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Some fuel-cell vehicles to finally roll, albeit gradually

November 24, 2010

After nearly a decade of hailing fuel-cell technology as the ultimate replacement for the internal combustion engine, automakers are slowly starting to produce some fuel-cellpowered vehicles. The automakers are sticking to their long-held estimates that mass-produced, widely available fuel-cell vehicles will not be possible until 2010 at the earliest, mainly due to cost, infrastructure and safety challenges.

"Certainly there are technical challenges, but there's been so much public and private investment the public ought to expect these vehicles within the decade," Jason Mark, transportation analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said April 9. Fuel cells use a chemical reaction between oxygen and hydrogen to produce electric power. When pure hydrogen is used the only tailpipe emission is harmless water vapor. When hydrogen is extracted from gasoline or other fuel, harmful emissions are reduced, but not eliminated. However, to use fuels other than pure hydrogen, vehicles must be equipped with a heavy and expensive reformer which extracts hydrogen from those fuels.

The goal for most automakers is, as General Motors Corp. has said, to attain a "hydrogen society" where the gas would be the primary fuel. Hydrogen, however, is a flammable gas posing safety concerns, especially in the event of a crash.