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Hydrogen Cars Closer Than They Appear

Hydrogen fuel station in Reykjavik
REYKJAVIK -- Owning a car not powered in any way by gasoline seems about as likely as using a jet pack to fly to work.

Sure, it might happen, but not anytime soon.

The day when gas-powered cars disappear completely from our roads is probably decades away. But changing a nation's transportation and fueling infrastructure happens gradually, not overnight. And the time when hydrogen cars and hydrogen fuel stations are common might be closer than many think.

This means that car shopping could get increasingly interesting in the next few years as we not only get to choose between sedans, hatchbacks and SUVs, but between gas-powered, hybrids, more hydrogen cars and who knows what else.

Short of strapping on a jet pack, I can't imagine a more exciting opportunity for a country infatuated with cars.

Visiting Iceland has opened my eyes to the real possibilities of alternative fuels and compelled me to take a closer look at what's happening with these innovations in the U.S.

Electric fuel cells powered by hydrogen have only water as a byproduct while internal combustion engines release some nitrogen oxide -- about one-fourth of what a gas-fueled engine does -- and that's about it. Auto makers are putting cars that use both technologies on the road today.

In Iceland, the 28% of energy that still comes from fossil fuels is entirely transportation-related. But the country would like to see more than 30% of its cars running on hydrogen by 2025 and no gasoline tanks anywhere in sight by 2050.

Icelanders are spending this decade introducing hydrogen fuel to one mode of transport after another to see how well it works, where the problems lie and what users like and don't like about it. Then they'll compare the data and decide whether it will be cars or ships or public transit or something else where they'll focus their first efforts.

To kick-start things in 2003, Royal Dutch Shell's (RDSA) hydrogen division opened a fueling station in Reykjavik, and soon after, three hydrogen-fueled buses from Daimler (DAI) began circling through the city for about two and a half years. Three conventional buses would have gobbled 70,000 liters of diesel and spewed 200 tons of greenhouse gas emissions over that time, but these buses released only water vapor. A blogger on Grist describes the experience of riding on one.

Late this fall, a dozen hydrogen cars began making their way around the island nation, two Mercedes Benz A-Class fuel cell cars from Daimler Chrysler, and the rest of them conventional Toyota (TM - Get Report) Priuses that Quantum Technologies (QTWW - Get Report) in California had converted to hydrogen-powered hybrids.

Some are being test driven by employees at local power companies including Icelandic New Energy , a company created to manage these science projects and evangelize about hydrogen. But a handful have gone to the local Hertz (HTZ - Get Report) office, so that locals and tourists can drive around the country on carbon-fuel-free day trips (they can go about 180 miles on a full tank).

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