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 As you drive through the gate of the hydrogen refueling station on Odaiba Island in Tokyo Bay, you get the strange feeling that this is no ordinary gate. Piloting your $1 million Honda FCX fuel cell car, that gate seems less like the entrance to a gas station and more like a transporter, an invisible gstargate,h projecting you 15 years into the future where fuel cell cars are the vehicles of choice. The intelligent skyscrapers and Japanfs biggest ferris wheel on the horizon seem to epitomize the hi-tech slant and fun factor of a future with hydrogen as you enter the most surreal experience you will ever have in a passenger car.

  Pulling up to the pump, you feel like saying, gFill her up, mate.h But in the future, you probably wouldnft have to say a thing. Youfd just hand over your key as an in-car computer program communicates with the pump telling it how much hydrogen was required. The key handover, according to the attendant, is to ensure safety levels are maintained. gI donft want you starting the car up, or trying to drive away while Ifm refueling.h At this early stage of the game, as basic infrastructure is being put into place, safety is a top priority.

  The attendant then asks you to flip the fuel cap to allow him to attach an earthing cable. Once attached, he flips another lever inside the earthing cap which opens a second cap, giving access to the hydrogen port. After attaching the double-handed hydrogen hose to the FCXfs port, he starts the flow of compressed hydrogen gas and then suggests I go and sit in the waiting room because it will take 10 minutes to fill the tank. As the attendant informs that the other pump supplies liquid hydrogen, the second alternative fuel source, I marvel at the complex setup of tanks and pipes behind the two pumps, stored at |253 degrees Celsius for safety.

  gThat tank holds 10,000 litres of liquid hydrogen but most of the carmakers employ compressed hydrogen gas,h says Takanori Okada, PR manager for Iwatani International Corp., one of Japanfs biggest energy and gas suppliers and a major player in the Japan Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Demonstration Project (JHFC) which oversees the ongoing study. The JHFC is the governmentfs interface with the hydrogen industry.

  Of the 10 carmakers currently participating in this fuel cell project, only GM uses liquid hydrogen, gas it boasts a greater range than gas,h says a GM fuel cell test driver who just happened by during our drive session. With a total of some 50 fuel cell cars on the road in Japan, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Daihatsu, Suzuki, Subaru, Mazda, DaimlerChrysler and Ford all use hydrogen gas for their fuel cell cars.

  The whole fuel cell phenomena in Japan essentially took off in December 2002 when Toyota and Honda each unveiled a very limited number of road-going fuel cell vehicles and invited government agencies and corporations in Japan and California to participate in an evaluation project to promote the advancement of such technology and its public awareness levels.The fact that Tokyo city already has 10 hydrogen stations in operation is testament to the countryfs resolve in developing infrastructure for this cutting-edge technology, an area in which Japan leads the world.

  The government has already spent $30m in establishing the 10 stations and is allocating $45m a year to construct new stations and maintain the current ones. gWhatfs interesting is that the oil companies are getting involved and in a big way,h says Okada. Several of Japanfs biggest petroleum companies including Shell can see the merits of this clean energy and its future applications. gThey want to get in at the very beginning.h Why? Because hydrogen is an element that does not occur naturally and therefore must be produced artificially using existing forms of energy. And thatfs where the oil companies come in. Okada explains that there are two types of hydrogen stations.

  gYou have stations like this one, which have hydrogen delivered by lorries and stored in tanks on-site, and you have stations which produce their own hydrogen on the site.h And this is where things start to get a little complicated. Because in Japan, at least seven different forms of energy (methanol, desulfurized gasoline, kerosene, LPG and natural gas) are currently employed in a variety of ways to generate hydrogen. While most methods involve some form of energy in a steam reforming process to split water into its component parts, other derivations of steam reforming convert methane into hydrogen. Okada is quick to assure that any by-products of these processes are rechannelled back into the reforming process and are therefore non-pollutant.

  The Japanese government is bullish about this technology as are Japanfs carmakers. The government wants to see 50,000 hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road by 2010, and 5 million a decade later. Plenty of hurdles remain, though. The biggest is sticker price, where cars cost nearly $1 million to build. Prices, though, will come down if engineers can replace expensive platinum used in today's cells with less pricey alternatives. Another problem will be building enough filling stations to supply hydrogen for all those cars.

  With my fully-fueled FCX, I offered to pay for the hydrogen. gItfs on the house,h the attendant chuckled. But in a way, hefs right. During these initial gteethingh years, the government is paying for all hydrogen used. Huh, free fuel. Another surreal experience.

  As I headed out of the drive-way, it only took me two minutes to hit Tokyofs jam-packed streets again. I was back in present-day 2004. And it got me to thinking. Okay, all of this futuristic, earth-friendly technology might help to reduce global-warming and clean up our air. But itfs certainly not going to make traffic flow any smoother. Perhaps they could channel some of that budget into better traffic management. I mean, what good is a hydrogen-powered car if you canft go anywhere in it?