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Fuel Cells in the Deep Freeze

AMONG the many hurdles to be overcome before we're all driving fuel-cell cars with exhaust that is baby's-breath-pure - superyacht purchase prices, an almost nonexistent refueling network and some public concern about the wisdom of carrying hydrogen pressurized at 10,000 pounds per square inch - is a more basic challenge: winter.

Fuel cells work by producing electricity from hydrogen, with water as a byproduct. The electricity powers a motor that propels the car.

Until recently, the cold-weather performance of fuel cells - whose delicate membranes can be damaged if water in the cells turns to ice - was a work in progress. Most test programs have been in California.

But now carmakers are getting serious about testing hydrogen cars in states where winters can be hard, and that means they have to work reliably in subzero temperatures. Both Honda and General Motors are developing their own fuel cells, and each says it has made breakthroughs in getting water out of the membranes - where it tends to remain when the car is turned off - before it can freeze. Still, nobody is talking about opening showrooms in Alaska.

A Honda spokesman, Juan Avila, says the operating range of the 2005 Honda FCX fuel-cell car begins at minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit. Tim Vail, director of business development for G.M.'s Fuel Cell Group, says its goal is the same, though it has had success with extreme temperatures only in the laboratory. "We have to be able to start a very cold car not once or twice, but 2,000 times," he said. "We know the dynamics of the freeze-start problem, and we're confident we can overcome it."

Both carmakers are set to experience the big chill in New York State. Honda got a jump on G.M. with a ceremony last month near the Capitol attended by Gov. George E. Pataki. The Japanese carmaker is leasing a pair of its latest FCX's to the state for two years of use around Albany. It is also operating a compact hydrogen refueling station in nearby Latham, at the headquarters of Plug Power, a fuel-cell company.

G.M. has announced an ambitious cold-state tryout schedule with tests in New York; Maryland; Washington, D.C.; and Michigan. In the first phase of an $88 million program partly financed by the federal Department of Energy and lasting until 2007, it is testing six HydroGen3 Opel Zafira minivans in the Washington area. Another is being delivered to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Maryland.

Thirteen fuel-cell S.U.V.'s based on G.M.'s Theta compact-car platform will be deployed in the New York area as part of the second phase of the program, from 2007 to 2009. G.M. is also teaming up with Shell Hydrogen to place four refueling "service hubs" around the country, plus a fifth that would be mounted on a mobile platform. A $2 million Shell station is already open and dispensing hydrogen in Washington.

Fuel-cell cars still face daunting obstacles on the road to commercialization. Joseph Romm, a former Department of Energy official and the author of "The Hype About Hydrogen" (Island Press, 2004), is skeptical about G.M.'s announced target of developing a market-ready fuel-cell car by 2010. "I think all of the hurdles are immense, and the biggest is the infrastructure," he said. "We have 180,000 gas stations in the U.S., and 30,000 to 40,000 of them would have to be equipped to supply hydrogen."

Critics also note that significant barriers remain to producing hydrogen power in an energy-efficient and cost-effective way.

Still, there has been considerable progress in the cars. Both Honda and G.M. have enough confidence in their latest versions to hand over the keys to journalists, even in November. After the ceremony at the Capitol, I took a Honda FCX on an 11-mile drive; while I have driven fuel-cell cars on test tracks and parking lots from Dearborn, Mich., to Motegi, Japan, this was the first time I had taken one on public roads.

The FCX that I drove (a 2003 model with a fuel-cell stack developed by Ballard Power Systems, not the newer Honda design that will be in the New York State cars) felt like the best electric car I have driven. It was quiet, with little compressor whine, and accelerated eagerly to passing speeds through a single-speed transmission.

With a Honda engineer, Shiro Matsuo, in the passenger seat, I was soon zipping from lane to lane on Interstate 90. The 80-horsepower car has a range of 160 miles. With a top speed of 93 m.p.h., the FCX is not going to challenge any Porsches, but it certainly wasn't sluggish. It even cornered well.

What's more, it felt like a real car, not a half-baked prototype with dangling wires.

While it was not cold enough to turn on the climate system, it was definitely getting chilly. Both Honda and G.M. are hoping that their futuristic cars will leave tracks even when snow covers the road.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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