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Will hydrogen fuel our future?

It is the most abundant element in the universe and therefore, unlike fossil fuels, unlikely to run out anytime soon. As the fuel in a fuel cell, hydrogen also has some winning characteristics. Firstly, the engine is free of emissions, with water vapour the only by-product. The hydrogen fuel cell also has range and refuelling characteristics similar to those of a conventionally powered vehicle.

It is the most abundant element in the universe and therefore, unlike fossil fuels, unlikely to run out anytime soon. As the fuel in a fuel cell, hydrogen also has some winning characteristics. Firstly, the engine is free of emissions, with water vapour the only by-product. The hydrogen fuel cell also has range and refuelling characteristics similar to those of a conventionally powered vehicle. The vehicles' range can be up to 500 miles and refuelling takes place in a matter of moments. These characteristics contrast sharply with those of electric vehicles, where range is limited to around 100 miles and recharging can take many hours.

Range anxiety is a serious impediment to the uptake of electric cars. In addition to adopting a new and largely unproven technology, motorists are being asked to change their driving habits. Clearly, this is difficult but hydrogen fuel cell cars remove this barrier by behaving much like petrol driven cars. Hydrogen fuel cell cars still face challenges of cost and the lack of refuelling infrastructure but major players in the car industry are determined to put that right. Giants like Daimler, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota are committed to having these cars on sale in Europe by 2015.

Toyota, for example, is preparing to launch its FCV-R fuel cell car in 2015. To this end, the company's fuel cell development boss, Katsuhiko Hirose, is visiting the UK to persuade the government to invest in hydrogen refuelling stations. This is an area where Britain is lagging behind other European countries, like Germany. At the moment Britain only has one hydrogen refuelling station, at Honda's Swindon manufacturing plant. Industry body, H2 Mobility, reckons that needs to be closer to 65 to kick start the market in hydrogen fuel cell cars.

Hirose is confident that the investment will be forthcoming and says: "We are close to the start of infrastructure development. Now is the time to pay the cheques. The UK Government is willing to support a hydrogen infrastructure, but the trouble is that time is running out." Toyota's FCV-R car is likely to cost around £50,000 and even at that price the company will be making a substantial loss but Hirose points to the competitive advantage to be gained by any company that masters the technology to explain Toyota's determination to succeed, explaining: "Fuel cell research is not so easy, but it cannot be copied so easily, either."

The advantage for manufacturers seems clear but the advantage to the country of having a virtually inexhaustible and clean source of energy seems even more convincing.

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