Tokyo show proves hydrogen is popular

By Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY
CHIBA, Japan — If there were any doubt about the auto industry's fascination with hydrogen, one need look no further than the Tokyo Motor Show.

The Mercedes-Benz F600 HygeniusDaimlerChrysler

Hydrogen-powered concept vehicles have a starring role as automakers try to divine their future. Six automakers rolled out new versions, signaling the industry's seriousness about the zero-emission alternative to gasoline.

To believers such as Larry Burns, General Motors' vice president of research and development, the frenzy is validation — maybe even vindication — that hydrogen is quickly gaining acceptance as the eventual replacement for gasoline. "I think we're beginning to reach a tipping point," he said, standing next to the Sequel hydrogen concept vehicle introduced in January in Detroit. "Our industry is very serious."

Some automakers are in a hurry. Mazda announced that it will begin production of a hydrogen version of its sporty RX-8 within three years, starting in Japan. Instead of more complicated fuel-cell stacks that produce energy through a chemical reaction, Mazda's solution is to burn hydrogen in the car's rotary engine. Hydrogen combustion results in some emissions but far fewer than from a gasoline-only engine.

The RX-8 Hydrogen RE is also being called a hybrid because if it runs out of its store of hydrogen, it can switch to a separate gasoline tank.

Japan has about 15 hydrogen fueling stations, 10 around Tokyo. By the time the car goes on sale, most likely to government and corporate fleets at first, the number of fueling stations is likely to be about 30, says Mazda engineer Akihiro Kashiwagi.