Equinox Fuel Cell (© General Motors)Click to enlarge picture

Compared to upgrading the country's electric grids to handle more hybrids or electric vehicles, the prospect of building a comprehensive network of hydrogen fueling pumps is frightening.

In 2003 President George W. Bush announced a billion-dollar plan to help usher in a new era of zero-emission, fossil-fuel-free driving. One of the more popular solutions to the looming crises of rising oil prices and climate change at that time was the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle. These cars would be run on compressed hydrogen gas, which would be converted by a series of onboard fuel cells into electricity to power electric motors. Instead of releasing harmful greenhouse gases into the air, the byproduct of this process is water (hot water, to be specific), an almost comical puff of steam.

As soon as the money was available, the U.S. Department of Energy began doling out grants to universities, federal funds flowed into the research and development labs at the Detroit Three, and energy firms lined up for millions in subsidies to create newer, cleaner methods of squeezing hydrogen from coal and other existing energy sources.

Five years later, at the 2008 Los Angeles Auto Show, only one new hydrogen vehicle was unveiled — Honda's FC sport car concept, running on the same fuel-cell stack used by the company's existing FCX Clarity sedan. Meanwhile, a slew of new all-electric and hybrid-electric cars were on display, including an electric MINI Cooper and hybrid versions of previous models, such as the Ford Fusion. The electric vehicle, along with its less-ambitious hybrid electric-gas-powered cousin, has all but stolen hydrogen's thunder. So what happened?

Can hydrogen power motivate us going forward, or is it a lost cause?

Lack of Infrastructure
Just last year, the Department of Energy began funding the development of plug-in hybrids. And despite billions in federal dollars, the only hydrogen car produced in significant numbers by a U.S. automaker is the Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell, which was distributed earlier this year to approximately 100 drivers in California, New York City and Washington, D.C., as part of a test program. The only commercially available new fuel-cell car on the road today is Honda's FCX Clarity, which is being leased to around 200 customers in Southern California. The catch: Applicants must live near one of three 24-hour hydrogen filling stations and be willing to pay for a 3-year, $600-per-month lease — roughly the same cost as leasing a new Porsche Cayman sports car or Mercedes-Benz E350 luxury sedan. The bigger catch: There are just 65 hydrogen refueling stations across the country, and little hope of major expansion in the near future.

"The technology is here; the car is ready," says Todd Mittleman, a spokesman for Honda. "Now, the infrastructure has to grow."

Compared with the more ambiguous goal of upgrading the country's electric grids to handle more hybrids or electric vehicles, the prospect of building a comprehensive network of hydrogen fueling pumps is daunting, to say the least. Hydrogen pipelines exist, but they tend to be relatively short, connecting oil refineries (the primary customer for hydrogen) with production plants that are either on-site or located nearby. And since the hydrogen is transported as compressed gas, existing oil and gas lines would have to be replaced, rather than retrofitted. In the short term, hydrogen could be shipped in trucks, which would raise the overall cost and carbon impact of the fuel.

Another hurdle — if the energy used to process the hydrogen comes from coal-fired plants or other emissions-producing sources, how do you build a hydrogen economy without an increase in airborne pollutants? After all, the clean-coal technology that many had hoped would clear the way for a hydrogen-powered future is still little more than a campaign promise (both John McCain and Barack Obama pledged to fund carbon-capture research).