LOS ALAMOS, New Mexico—Hailed as a "magical" solution. Derided as a perennial fantasy. Embraced as an "earthshot."
Many have eyed hydrogen's tantalizing potential as an abundant and pollution-free energy source for transportation and beyond. Jules Verne described a method in which "water will one day be employed as fuel," and wrote hydrogen and oxygen will "furnish an exhaustible source of heat and light" in his 1874 novel The Mysterious Island.
Nearly 150 years later, hydrogen's applications are no longer confined to science fiction. But despite the straightforward chemistry involved in its production, the ascendance of hydrogen to the realm of a society-altering energy source remains elusive.
Now, after decades of pilot projects and sporadic deployments, hydrogen appears on the cusp of economic viability and widespread use. Spurred by the simultaneous global challenges of climate change and increased desires for energy independence, governments and multinational companies are spending billions to usher in a hydrogen era.
"It's finally happening," said Matt Thorington, engineering manager of fuel cells for global supplier Bosch, which said this year it will invest as much as $591 million in hydrogen production technology by the end of the decade.
Transportation accounts for 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., more than any other sector, according to the EPA. The main U.S. efforts to fight carbon emissions in transportation focus on battery electric vehicles and government-backed efforts to support that ecosystem.
But that may not be enough.
"There are things that don't work well with batteries," said Kristin Ringland, a global mobility analyst at Ernst & Young.
Although there's no consensus, there is an increasing number of industry analysts and scientists who believe transportation will require both battery electric vehicles and hydrogen-powered ones to reach net-zero carbon emission goals by 2050.
"We don't see this as 'either-or,' " said Rod Borup, program manager of the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Lab within the Los Alamos National Laboratory. "We see it as 'and.' "