PARIS – Global coordination and greater investment is needed if the cars of the future are to run on hydrogen fuel, say delegates at a conference here this month.

Elevated costs, refueling networks and production means all are problems that must be tackled, but more basic issues must be dealt with immediately if hydrogen is to fulfill its potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve energy security for the transport sector.

Says Robert Dixon, head of energy technology policy at the International Energy Agency: “Now is the time to consider (hydrogen) infrastructure, investment and development strategies.”

Speaking at the second of three workshops held by the IEA on hydrogen, Gijs van Breda Vriesman, general manager of Shell Hydrogen BV headquartered in the Netherlands, says the hydrogen problem requires a global approach, rather than the currently fragmented effort led by California, Germany and the U.K.

Van Breda Vriesman’s call for unity is echoed by Bernard Frois from the European Union’s National Research Agency, who urges Europe to show “partnership not leadership” on the issue.

Shell Hydrogen and energy-company Total France, along with BMW Group, DaimlerChrysler AG, Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., MAN Nutzfahrzeuge AG and Volkswagen AG, announced last October a joint approach to advance hydrogen as a fuel for road transport.

In a common position paper, the companies have defined a near- and mid-term action plan to pave the way for the introduction of hydrogen-based mobility in Europe.

“While each company is pursuing its own specific timelines, the group has commonly identified key phases over the next decade, comprising continuous technology development and cost reduction, pre-commercial technology refinement and market preparation, with commercialization of hydrogen powered vehicles potentially starting about 2015,” Shell Hydrogen says on its website.

As well as working cross-borders, Van Breda Vriesman encourages the auto industry to work more closely with academic institutions, citing Shell’s funding of chemical and bio-molecular research at Ohio State University.

Venture capitalists and governments also have to be onboard if the industry is to find the financial resources necessary to develop fuel-cell technology, he says.

“Without government policies, the entire transition (to hydrogen) burden will be carried by manufacturers, and the automotive and energy industries will be faced with years of billion-dollar losses,” warns Fred Joseck, of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

In addition to offering manufacturers and consumers economic incentives for investing in low-carbon technology, governments also can facilitate the development of a hydrogen market by standardizing regulations the world over, Van Breda Vriesman says.

This would make it easier to recognize best practices, he says, noting the current cost of using hydrogen fuel in vehicles far exceeds other alternative technologies.

One way of reducing costs is to choose a cheap primary energy source to make the hydrogen. Coal is the least expensive but also produces the most greenhouse gas emissions, and hydrogen from fossil fuels only will have a limited impact on tackling global warming, many delegates warn.

Shell is looking at producing hydrogen from renewable sources, such as biomass feedstocks and solar power. But as Van Breda Vriesman acknowledges, “in the short-term, such technology is expensive and unable to feed the rising demand for hydrogen.”

The U.S. is looking at carbon capture and storage as one way of negating the carbon emitted during the production of hydrogen.

“Affordable, large-scale hydrogen production from coal is closest to realization,” says Daniel Cicero, of the DOE. “Near-zero emission production will be possible with permanent carbon dioxide capture.”

But this is not a long-term solution for Van Breda Vriesman, who insists on the need to evaluate clean methods of producing hydrogen from natural gas or renewable-energy sources. Once the hydrogen is produced, from whatever source, it raises the question of where it can be stored.

“A semi-industrial or industrial area is needed if hydrogen is supplied from a central hydrogen-production facility,” says Yuichiro Shimura, of the Mitsubishi Research Institute in Japan.

Room also needs to be found for fueling stations. Shimura admits it’s “difficult to find suitable land for hydrogen stations in Tokyo” and suggests using existing gas stations or those already out of business.

The DOE’s Joseck says land constraints are causing similar headaches in heavily built-up areas of the U.S., such as Los Angeles. This problem needs solving, he says, as densely populated areas have been highlighted as the best places to develop hydrogen networks.

Jianxin Ma, of Tonghi University in China, says one solution adopted by his country is mobile refueling stations, but these have a limited storage capacity and are not a long-term solution.

The mobile stations have a storage capacity of only 62 lbs. (28 kg), he says, compared with the 1,764-lb. (800-kg) capacity of the first permanent hydrogen refueling station in Shanghai. However, the larger stations only make economic sense if there are a corresponding number of vehicles on the road.