- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 30, 2003

President Bush's proposal to speed up development of technology that uses hydrogen as fuel would reduce pollution and U.S. dependence on foreign oil, but only if significant cost and technology problems can be resolved.
Hydrogen, the world's most abundant chemical, produces electricity when combined with oxygen in the air but emits only water vapor as exhaust. The power systems that harness the electricity to operate motors are called fuel cells.
"With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom, so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen and pollution-free," Mr. Bush said during his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
He proposed spending $1.2 billion to develop fuel cells as a practical alternative to current internal-combustion engines.
Mr. Bush's proposal, dubbed the "Freedom Fuel" program, comes at a time of heightened concern about the nation's dependence on other countries for oil. If hydrogen-powered cars are developed and successfully marketed, they could one day replace the traditional car engine, which causes pollution, and reduce the nation's consumption of oil.
Fuel cells were invented in 1839 in England but first used in the United States to power electrical systems on the Gemini and Apollo space flights.
More recently, automakers have been racing to improve the efficiency of the power systems while reducing their cost. Concept cars have demonstrated fuel cells can power family cars at speeds comparable to internal-combustion engines.
Ford Motor Co. introduced its "Model U" prototype hydrogen-powered car at the Detroit motor show this month. Last year, General Motors Corp. demonstrated its Autonomy fuel-cell car, which has a skateboardlike chassis that doubles as a fuel tank.
However, significant cost, infrastructure and technology obstacles have so far blocked the market success for cars powered by hydrogen.
Hydrogen is flammable and difficult to store. Automakers are developing "reformers" for extracting hydrogen from oil and natural gas, but are impeded by high costs of fuel cells.
"The cost is still about 10 times more than the cost of a traditional internal-combustion engine," said Bernadette Geyer, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fuel Cell Council, a trade association for the fuel-cell industry.
A main contributor to the high cost is the platinum used to create chemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen. Platinum is a rare and expensive metal.
"As they scale down the size of the fuel cells, that also reduces the amount of platinum in the fuel cells, which also reduces cost," Mrs. Geyer said.
Fuel-cell research and development firms say the $1.2 billion the president proposes would give them the money they need to make the technology more practical.
"The money will give companies the ability to do more in less time," said Robb Edwards, spokesman for Ztek Corp., a Woburn, Mass.-based fuel-cell research and development firm. "It's going to accelerate the process."
About $720 million would be used to develop infrastructure for storing and distributing the hydrogen. Retrofitting gasoline stations with hydrogen storage tanks would be an example.
Much of the rest of the money would be used to reduce the size and cost of fuel cells.
The Freedom Fuel proposal was the only segment of Mr. Bush's environmental plan that drew agreement from environmental groups.
"When he speaks of hydrogen, he is absolutely right that hydrogen is the energy source of the future," said John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace U.S.A. "I hope it's sincere. It's definitely practical."
Other parts of Mr. Bush's environmental plan would lead to continued dependence on foreign oil, more destruction of forests and more respiratory illnesses from air pollution, Mr. Passacantando said.
"Every other environmental issue he talked about, he was not telling the truth," Mr. Passacantando said.

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