It was billed as the "team of dreams" when in 2003 Shell, the world's second's largest oil company, linked with General Motors (GM), the largest car maker, to invest up to a billion dollars over 10 years to develop the world's "hydrogen economy". Yesterday, in a small ceremony near Washington DC, one of the fruits of the relationship was shown off.
In front of US department of energy and industry leaders, Shell opened its first American hydrogen service station. A prototype GM minivan powered by a fuel cell - a device that combines hydrogen and oxygen to make electricity - filled up with hydrogen at a conventional-looking pump and drove off into what some believe will be a cleaner, less oil-dependent future.
Car and chemical manufacturers as well as governments are pumping money into hydrogen and fuel cell vehicle research and the infrastructure for a hydrogen economy. New interest in what is called "tomorrow's petrol" follows President Bush's December 2003 decision to put hydrogen at the centre of US renewable technologies.
Jeremy Bentham, Shell's head of hydrogen, was upbeat. "The opening of this station marks a new phase of development of the infrastructure for the hydrogen economy. In the next few years, perhaps 2010 or 2012, fuel cell vehicles will be commercialisable. By 2050 we believe that hydrogen will be playing a significant role as an energy carrier, increasingly made from non-fossil fuels," he said.
The decision may be linked to September 11, American love of technology or US foreign oil dependency, but, says Bentham, it's also about making money.
Shell's Benning Road filling station in Washington is one of some 22 new stations for fuel cell and hydrogen-powered vehicles built in the past year, making about 90 worldwide, but critics say solving problems of producing, distributing and storing the gas will require hundreds of billions of dollars.
But the hydrogen/fuel cell route has serious scientific critics. A committee of the US National Academy of Sciences earlier this year said it will not solve energy problems, that fuel cell vehicles only marginally reduce greenhouse gases, and that there are big safety, cost and distribution barriers to overcome. "In the best case scenario, the transition to a hydrogen economy would take many decades, and any reductions in oil imports and carbon dioxide emissions are likely to be minor during the next 25 years," said the authors.
Dr Joe Romm, assistant energy secretary to Bill Clinton and now director of the Centre for Energy and Climate Solutions, was in charge of the US hydrogen programme for five years. He says the hydrogen economy is being overhyped, and touting it as a clean energy panacea is diverting money from simpler conservation technologies and kidding the public that hydrogen is "green" while the gas will most likely be produced using fossil fuels.
"GM have denigrated and downplayed hybrids [electric/petrol combination cars]. They see hydrogen as terrific PR. It makes them look like they are environmentally [friendly] while they stave off fuel economy regulations. I think it will be seen as a major blunder."
More than $7bn (£3.98bn) is earmarked by US, EU and Japanese governments and industry for hydrogen/fuel cell R&D. The US energy department is putting up $1.7bn; Japan $4bn over 15 years with a goal of 5m fuel cell vehicles by 2020. Nissan is committing $500m and DaimlerChrysler $1bn. GM says it wants to be the first car company to sell a million hydrogen/fuel cell vehicles while California's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, promises a $100m "hydrogen highway" with more than 200 stations by 2010.
"Pursue it or rue it," said one car industry executive this week.
"The momentum is growing," says Bentham. "It's facts, not fiction now. We actually have the nodes of a hydrogen economy. Investment is on a serious scale". He compares the nascent industry's situation with mobile telephony in the 1980s. "We're in the 'clunky' phase, but we know that this technology is going to be very attractive."
Producing hydrogen and handling large quantities are not the problem, he says. Shell alone produces 7,000 tonnes a day from its refineries and world annual hydrogen output is about 50 million tonnes and growing 10% a year. It is largely used to make nitrogen-based fertilisers and to convert low-grade crude oil into transport fuels.
Hydrogen can be extracted from biomass or even seawater, but the primary source today is natural gas - which is not as environmentally friendly as the car companies want people to think because it breaks down into hydrogen and greenhouse gases
Bentham says that in combination with a fuel cell engine, it is far cleaner than conventional fuel. "The energy content of a kilo of hydrogen is about the same as a gallon of petrol, but the efficiency of the fuel cell is far higher than the internal combustion engine," he says.
What is overlooked, says Romm, is that hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source. "You use a lot of fossil fuels at the front end to get to hydrogen at the back end. It's discouraging for me as a clean energy advocate that people are putting claims out that aren't based on reality."
The cost of producing hydrogen from renewable sources, he says, is between $10 to $20 a gallon of petrol equivalent. "They tell you that the future is pollution-free but for the next few decades you will have to subsidise research into hydrogen and fuel cells.
"No alternative energy vehicle makes much sense in the US for 20 years at least. Of all of them, the fuel cell car is the least likely and most implausible."
Shell says the claim that it's just good PR is too cynical. "There was a lot of hype in the late 1990s. But it is a very realistic view that by 2010-2012 vehicles will be commercialisable," says Bentham.
"Whether they will be mass-produced depends on governments and car manufacturers."