Soaring gasoline prices and a growing desire for energy independence have sparked renewed interest in the U.S. Congress for alternative ways to power vehicles that do not rely on fossil fuels. One of the options is the hydrogen fuel cell. Such technology is in its infancy, and significant hurdles must be overcome before cars can be powered with hydrogen.
At a recent congressional hearing, lawmakers were eager to hear if there is some innovative solution to America's energy needs on the near horizon. Representative Bob Inglis of South Carolina, who sits on the House Science Committee, seized upon hydrogen fuel cells as one possibility.
"The transition to a hydrogen economy holds great promise on many levels. All along the way, the air will be getting cleaner, the oil pressure could come off the Middle East, entrepreneurs would be making money and employing people, and we will be winning our energy independence," he said.
The concept is simple. When hydrogen combines with oxygen, it produces energy and water. The energy can be harnessed in a chamber, or fuel cell, to power vehicles, and the water can be released as a harmless by-product. No pollution, no greenhouse gases. Best of all, unlike oil, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe.
With encouragement from the Bush administration and other governments, research into hydrogen fuel cell technology is moving forward.
"We are very committed to a transition to an H-2 [hydrogen] fuel cell vehicle, and then the ultimate infrastructure and economy that is going to come together, with zero emissions, low energy consumption, and then, finally, energy self-sufficiency," said Mark Chernoby, Vice President for Advanced Vehicle Engineering at automaker Daimler-Chrysler.
Daimler-Chrysler says it hopes to begin offering hydrogen-powered vehicles to the public in the next ten-to-15 years.
But no one is predicting an easy transition from gasoline. For one thing, massive amounts of hydrogen would have to be collected. In nature, hydrogen is almost always found in molecules with other elements. Breaking those molecules apart to extract pure hydrogen requires energy. An electric current, for instance, can split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, essentially the reverse of what takes place inside a hydrogen fuel cell.
Researcher George Crabtree of Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago says the most common means of generating hydrogen today involves the burning of natural gas, hardly an ideal solution.
"This production route simply exchanges a dependence on foreign oil for a dependence on foreign gas. And it does not reduce the production of environmental pollutants or greenhouse gases," he said.
The challenges do not end there. There is also the question of how to store hydrogen, a highly-combustible element blamed for the 1937 Hindenburg blimp disaster, safely and compactly in vehicles.
"To allow a 300 mile driving range without compromising cargo and passenger space, we must store hydrogen at high density and with fast release times," said George Crabtree. "Since the 1970s over 2,000 hydrogen compounds have been examined for their storage capability. None has been found that meets the storage demands."
Several automakers have produced test models of hydrogen-powered vehicles, at a cost of about $1 million each. The director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's automotive research laboratory, John Haywood, says it could be decades before hydrogen fuel cells become cost-effective as a viable alternative to today's gasoline-powered engines.
"In ten, 15 years there will be trial fleets - prototypes of what these technologies could be," he said. "But the costs will still be substantially above what conventional vehicle costs are. Our own estimates are that to look at when hydrogen and fuel cells could have a noticeable impact on transportation energy consumption, we judge that to be at least 40, 50 years away."
A 40-to-50 year wait does not appeal to U.S. lawmakers who are searching for a solution to America's energy challenges today. Representative Bob Inglis suggested President Bush issue a challenge on the development of hydrogen technology similar to President Kennedy's 1961 call to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. Researcher George Crabtree of Argonne National Laboratory responded with caution.
"I think there is one difference from the Apollo program. There, President Kennedy could say, 'Let's do it' and he had NASA do it. It was very well coordinated," he said. "In the case of energy, cars and hydrogen, it has to be the economy [that motivates]. It is a complex system. It is a lot of people interacting and making independent decisions, so you do not get that direction from the top. So, what I think government can do is 'incentivize' [provide incentives for] that activity."
Aside from enormous technological leaps, forging a "hydrogen economy" would require a massive overhaul of America's, and the world's, infrastructure. Yet proponents appear undaunted. They point to humanity's pioneering spirit and say that what may seem insurmountable today could be solved tomorrow. Even skeptics admit that oil consumption cannot continue indefinitely, and eventually a replacement for gasoline-powered vehicles will have to be embraced.