In recent weeks, President George W. Bush has been promoting the development in the United States of hydrogen fuel-cell technology, which many experts say could replace gasoline and become the automotive fuel of the 21st century. In a speech in Washington February 6, Mr. Bush called on the U.S. Congress to support a $1.2 billion plan to accelerate the manufacture of fuel-cell powered vehicles.
"If you are interested in our environment, and if you are interested in doing what is right for the American people, if you are tired of the same old endless struggles that seem to produce nothing but noise and high bills, let us promote hydrogen fuel cells as a way to advance into the 21st century," said President Bush.
President Bush says his plan will reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and cut the greenhouse gas emissions thought to cause global warming. While the Bush administration believes cost-effective fuel-cell vehicles could be on the road by 2020, experts say a number of technological, economic and political barriers stand in the way.
A simple chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen can generate enough electricity to power a car. A vehicle powered by hydrogen would revolutionize the automotive industry by replacing the century-old internal combustion engine and the polluting fossil fuels on which it runs.
John DeCicco is an automotive engineer and senior fellow with Environmental Defense, a Washington-based lobby group. He says a hydrogen fuel cell works like a battery. "It uses a chemical reaction, but unlike a battery, which either has the charge built in it when you buy it off the shelf, or gets recharged like a car battery, a fuel cell generates electricity when you feed a fuel to it,” he says. “And the type of fuel that works best for fuel cells is pure hydrogen."
Hydrogen is the most abundant substance in the universe. It's clean and can be extracted from water, natural gas, coal, nuclear energy or from renewable non-polluting energy sources like wind and solar power. The by-product is water and heat.
The promise of fuel-cell powered cars might be all the rage, but they're not a new idea. General Motors, the world's biggest auto maker, built its first fuel-cell vehicle in 1968. Since the late 1990s the company has invested over $100 million each year on hydrogen technology, the largest single research and development program at General Motors.
The company has built two hydrogen-powered "concept" cars. One features a novel "skateboard-style" chassis, a low platform with four wheels to which any kind of auto body can be attached. The second concept car is named Hy-Wire, because it uses so-called bi-wire technology, which GM's Hydrogen Fuel Program head Brian McCormick says operates on electronics instead of cables.
"It is sort of like a modern fighter plane, where the controls from the driver go down through electronic signals and all of the steering, breaking, acceleration, and control of the vehicle is done electronically,” he says. “You can do that when you have big electric motors and a big electric power source. And that's a drivable vehicle."
"The latest vehicles that we've shown certainly compare favorably with the vehicles of that class that they compete with. They are still emerging from the laboratory, so several things need to be done to make it ready for the mass consumer,” says Mr. McCormick. “First of all, we have to continue to get the costs down, so that it costs the same as a conventional vehicle today to our consumer. Second of all, we have to work with governments and with energy companies to work on the hydrogen [distribution] infrastructure. And, both of us need to work on ways to store hydrogen on board the vehicle. So there is still some technology [to develop]. There is certainly some public policy and certainly codes and standards we have to work our way through, in addition to what we do as a car company, which is provide exciting vehicles and bring the cost of the product down to where the consumers can afford it."
One question to be asked is can hydrogen fuel cells beat out the competition in the long run? "Well, no, [it won't] and actually, General Motors has a wide portfolio of initiatives. We have advanced internal combustion engines with things like displacement on demand, where you go from two to four to eight cylinders to minimize the size of the engine that is propelling the car at any given time,” says Mr. McCormick. “And then, we are adding hybrid technologies to augment the internal combustion engine with electric drive. But the interesting thing about the fuel cell from a theoretical and practical basis, [is that] it is the most efficient energy conversion device that we know of."
“But” said Mr. McCormick, "by the end of the decade I want to be driving a fuel-cell car. There is no doubt about it!"
But other experts say consumers are going to have wait much longer wait because of technical hurdles and the lack of a national plan to produce and distribute the hydrogen fuel. John DeCicco with Environmental Defense says the White House hydrogen-car initiative is speculative at best. “I think that it is premature for the government to pick a winner at this early stage of the game. [It is as if to say], 'This is it. We are going to make a big push for this. It is not clear that it will work,” he says. “It is not clear that it will be affordable, and it is not even clear that from an environmental point of view that it is the best solution in the long run."
John DeCicco believes, like many environmentalists, that before the United States focuses on a new automotive technology like fuel cells, it must first make a commitment to reduce oil consumption and global warming pollution using existing technologies. "If we don't have in place the laws and incentives to use technology we already have at hand that could raise the efficiency of vehicles by fifty percent, by two-fold, given 10 years or so of lead time potentially, then how can we ever think it credible to make a business case for all the major investments and big changes that would be needed for hydrogen, when the main reason for doing this is to reduce oil dependence, to reduce global warming emissions?"
John DeCicco says the administration's $1.2 billion proposal to support fuel cell technology comes at the expense of current renewable energy programs, which get a smaller share of the 2004 budget Mr. Bush recently submitted to Congress.