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Argonne National Laboratory Works on Alternative Fuel Technology

In the 1970s, soaring oil prices forced automakers to consider alternatives to gasoline-powered vehicles. But a decline in gasoline prices during the 90s made those vehicles less economically viable. Now, with oil prices at record highs, electric and alternative fuel vehicles are again in demand. In this Searching for Solutions report, VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports from Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago, technology is trying to catch up to demand.

At the Detroit Auto Show earlier this year, U.S. automaker General Motors introduced the Chevrolet Volt concept car, its long-awaited, "extended range electric" vehicle.

GM would like to sell the car to consumers soon. But there is one hitch.

The technology that makes it work doesn't exist yet.

"GM has stepped way out with their decision to make the Volt because they don't have a battery yet," said Don Hillebrand, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory.

At Argonne, scientists and engineers are studying the lithium-ion battery. The technology would ultimately power the Volt for up to 40 miles, without gasoline.

A gasoline-powered backup would then take over and recharge the battery.

Right now the battery for the Volt is unstable. It is also expensive. Which means that running the car would be more costly than using gasoline.

"Since companies like GM, Ford, and Toyota have stepped out front and have been willing to try to develop this technology, they're all waiting for a battery that will meet their needs at a cost they can actually afford, that consumers can pay for," Hillebrand said. "So a lot of the research we're doing is focused on trying to provide that battery."

Although GM calls the Volt's technology "extended range electricity," Hillebrand says it is similar to plug-in hybrids or PHEVs. PHEV technology is currently being developed for vehicles like the Saturn Vue Sport Utility Vehicle.

PHEVs allow drivers to use both a limited range battery, charged from an electrical outlet, and gasoline.

Some companies working on plug-in technology are bringing their vehicles to research engineer Michael Duoba.

"In fact, we're probably one of the only labs who have done nearly as comprehensive of testing as anybody of plug-ins, so we've had at least eight vehicles through here that we've tested, different designs, different manufacturers," Duoba said.

Henning Lohse-Busch, another Argonne researcher, says no technology has emerged as the clear alternative to gasoline. But some solutions, such as commercial hybrid technology, are already available to consumers. It enables drivers to go short distances on an electric battery before the gasoline engine kicks in, extending the mileage you get from a tank of gasoline. The battery is re-charged by the gasoline engine.

"That will be the short term..... And in the longer term, you're looking at a plethora of newer technology like plug-in hybrids to possibly like extreme alternative fuels like hydrogen," Lohse-Busch said.

This Chevrolet Equinox uses hydrogen. Hydrogen gas powers a fuel cell that moves the car. The exhaust is water. There is no pollution.

This Equinox in the testing facility is part of Challenge X, a competition sponsored by GM and the Department of Energy.

University students are competing against each other to find ways to make the hydrogen vehicle more efficient.

Hydrogen is clean, but it has limitations. There is no infrastructure for distributing hydrogen across the United States. So the hydrogen has to be available locally.

"And that will really depend on where you're located, and what the resources are that you have around you in your states," Lohse-Busch said.

Nevertheless, Japanese carmaker Honda has announced that its hydrogen-powered car, the FCX Clarity, will be available for leasing next year. At first, only 200 will be available, and only in the western state of California.

GM has not yet announced when consumers can own its hydrogen Equinox. It is testing about 100 across North America.

At the same time, GM hopes the Volt will be the answer to current fuel woes. Don Hillebrand agrees. He says, "The Volt is a huge part of the solution actually, if it actually could work," Hillebrand said.

GM hopes to make the Volt widely available by 2010, around the same time that Toyota intends to introduce a plug-in hybrid to customers in the United States.