SACRAMENTO, CA - Less than a month after DaimlerChrysler AG hums its roadgoing Necar 4 fuel cell-powered prototype around in front of the press and Beltway bureaucrats in Washington, DC (see WAW - April, '99, p.25), fuel cell development takes another significant stride toward reality here in California's capital.

This time, DaimlerChrysler, Ford Motor Co., fuel cell maker Ballard Power Systems, three oil companies and the State of California announce a precedent-setting program to field a fleet of fuel cell vehicles in a program called the California Fuel Cell Partnership.

The collaboration aims to put roughly 50 pollution-free, fuel-cell-powered passenger vehicles on the road between 2000 and 2003; that includes about 20 buses.

Presiding over the announcement of the California Fuel Cell Partnership is Gov. Gray Davis. His statement regarding the onus to launch the project in California: "Our long-term goal is very simple. Zero emissions in the air. Zip."

Apart from this mandate, the demonstration program comes about partially at the request of the state's powerful and trend-setting California Air Resources Board (CARB), which maintains its 2003 deadline for all volume manufacturers to make 10% of the vehicles sold here zero-emitting vehicles (ZEVs). CARB backed down once on this matter - the 10% ZEV deadline originally was slated for 1998 - but doesn't appear predisposed to do so again.

The California Fuel Cell Partnership, although a significant step, ultimately places a few of its collaborators at odds. It's just that nobody's mentioning that yet.

n First, for fuel cell-powered vehicles to be essentially zero-emitting, the fuel "source" must be pure hydrogen. Yet there is absolutely no hydrogen-delivery infrastructure, nor is there likely to be one for decades, that resembles the pervasive gasoline retailing network we enjoy. Plus, hydrogen must be carried at ambient-type temperatures in high-pressure tanks or cryogenically in equally heavy and bulky cylinders.

Ford's P2000 demonstration car - which we're permitted to drive - uses ambient temperature storage tanks, rendering the otherwise roomy P2000's trunk practically useless. The Necar 4 employs cyrogenic storage; it increases the amount of hydrogen you can carry, thus increasing the vehicle's range, but right now the idea of a pervasive cryogenic hydrogen storage and delivery infrastructure for consumers is so out-of-the-park outlandish it might just as well be Warp Drive.

n The fuel cell's hydrogen can be derived from a variety of other sources - methanol and gasoline being the most likely candidates because they are or can be delivered through the existing infrastructure - but then the vehicle must be fitted with an onboard reforming system in order to pull the hydrogen from those fuels. And any fuel cell vehicle using an onboard reformer would NOT be zero-emitting; carbon monoxide (CO) and carbon dioxide (CO2) are byproducts of fuel reformation.

Already, then, there's a contradiction: The fuel call cars DaimlerChrysler and Ford show here for the demonstration program are powered by pure hydrogen, yet sources say the next Necar 5 - along with Ballard's so-called Mark IX fuel cell system - will be powered by hydrogen reformed from methanol. Those will not be zero-emitting vehicles.

n The oil companies are involved in the obvious hope of influencing the fuel "choice" for a technology that ARCO's chief executive, Mike Bowlin, is convinced "will eventually replace the internal-combustion engine.

"It may be a decade or two before fuel cells begin to make a dent in the fleet," he continues. "We're interested in supplying the source of hydrogen that will power these engines. At the end of the day, we hope it will be gasoline."

That hardly seems like what CARB or the carmakers have in mind - remember, reforming gasoline to produce the fuel cell's hydrogen means making emissions.

n Correspondingly, onboard fuel reforming presumably won't help the automakers to comply with California's 2003 ZEV regulation - unless they're expecting another respite from CARB.

It appears the carmakers know that initial adoption of consumer fuel-cell vehicles will dictate a reforming system, because there's no way a hydrogen infrastructure will be meaningful by 2003. Yet some of their best minds back pure hydrogen.

Says DaimlerChrysler's senior vice president and fuel cell program chief Ferdinand Panik: "I personally have a lot of hope (for hydrogen fueling). Business-wise, maybe it's wiser to make the big step for the infrastructure."

Bradford Bates, Ford manager, alternative power source technical department (and one of the savviest alt-fuel guys on the planet) says: "It would be a shame not to use pure hydrogen." And, "If you want to have your fuel cell vehicle look and be shaped like today's vehicle, you have to go the cryogenic route."

Yet ARCO's Mr. Bowlin counters, "Pure hydrogen looks like a stretch."

There's no question fuel-cell technology is moving quickly. The fundamental science is worked out, says Ballard CEO Firoz Rasul; the 50-demonstration vehicle California Fuel Cell Partnership is a genuine indicator of Mr. Rasul's confidence.

The science of fuel cells is well along the path to production. Now get ready for the political tussles.