President Bush assured Americans in January's State of the Union address that with his $1.7 billion five-year hydrogen initiative, "America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles." In April, however, while U.S. automakers tinkered with prototypes, Iceland opened the world's first retail hydrogen-fuel pumps in a converted Shell station in Reykjavik.
This tiny North Atlantic country may be the perfect test bed for a national hydrogen-based economy. Its small population—about 279,000—means fewer infrastructure hurdles: The conversion of just 45 gas stations spread along the country's main highway could feasibly service 13,500 hydrogen-fueled vehicles. And the island is already 70 percent reliant on geothermal and hydroelectric power, renewable energy sources needed to isolate hydrogen from carbon or oxygen. First to fill up: a Mercedes concept car and three DaimlerChrysler buses, with consumer vehicles following by 2005. Though converting even a fraction of the 173,000 gas stations in the United States
to hydrogen fuel could take decades, General Motors and Shell Hydrogen will make headway this October when they open a flagship U.S. retail hydrogen pump at a Shell station in Washington, D.C.
The pump will service a fleet of six GM HydroGen3 minivans, each powered by a 94-kilowatt fuel cell stack. Good thing the hydrogen will be affordable: Each prototype van costs about $1 million.
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