Automakers and others are banking on hydrogen-powered cars to play a featured role in the green highways of the future. Thanks to collaboration between automakers and the California government, the Golden State is ground zero for hydrogen fuel cell research. But critics say that future is neither as close, nor as green, as the build up suggests.
On a sunny San Francisco day, a sleek silver car glides around a parking lot overlooking the Bay. It looks like something from a futuristic science fiction movie with a windshield almost twice the size of a regular car. Inside, the differences are even more pronounced.
Margolis: How does this work? Is this the I don't even know where the gas pedal is.
Engineer: There's no gas pedal. Everything is hand controlled, so if you want to accelerate, you have to twist this hand grip here, and if you want to break, you squeeze it?.
This is General Motors' new hywire car, powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Inside, there's no dashboard, just a video-game-like control panel attached to a stick coming from the floor. The view out the back is provided not by rearview mirror, but by camera monitors located in the center of the steering wheel. It takes some getting used to?
Like many automakers around the world, GM is devoting the largest portion of its research and development budget to hydrogen-powered cars and hopes to have some vehicles commercially available by the end of the decade. To encourage that vision, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order this spring to create what he's calling the Hydrogen Highway.
"All across our highway system, hundreds of hydrogen fueling stations will be built, and these stations will be used by thousands of hydrogen-powered cars and trucks and buses," Governor Schwarzenegger said.
This hydrogen fueling station at UC Davis is one of 10 in California, the most by far of any state. They provide fuel for the 60 or so cars that are being test-driven by automakers and universities. John Tillman manages the fuel cell vehicles program at UC Davis and shows me how to pump the pressurized hydrogen, which comes out in a gaseous state.
"When we put the nozzle on, it locks onto the system and basically creates a seal, so when the hydrogen transfers through, there's no chance of leaking," he explains.
But there may be some holes in the governor's stated goal of a vast hydrogen network in just six years. Most scientists say it's overly optimistic and there might not be any privately-owned hydrogen cars by then to use those stations.
Anthony Eggert is the associate research director at the Hydrogen Pathways program at UC Davis.
"I think it's safe to say that we're at least At least 10 years out from any sort of major consumer roll out of fuel cell vehicles," he says. "There are some very significant technical hurdles that remain including hydrogen storage, the cost of fuel cells, the durability of fuel cells."
Hydrogen has the potential to revolutionize transportation. Fuel-cell vehicles emit no pollution at the tailpipe. But that doesn't mean it's an entirely clean technology: you can't just pluck hydrogen out of the air. Right now, most is extracted from natural gas, also known as methane. Methane separates into hydrogen for the fuel cells, and carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Although making hydrogen this way creates perhaps 10 to 30 percent less CO2 than an internal combustion engine?. It still creates a pollutant.
Joseph Romm is a former acting assistant secretary of energy under President Clinton and author of the new book, The Hype About Hydrogen.
"These are going to be dirty fossil fuel-based hydrogen," he notes. "We need several tech breakthroughs before hydrogen cars would be either practical or desirable. And somehow, what is really a long-term, high-risk basic research program, has turned into this near-term deployment program of wholly inadequate and environmentally unsound technology."
Mr. Romm says policymakers should focus on creating more incentives for gas-electric hybrids, which can bring immediate reductions in pollution.
But Allan Lloyd, chair of the California Air Resources board, says the state has an interest in spurring the development of the hydrogen economy.
"We have environmental challenges, from urban, regional, global climate change issues," says Mr. Lloyd. "We have continuing increase in gas prices. We have no increase in petroleum refinery. We need to look at other sources of generating energy and fuels here."
Researchers are looking for other sources for hydrogen. The cleanest process is to use wind or solar electricity to split apart a water molecule. It creates no pollution, but is still prohibitively expensive. Virtually anything that contains hydrogen is a candidate for fuel, so, as researcher Anthony Eggert points out, the possibilities are virtually endless.
"There are projects underway which are looking at converting animal waste to hydrogen, and converting medical products to hydrogen, converting a lot of things that have hydrocarbons in the product, into hydrogen for use into fuel cells or fuel cell vehicles," he adds.
But for industry observes like Jason Mark of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the question remains: how serious is the auto industry about finding a greener car?
"The auto industry has a long history of dangling out the prospect of a green car, but not actually delivering one in the short term," he notes. "And the fear in the environmental community is that this is what we're seeing in hydrogen and fuel cell cars." But he suggests time may be different: automakers are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in hydrogen fuel cell research. And now in California automakers, energy companies, environmentalists and the government are driving down the highway, together.