The automobile sector has pursued the r&d of fuel cells more aggressively than any other sector (see box: Have power, get hot water ). Automakers around the world are showing optimistic signs. Some developed countries in Europe and North America are leading the way: they are already operating fuel cell-powered vehicles on the road. Japan is also a major player. "In a 1991 joint venture with Ballard Power Systems Inc, auto giants DaimlerChrysler and Ford invested us $450 million for the development of fuel cells," says Viswanathan of bhel, Hyderabad.
Since 1994, several prototype fuel cell vehicles have hit the road. In April 1999, DaimlerChrysler and Ballard Power Systems unveiled necar 4 (acronym for New Electric Car). It runs on liquid hydrogen at speeds up to 145 kmph and has a capacity to store fuel for 450 km. necar 4 is more compact and attractive as compared to the heavy, bulky and expensive fuel cell cars launched earlier.

The cities of Chicago in the us and Vancouver in Canada are operating three prototype fuel cell buses running on hydrogen on test basis since March 1998. "Put together, they have clocked around 100,000 km," says Viswanathan. A fuel cell bus called the New Electric Bus (or nebus) is undergoing road tests in Stuttgart, Germany. Georgetown University in the us introduced a 100-kilowatt phosphoric acid fuel cell bus running on methanol in 1998. Hamburg in Germany opened its first public commercial hydrogen gas station for cars and trucks in February 1999. Competition drives the research
Ballard is not short of competitors. The Japanese automaker Toyota is developing its own fuel cells, as is General Motors, the biggest automaker in the world. Going a step further, the two have recently forged an alliance on fuel cell development. At the Detroit Auto Show, held in January 2000, General Motors boasted that its five seater concept car Precept can run for 800 km before requiring a tank refill. That, too, at a top speed of 190 kmph.

Nippon Mitsubishi Oil is also providing fuel cell technology to Mazda and Daimler Chrysler in Japan, and is expected to come out with its own model in 2001.

To commercialise fuel cell technology, the California Fuel Cell Partnership has been launched in the us. It plans to produce about 50 fuel cell passenger cars and electric buses on road between 2000 and 2003. The partnership began in April 1999 and includes automakers (DaimlerChrysler and Ford), oil companies (Shell and Texaco), Ballard Power Systems, and government agencies (the California Air Resources Board and the California Energy Commission). Automakers Honda and Volkswagon recently joint this partnership.

"Toyota, Mazda, Nissan and Honda are planning to introduce fuel cell vehicles by 2003," says Viswanathan. bmw is working closely with Delphi Automotive Systems and International Fuel Cells, a division of United Technologies Corporation, a Fortune 30 company. Nissan and Renault have
similar projects. According to the uk publication Automotive Environment Analyst , 60 major companies from across the world are investing heavily in fuel cells.

Manufacturers of two-wheelers are not far behind. San Yang, a Taiwan-based company, is developing fuel cells for two wheelers, a key challenge for developing countries where two-wheelers far outnumber cars. But officials at bhel do not see much sense in carrying such heavy weights on two-wheelers. This means that India does not have enough to concentrate on small vehicles, which can only happen when prices come down.