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VIENNA, July 14 (Reuters) - German industrial gases maker Linde opened what it said was the world's first production line for hydrogen fuelling stations on Monday, in a bid to boost support networks for eco-friendly cars.
Fuel-cell cars, which compete with electric and hybrid vehicles in a race to capture environmentally conscious drivers, use a stack of cells that combine hydrogen with oxygen in the air to generate electricity.
Their only emissions are water vapour and heat, but the technology has been held back by high costs and lack of infrastructure. Fuel-cell cars will go on sale starting at $70,000, and filling stations cost over $1 million to build.
On the back of commercial launch announcements by Toyota and Hyundai and demand in Japan, Linde started up a production facility with an initial annual capacity of 50 stations a year. Until now, it has built them one by one.
The company announced an order for 28 stations from Japanese gas trading company Iwatani, which put the first of its Linde stations into operation near Osaka on Monday, the first commercial hydrogen fuelling station in Japan.
"It's a chicken-and-egg situation," Linde executive board member Aldo Belloni told Reuters on the sidelines of the opening ceremony in Vienna.
Belloni declined to say how much Linde had invested since starting its fuel-cell research and development in 1988, centred in Vienna, but said it was "very much".
Fuel-cell cars can run five times longer than electric cars and fill a tank 10 times as fast.
But the high costs have prevented a commercial breakthrough until now. Just a few hundred demo models are on the road, mostly in Japan, California, Germany and Scandinavia.
"The question is: Will the industry move towards hydrogen fuel cells or electric vehicles? And we think for the foreseeable future, 10 to 20 years, electric vehicles make more sense for the total cost of ownership," said Arndt Ellinghorst, head of automotive research at ISI Group.
Nonetheless, Daimler, Nissan, Ford , Renault, Honda and General Motors are all developing hydrogen technology, and some have plans to launch commercially in the next few years.
Electric cars are far less expensive and can be charged at home or the office as well as on the road. But they can travel only 100 to 200 km (62 to 124 miles) on a single charge, and fully charging the battery takes at least half an hour.
"Today is the start of another big step for our future," Katsuhiko Hirose, head of Toyota's hydrogen programme, said at the Linde event in Vienna. But he added: "There's still a long and winding road ahead of us." (Reporting by Georgina Prodhan; Additional reporting by Laurence Frost in Paris; editing by Jane Baird)