The shine went off hydrogen fuel-cell cars well before the auto industry drove off a cliff last year, but that doesn’t mean carmakers have abandoned the zero-emission technology.

In the 1990s, proponents predicted consumers could be driving fuel-cell vehicles as early as next year.

But they underestimated the obstacles in the way of producing a reliable, affordable car with the kind of range and drivability motorists now take for granted.

The U.S. government, facing a trillion-dollar deficit and a costly bailout of ailing domestic automakers, has slashed research funding for automotive fuel cells in favour of alternatives such as battery-electric and biofuel-powered vehicles.

Canadian fuel-cell pioneer Ballard Power Systems Ltd., of Burnaby, B.C., has virtually given up on the automotive side, focusing instead on more prosaic applications such as industrial forklifts and stationary backup power generators.

But the major automakers, including one-time Ballard partners Daimler-Benz and Ford, as well as embattled General Motors, are still sure hydrogen fuel cells represent the best long-term answer for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Fuel cells combine hydrogen and air to produce electricity by running them through a chemical catalyst. The only byproducts are heat and water.

Auto industry experts at a recent international conference on fuel cells in Vancouver said even if carbon-based sources such as natural gas or biomass are used to produce the hydrogen, fuel cells are more energy efficient and produce far less CO2 than hybrids or plug-in, battery-powered vehicles.

But for now, fuel-cell vehicles represent part of a multi-faceted solution to reduce greenhouse gases and conserve petroleum resources, they said.

Battery-electric vehicles seem the best choice now for short-distance city use, with plug-in hybrids that use small on-board engines to recharge their batteries better suited to longer distances.

The generally accepted goal is to produce a vehicle that can go 500 kilometres without refuelling while surviving northern winters and desert summers.

Automakers are closing in on those goals.

Honda’s latest fuel-cell car, the FCX Clarity, has a range of 390 kilometres and can start in temperatures ranging from -30 C to 95 C, Ryan Harty, a Canadian-born engineer with American Honda’s fuel-cell research centre in Torrance, Calif., said in an interview.

Automakers have largely settled on 2015 as a target date to get mass-produced fuel-cell cars into dealer showrooms.

Fuel cells coming to Olympics
• In all, there are about 300 fuel-cell vehicles from different makers in the hands of California drivers, including a version of GM's Equinox crossover SUV. GM is also promising to bring eight to Canada for use at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

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