Gasoline prices in the United States are hovering at around three dollars a gallon. There is rising concern over the global environment and political uncertainty across many oil-producing regions. So alternatives to petroleum-based fuels have attracted increased interest from investors and entrepreneurs. One California firm has developed an alternative fuel technology based on hydrogen fuel cells.
The overwhelming majority of motor vehicles in the U.S. run on gasoline. But the Toyota Prius uses a "hybrid" combination of gasoline and electricity. With oil prices up sharply in the U.S. during the past 12 months, fuel-efficient hybrids have become more popular than ever. Sales doubled in 2005 and are up again so far this year. Now a new fuel technology is pushing the hybrid concept in a new direction.
Alan Niedzwiecki is CEO of Quantum Fuel Systems Technologies, a California-based firm that has re-engineered the Prius so it can run on hydrogen. "There is a race on, and I don't think the American public and the world really knows what's going on behind the scenes in the automakers. It is a revolution."
Niedzwiecki believes hydrogen fuel cell technology will rule the road in the decades ahead. "The auto companies have, you know, have indicated that hydrogen is the end game, that they see a point where there could be a large scale transition, probably over the next 15 to 20 years you could see a huge displacement into (hydrogen) vehicles. Between now and then there's going to be quite a ramp up."
Quantum's engineers have played their part in that "ramp up" (build up) by converting the gas engine on an existing Prius hybrid to run on hydrogen fuel. They have built a car that produces virtually no emissions and can operate at up to 25 kilometers per litre.
Auto industry analyst James Bell says savings like that are driving the growing interest in hybrids. "Hybrids really got their rock star status, as I like to call it, when they were models that really delivered maximum fuel economy, that seems to be the association that people have with hybrids."
Quantum has received orders for its hydrogen Prius hybrids from government agencies in Europe and the U.S. It is now trying to promote its fuel cells for wider consumer use. CEO Alan Niedzwiecki. "And what's taking a little bit longer to develop is -- you and I don't want to open the hood of the fuel cell, we wouldn't know how to work on it. So it has to be perfected to the point where that car can go a very, very long time before we even look at the power plant."
Quantum and other firms are sorting out the technical challenges. And government agencies across the U.S. are doing their part to promote the hybrid and super-hybrid concept though political intervention. One example -- the city of San Antonio, Texas is offering free downtown parking to those who drive energy-saving hybrid vehicles.