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Hydrogen-Fueled Vehicles - Why Wait Sixteen Years?


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SAN JOSE, Calif., Jan. 31, 2003; The following was released today by Joerg Dittmer, Industry Analyst for Frost & Sullivan's Transportation group:

In four sentences of his State of the Union address, President George Bush endorsed fuel-cell electric vehicles powered by hydrogen. "The first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution- free," the President said on Tuesday evening.

Fuel cell technology has developed to the point that it can power electric vehicles -- a number of such vehicles are being demonstrated by automakers. However, fuel cells remain expensive, and it is not clear that the cost can be reduced enough to make them economically feasible for automotive use.

Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are far more energy-efficient and far less polluting than gasoline-fueled vehicles. President Bush proposed spending $1.2 billion for further research of this technology. The President's goal is to make FCEVs available in about 16 years.

However, technology that provides benefits almost as great as FCEVs is available today. Hydrogen can be used not only in fuel cells to generate electricity, it can be burned cleanly and efficiently in internal combustion engines.

This is a far smaller leap in technology than a shift to FCEVs would be. Unlike an effort to develop practical, affordable FCEVs, an effort to develop hydrogen-fueled internal combustion engine (H-ICE) vehicles would be virtually assured of success.

Lack of a hydrogen refueling infrastructure is the main obstacle to the introduction of H-ICE vehicles. Other obstacles are the relative difficulty of handling a gaseous fuel such as hydrogen, and the fact that the cost of providing hydrogen on a large scale is unknown.

Developing a hydrogen refueling infrastructure would be a better use of government money than pursuing a program that may or may not yield benefits in 16 years, even if those benefits would be greater.

Such a program would also benefit FCEVs, should they become affordable, because those vehicles would use that infrastructure. H-ICE vehicles can be designed to use either gasoline or hydrogen, allowing their introduction ahead of a widespread hydrogen refueling infrastructure.

The federal government can encourage the introduction of H-ICE vehicles through the following steps:

-- Subsidizing the development of a hydrogen refueling infrastructure
-- Encouraging the development of H-ICE vehicles by contracting with automakers to purchase such vehicles
-- Assuring the cost-competitiveness of hydrogen relative to gasoline by taxing cleaner fuels less heavily

The broader societal benefits of hydrogen as a fuel justify government action to promote its use. These benefits are reduced dependence on imported fuel and the virtual elimination of harmful exhaust gases. These benefits hold whether hydrogen is burned in internal combustion engines or used in fuel cells.