The Great Hydrogen Hope

RHINECLIFF, NEW YORK – In Jules Verne’s novel The Mysterious Island , published in 1874, Cyrus Harding, the book’s engineer/hero, declares that “water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light.” Water, Harding announces, would be decomposed “doubtless by electricity” into hydrogen and oxygen.

Many of Verne’s musings remain fantasy, but where hydrogen is concerned, his time has come. Today, several hundred hydrogen-powered prototype cars, buses, vans and minivans, a motorcycle or two, a few scooters, utility vehicles (including a slew of forklift trucks), and even a couple of farm tractors are already operating. Two years ago, the European Parliament in Strasbourg overwhelmingly passed a declaration urging a green hydrogen economy. 

The hydrogen projects are being developed in North America, Europe, Japan, Korea, Australia, South America, and, embryonically, in China and India. Most of the hydrogen-driven vehicles are powered by fuel cells, but both BMW and Mazda have converted gasoline engines to hydrogen fuel (spiffy V-12s for BMW, rotary engines for Mazda).

Indeed, such major carmakers as Toyota, Honda, Daimler, General Motors, and Hyundai/Kia are deep into plans for commercial production of cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Honda showed a prototype fuel cell car assembly line last year; Daimler already launched one this year; Hyundai/Kia plans to have one by 2012, and Toyota, probably the biggest player, by 2015, with small outputs initially, by the thousands later, and increasing steeply after that.