Hydrogen gas stations for fuel-cell vehicles will open in April on a three-year trial basis.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry will set up at least three stations in the Tokyo and Yokohama areas to support recently launched test programs by four automakers and to study costs, safety and other issues related to the building of a hydrogen fuel infrastructure.

It is hoped that the program will help lead to the commercialization of the environmentally friendly vehicles, ministry officials said.

As for the source of the fuel, the ministry is considering extracting hydrogen from natural gas at a plant set up adjacent to a natural gas storage base, or supplying it directly from a hydrogen plant.

The fuel cells generate electricity via a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, with water being the sole byproduct. The vehicles thus emit no heat-trapping or toxic gases such as carbon dioxide or nitrogen oxides.

Road tests are being conducted by Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co., Mazda Motor Corp. and German-U.S. automaker DaimlerChrysler AG in limited areas near head offices and research institutes.

“If there is more than one gas station in the suburbs of Tokyo, it makes it easier to perform test-drives in urban areas,” an official at one major automaker said.

Through the project, METI also plans to collect data on the cars from automakers, allowing the entire industry to share and benefit from the removal of inefficiencies in setting safety and other standards, the officials said.

Currently leading in development, Toyota and Honda plan to commercialize fuel-cell vehicles as early as 2003, but costs and a lack of infrastructure have proven to be major obstacles.

Widespread use of the vehicles is not expected before 2010, industry officials said.

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