We've read about fuel cell cars in glossy brochures handed out at various international auto shows, and we've seen FC cars on television, on channels like Discovery and National Geographic.
Most of the time, it is far-off-in-the-future stuff, which most people wouldn't bother with. But now, fuel cell cars actually seem to be getting closer to reality. At the Technology Day award ceremony in New Delhi, last week, President Dr Abdul Kalam unveiled the country's first fuel cell prototype car.
This car has been developed by the Reva Electric Car Company, who are based in Bangalore, and who also manufacture India's only electric (battery-powered) car the Reva hatchback.
Fuel cell vehicles are eagerly anticipated the world over, as they have the potential to significantly reduce dependence on dwindling oil reserves, cut emissions and promote massive energy savings.
Chetan Maini (Deputy Chairman, RECC) said that fuel cell technology applications have, till now, only been attempted by a few auto giants worldwide and that he was happy about RECC being the first to introduce this technology in India.
'This will open up several avenues for further development of electric vehicles as one of the self-sustaining technologies of the future,' he added.
Fuel cells are one of the most promising means of producing energy in the future, though FC vehicles are not expected to reach the market before the year 2010.
Fuel cell cars are fuelled with pure hydrogen gas stored in high-pressure tanks, and in most cases, work on the Proton Exchange Membrane principle, which converts the hydrogen and oxygen from air, in a non-combustive electro-chemical reaction, to generate electrical power.
Using hydrogen to generate electricity is, in principal, a good idea because hydrogen has very high energy density for its weight, and because we can obtain it from various sources without worrying about depletion.
Compared with conventional internal combustion engines, FC technology is up to fifty percent more energy efficient, more reliable (there is very little to go wrong) and since only water vapour comes out of the exhaust, FC cars are the last word in being environment friendly.
RECC's fuel cell car is designed to be modular and adaptable. The system can be adapted to hydrogen tanks of different sizes, to suit availability and need.
And the prototype's Energy Management System (controlled by an on-board computer) has been designed to optimise the flow of energy from the fuel cell system, to maximise driving range.
It will certainly take a few years before RECC's fuel cell car becomes a production reality, but the very fact that a relatively small company, based in Bangalore -- which is not exactly the centrestage for new developments in automotive technology -- has had the courage and the perseverance to work on a cutting-edge product like this.
There will be lots of challenges along the way, including finding ways of generating, storing and handling hydrogen, and making FC vehicles commercially viable, but we're also sure those challenges will be met.
We wish the RECC all the best, and hope an FC vehicle joins our long-term test car fleet sometime in the near future.
... and a look at what other manufacturers are doing about FC
Toyota have, for years, been committed to the cause of working on new-age cars that are energy efficient and environment friendly, and the FCHV is a major landmark in that area.
It's the first FC vehicle to be certified by Japan's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, and is already being marketed in limited numbers. This FC car is, again, a hybrid.
There is a solid polymer type FC mechanism which produces 120 bhp, which is complemented by a 107 bhp permanent magnet electric motor. Both of these are managed by a central control unit to provide a maximum cruising range of 300 km and a top speed of 155 kph. Toyota are also working on the FCHV-BUS2 (a fuel cell city bus), and the MOVE FCV-K-II, a small hatchback that's been jointly developed with Daihatsu.
If we can have FC cars, then why not bikes? And indeed, Yamaha are already working on the FC06, the world's first fuel cell two-wheeler. The 06 uses a direct methanol fuel cell, which the company claims is safer and more convenient than the conventional hydrogen fuel cell.
It's a simple, basic machine - lightweight aluminium chassis, brushless DC motor, only 0.78 bhp, and the capacity to seat one adult - but the 06 seems to have potential as a hassle-free city commuter.
When our man drove one of these last year in Monaco, he found that the Hy-Wire has an electronically limited top speed of 65 kph, and 'an exhaust note that goes wooooOOOOO...' An evolution of GM's AUTOnomy concept, the Hy-Wire is the General's contribution towards green peace.
The car looks like it just walked off the sets of George Lucas' next Star Wars movie, and even has an aircraft-style 'Driver Control Unit' instead of the usual steering wheel.
But the Hy-Wire is quite useable its fuel cell stack produces all of 173 bhp and driveability is like any other modern saloon. Do not, however, hope to see a Chevrolet-branded version in India anytime soon...
Mercedes-Benz A-Class fuel cell
DaimlerChrysler have been pioneers in the development of FC technology for cars, and have been conducting research in this area since the early-1990s.
The A-Class' fuel cell stack runs on pure hydrogen, produces 87 bhp and is a zero-emissions vehicle. The car has an operating range of 150 km, can accelerate from 0 to 100 kph in 16 seconds, and has a top speed of 140 kph. Mercedes-Benz admit that this FC A-Class is still a long distance away from being commercially viable.