Hyundai fuel-cell crossovers began arriving in California earlier this year. (Hyundai photo)
A lot of people are excited about the concept of the hydrogen fuel cell car. It basically runs on water.

Carmakers are among the enthusiasts. Hyundai introduced a hydrogen car this summer in Southern California. Toyota is on track to introduce one in the U.S. next year.

The big question, of course, is how will motorists driving these zero-emission hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles refuel? Motorists driving electric vehicles (EV) can plug in their cars at home each night. Drivers of hydrogen cars can't.

Building refueling stations

But one possible answer emerged this month when Linde AG, a German gases and engineering company, announced it will start small-series production of hydrogen fueling stations. Some stations will open in California next year, coinciding with the introduction of the Toyota fuel-cell vehicle.

Linde has been deeply involved in developing hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure in other parts of the world. Its entry into the U.S. market may speed up consumer acceptance of these new vehicles, if it proves easy to refuel them.

"The successful commercialization of fuel-cell cars hinges on a sufficiently widespread hydrogen infrastructure," said Dr. Aldo Belloni, member of the Executive Board of Linde AG. "The development of small-series production capabilities is a key milestone on this journey. It gives us the flexibility we need to meet rising demand in different markets.”

Toyota has been making efforts to improve the technology as well. It says the Highlander FCEV can travel 5 times farther than currently available electric vehicles before recharging, refuels in minutes and emits only heat and water vapor — not fossil-fuel emissions.

Getting real

Joan Ogden, a professor at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, believes a threshold of seriousness has been crossed in the concept of a practical Fuel Cell Vehicle (FCV). She believes that FCVs are on track to be cost competitive with gasoline powered vehicles.

In that light, she says the Linde announcement of the fueling stations is a very big deal, helping to resolve the “chicken or egg” question that has held the industry back.

“The good news is that it might not take that much investment to build up infrastructure to the point where new investments are profitable and less risky for infrastructure providers,” she writes. “In our study, we calculated that a targeted regional investment of $100-$200 million in support of 100 stations for about 50,000 FCVs could be enough to make hydrogen cost-competitive with gasoline on a cost-per-mile basis.”

Besides California, she said she believes that level of investment in hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure will also occur in Germany and Japan.

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