For years car companies have been promising that a little magic box known as the hydrogen fuel cell would revolutionize transportation.

Proponents were exhaustive on the subject of exhaust. Clean water would be the only thing flowing from the tailpipe. It would be an emissions-free panacea.

The hype has been toned down recently, but those who have spent years working on fuel cells continue to promise that hydrogen has a future.

A fuel cell turns the chemical energy in hydrogen or other fuels directly into electricity. They were first discovered in 1838, but have faced significant technological challenges.

Klaus Berger, the vice-president of the fuel cell division for Mercedes-Benz, and Greg Rasmussen

Klaus Berger, vice-president of the fuel cell division for Mercedes-Benz, says the vehicles can be refuelled quickly, but the necessary infrastructure is not yet in place. (CBC)

At a conference this week in Vancouver, hydrogen boosters met to talk up the technology, and the CBC went for a ride in a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle with Klaus Berger, the vice-president of the fuel cell division for Mercedes-Benz.

Berger points out that unlike electric vehicles that rely on energy stored in batteries, electric vehicles powered by fuel cells can be replenished as quickly as those powered by gasoline. Just pop open the fuel cap, attach a nozzle and fill it up in a few minutes.

Berger does admit one problem though — a lack of friendly neighbourhood hydrogen stations.

"The major obstacle is availability of an acceptable infrastructure where customers can just fill up hydrogen powered cars like they do with their gas or diesel cars."

Smooth acceleration

A test drive in the fuel cell electric Mercedes showed the technology has come a long way.

From the outside, it looks like any other car in its class. It can't tear away from the stop line like a high-performance Tesla, but it accelerates smoothly with adequate power for city driving, and handling seemed fine on a short spin through Vancouver's downtown.

Hydrogen fuel cell car

Battery-electric cars take time to recharge, but a fuel cell electric can be topped up quickly with hydrogen. (CBC)

Berger points out that Mercedes, Hyundai, Ford, GM, Toyota and others all have hydrogen fuel cell programs and costs are coming down as they focus on moving into production.

"It's not based on some technology and dreams, it's based in the meantime on real business, real customers, and that will lead us and all of those in the hydrogen industry in the right direction," he says.

Elon Musk calls hydrogen fuel cells 'bullshit'

Recently, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and the Tesla line of battery-electric cars, suggested hydrogen fuel cells are a dead end, calling them "silly" and "bullshit."

Auto Show Tesla Elon Musk

Tesla chairman Elon Musk says there's no future for fuel cell vehicles, citing the difficulty of creating, transporting and storing hydrogen. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)

"The best-case hydrogen fuel cell doesn't win against the current-case batteries, so obviously it doesn't make sense," Musk told reporters at a news conference in January.

He argues that hydrogen is difficult to make, transport, store and use in a vehicle, while rechargeable batteries are packing more power and charging times have been greatly reduced.

Not surprisingly, those who have spent years working on the fuel cell strongly disagree.

Toyota, which is now selling its first production hydrogen vehicle, shot back with a short film showing bull manure being turned into hydrogen, which is then used to power a fuel cell Toyota.

Hope and hype?

In Canada, Ballard power systems was once the darling of the tech world, with a sky-high valuation on the stock market.

It's since returned to earth both in price and outlook. Recently, Randy MacEwen, who has a decade in the clean power industry, took the helm.

Randy MacEwan - Ballard

Randy MacEwen, who has a decade in the clean power industry, recently took the helm at Ballard. (CBC)

"One analyst 10 years ago characterized Ballard as based on hope and hype, not on fundamentals. I think that was an accurate assessment," MacEwen told CBC.

His focus is continuing a corporate pivot that began several years before that — making products with potential now rather than far in the future.

"I don't think you're going to see, in the very near term, home energy systems or fuel cell powered vehicles. I think those are longer-term plays."

'Actual paying customers'

But at a tour of the Ballard facility in Burnaby, B.C., MacEwen talked about fuel cell products that have found wide acceptance in certain markets.

He says Ballard has sold about 3,000 emergency power systems, largely to the telecom sector. The units kick in to support cellular systems if grid power fails.

Ballard hydrogen fuel cell FC Velocity 9SSL

A hydrogen fuel cell is on display at Ballard's facility in Burnaby, B.C. (CBC)

MacEwen says telecom companies are willing to pay a premium to ensure cell systems can survive outages that might result from an earthquake or a hurricane.

In addition to backup power, he says, fuel cells to power electric forklifts and for military applications are also promising. He believes fuel cell power for buses, trains and trams will make increasing sense in the years ahead.

Ballard's chief technology officer, Chris Guzy, says it's now less about government subsidies and more about bringing down costs and increasing power output.

"From a commercial product standpoint there are actually paying customers, that out of purely economical self-interest are purchasing fuel cells, and you could not have said that 10 years ago."