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A Mercedes-Benz F-Cell car gets its fuel from a public hydrogen pumping station in Fountain Valley, Calif., showing the gains made by the technology.

Clean hydrogen fuel tech makes advances

Once relegated to the realm of science projects, hydrogen fuel cells are starting to displace fossil fuels as a means of powering cars, homes and businesses.

On Tuesday, in the latest addition to mainstream fuel-cell use, Hyundai will begin deliveries of a consumer SUV in Southern California. The technology is already producing electricity for the grid in Connecticut. AT&T is using fuel cells to power server farms, and Wal-Mart Stores uses hydrogen-powered fork lifts. Later this summer, FedEx will begin using hydrogen cargo tractors at its Memphis air hub.

“This is the most exciting time for fuel cells in my career,” said Daniel Dedrick, head of hydrogen and combustion technologies at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California. The hydrogen market “is starting to accelerate.”

Fuel cells produce electricity from hydrogen in a process that dates back to the 1830s, yet high costs have historically made the technology better suited for Apollo space missions and Soviet submarines.

In recent years, the technology has made big strides, and prices are falling. And because the process produces little or no greenhouse gases, hydrogen power stands to get a boost in the wake of President Barack Obama’s recent call for tighter controls on carbon emissions.

It’s still early days for hydrogen power. Prominent skeptics, including former Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Tesla Motors Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk, have questioned whether the technology will ever catch on.

Hydrogen currently provides less than 1 percent of power worldwide, while coal and gas produced 67 percent of U.S. electricity in 2012, according to the Energy Information Administration. Chu, who was appointed by Obama, called for a 44 percent reduction in funding for hydrogen research.

“People have been working to improve fuel cells for over 150 years, and it’s still not commercially viable,” said Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington.

Only about 1,000 cars and buses using hydrogen technology operate today worldwide. There are nine hydrogen filling stations in California, with 48 more under development. California promises to boost that number to about 100 over the next several years. By comparison, there are 160,000 traditional filling stations across the country.

Advocates argue the hydrogen landscape could quickly evolve as corporations’ use of hydrogen spreads. The infrastructure for corporate fuel cells has been quietly spreading. Across the U.S., there are now tanks of hydrogen and fueling systems for fleet vehicles and forklifts.