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Hydrogen cars come and go

Fuel sell
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  August 5, 2008

In case you need another reason to think Jack Nicholson is the coolest man alive, here’s one: all the way back in 1978, he was extolling the virtues of hydrogen cars. (Watch the cliphere) Yup, that’s right. The sunglassed king knew the power of hydrogen cars — which create electricity without the nasty greenhouse gases on the side — long before they were the Next Big Green Thing.

And these days, that’s just what they are. Despite a lingering lack of infrastructure and research dollars (not to mention the fact that hydrogen production is still largely reliant on fossil fuels on the input end), hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles and their zero-emission technology are being hailed as our environmental saviors, better even than hybrid cars. Basically, hydrogen fuel cells run a reverse form of electrolysis (which uses electricity to separate water into its constituent gases — hydrogen and oxygen) by recombining hydrogen and oxygen into electrical energy (to power the car) and water (the zero-emission byproduct). 

Most major car manufacturers are pursuing these types of hydrogen fuel-cells which function much like a hybrid battery, as opposed to hydrogen-powered internal-combustion engines.

You can check out our new best hope this Sunday, when the Maine-based Hydrogen Energy Center and the Maine Clean Cities Program bring several hydrogen cars to Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth. Models on display will include vehicles made by BMW, Daimler, Hyundai, Kia, Nissan, Toyota, and Volkswagen.

That so many big-name car makers are on board with hydrogen technology is one indication of its popularity. Another is the growing abundance of places to “gas up” with hydrogen — a hydrogen fueling station will open in Billerica, Massachusetts this month; California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wants 200 such stations in his state by 2010.

But a report by the US National Academies released last month says that hydrogen fuel-cell cars are still at least 15 years away from mainstream adoption. While George W. Bush dedicated $1.2 billion to hydrogen fuel technology in 2003, this recent study suggests that an additional $55 billion would be needed from the government, on top of $145 billion from industry, in order to make a total transition from oil to hydrogen fuel.

Perhaps to demonstrate the type of commitment the study calls for, the federal departments of energy and transportation are launching a 33-city hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle tour from Maine on Monday, August 11. The tour, which aims to highlight the importance of hydrogen cars “to the global environment and to the future of automotive transportation,” will start at the Eastern Prom and end in California.

Still, 30 years after the Joker hailed its benefits, many kinks still need to be ironed out before that hydrogen future is realized.

Hydrogen-fuel cars will be on display at Cape Elizabeth’s Fort Williams Park on Sunday, August 10, from 2 to 5 pm. The cross-country vehicle tour will launch from Fort Allen Park, in Portland, on Monday, August 11, at 9 am. For more information, visit, or

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  Topics: This Just In , Science and Technology, Electric Vehicles, Fuel Cells,  More more >
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