Fuel cells not so fast

We’re at least 15 years away from hydrogen fuel cells becoming viable for automakers, according to a study by the government-funded National Research Council. And that’s assuming they overcome technical hurdles and receive major government subsidies.

Fuel cells, which emit only water vapor because they combine stored hydrogen with oxygen to make energy, have been lauded as a way to reduce oil use and cut greenhouse gas emissions. General Motors, Honda and other auto manufacturers are testing hydrogen-powered, fuel-cell cars in limited fleets. Reuters news agency reports that current challenges include building facilities to generate, transport and store hydrogen at filling stations; the high price of platinum, which is a key component in fuel cell stacks; and the need for automakers to build cheap, durable, palatable hydrogen vehicles.

The report said the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and oil usage over the next 20 years is to offer a range of alternatives, such as hybrids and increased efficiency of gas-powered combustion engines. It also says $55 billion in U.S. governmental subsidies is needed to jump-start the fuel-cell market.

Michael Ramage, who chaired the fuel-cell study committee, is a retired Exxon Mobil researcher.