indicate even minute leakage.
One high-level naysayer in Davos was Peter Terium of Germany's Innogy. He voiced safety concerns: "You are riding on an explosive mixture," he said. "I would not feel comfortable about that and it's definitely not something I would inflict on my wife."