New technologies for producing hydrogen offer the tantalizing possibility that the clean-burning gas will displace gasoline and diesel as transportation fuel.

These advances, along with the falling cost of hydrogen, may soon make driving a hydrogen-powered car an economical option, according to speakers on a Boundless Impact Investing webinar. The long-term investments in the vehicles are paying dividends, said James Kast of Toyota North America, who analyzes and manages engagement with the fuel-cell industry.

Underlying the push is the industry’s increased recognition that greenhouse gas emissions must be curtailed.

Toyota introduced the Mirai, the first hydrogen cell-powered car to be sold commercially, at the Los Angeles Auto Show in 2014. The Japanese company has a history of being at the forefront of clean technology; launching the hybrid Prius in 1997. The 2019 Mirai can travel 66 miles on a kilogram of hydrogen (a rough equivalent to a gallon of gasoline) and has a 312-mile range, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The car’s only emission is water.

“The Mirai started development at the same time as the Prius, back in 1992,” Kast said. “It took a long time.”

Hydrogen refueling stations are popping up in California, Japan, Germany and elsewhere, providing the needed infrastructure for further growth. Investors are looking at everything from hydrogen-powered forklifts to tractor trailers. Plug Power in upstate New York has found a profitable niche with the sale of more than 20,000 hydrogen-cell powered forklifts.

“There’s extremely exciting technology to look at,” said Dan Zachary, senior research advisor at Boundless Impact Investing and director of the energy policy and climate program at Johns Hopkins University.

Electro-Active Technologies is working to create hydrogen from unwanted food and excess renewable energy, such as solar and wind. If successful, the company could have a great impact since food waste accounts for 6.7% of greenhouse emissions, more than any country other than China and the U.S., the company’s president, Abhijeet Borole, said.

Millennium Reign Energy manufactures hydrogen generators that can use solar, wind or the grid to produce fuel. The company plans to have the Transcontinental Hydrogen Highway up and running this year, providing the refueling infrastructure needed to travel from Los Angeles and New York, CEO Chris McWhinney said.

Japan celebrated the 1964 Tokyo Olympics by introducing the Shinkansen, or bullet train, and the country is using the return of the games this summer to showcase the “hydrogen society.” Kast said. Organizers of the 2020 Olympics say they will use hydrogen to fuel the Olympic cauldron, power the Olympic village, move athletes between venues and fuel the Olympic torch at the start of the relay.

  • To make hydrogen economically viable, governments will have to double what they charge polluters, and most countries aren’t charging anything, Bloomberg reported, citing a BloombergNEF report. If those costs rise, power plants that run on hydrogen would be able to compete with those burning carbon-based fuels by 2050, the report said.
  • Hydrogen, like all green technologies, comes with some downside. Current production processes involve pulling it from methane — natural gas — using energy-intensive methods. Greener hydrogen might be produced with excess renewable power, then transported by pipeline to underground storage and then used in periods when renewable electricity generation is low.