Is hydrogen the future? This car goes 0 to 60 in 12 seconds.

US Energy Secretary Steven Chu has said that hydrogen-fueled cars will not be pratical for a decade. But researchers at Hyundai-Kia Motors in South Korea say they're on course to make them in six years.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When the US government cut funding for hydrogen-fueled cars last May, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said such vehicles will not be practical for another decade or two.

Lim Tae-won thinks he can prove Secretary Chu wrong.

Dr. Lim runs the team at Hyundai-Kia Motors that is developing hydrogen fuel cell technology. And they are on course, he says, to mass produce hydrogen cars in six years.

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If they fail, Lim says, the company's future is bleak. "In order to survive we have to be a front runner in the field of eco-friendly vehicles" he says. "It's a question of our sustainability."

It's a bit of a gamble. Kia is banking on the South Korean government fronting the money to build hydrogen re-fueling stations around the country. And at the moment researchers are getting their hydrogen supplies from oil refineries – the antithesis of green.

But the government here is big enough on fuel cell technology to seem willing to help and Kia engineers say hydrogen could come from zero-carbon nuclear power stations, or natural renewable energy sources, in the future.

Certainly Kia's latest Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle, the Borrego SUV, feels pretty futuristic to drive. Idling, the whir of the fan sucking in air to mix with the hydrogen to make electricity is almost too faint to detect. Only the occasional pneumatic "phhht," as the system purges itself of water, tells you that anything is working at all.

Driving the car is a little disconcerting. When all you can hear is the sound of the tires on the tarmac, with no engine noise to judge by, it is hard at first to gauge how fast you are going. Any driving experience less like the 20 year old, Chinese-built Jeep Cherokee that I use at home in Beijing would be difficult to imagine.

At the end of the test-drive (the Borrego has a top speed of 100 mph, a tank range of 471 miles and goes from 0 to 60 in 12.7 seconds), switching off the ignition provokes an apologetic gurgling burp from the car's mid-section, and a dribble of water onto the pavement.

Is this the future? Skeptics may doubt the feasibility of transporting large quantities of hydrogen, or the likelihood that fuel cells will ever be cheap enough to tempt consumers. But it sure beats the internal combustion engine.

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