WASHINGTON — As the cost of filling up skyrockets, a government-backed study released Thursday says America could nearly eliminate its need for gasoline for cars, pickup trucks and SUVs by 2050 if the government helps build a market for hydrogen fuel cells and other technologies.
The study by the National Research Council of the National Academies, the government's adviser on science, medicine and engineering, looked mainly at the future of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. It concluded that with about $55 billion in government support in the next 15 years, hydrogen vehicles could be competitive with gasoline-powered ones and common on the roads by 2050.
Congress asked the advisory body to look at prospects for hydrogen and alternatives that could have the largest impact by 2020. The experts group's findings are a best-case look at low-carbon fuel options at a time when President Bush and some members of Congress are pushing for expanded searches for domestic oil.
Light-duty vehicles use 44 percent of the oil used in the United States and emit more than 20 percent of the carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas causing global warming. The report said hydrogen alone could eliminate more than 60 percent of this oil use and carbon by 2050. If the nation used hydrogen and other low-carbon fuels as well, by the same year, carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks could be cut to less than 20 percent of current levels and they'd need almost no oil.
The study did not attempt to estimate whether it would be cheaper for drivers to use hydrogen than gasoline in the future. Instead it looked at the benefits of lower oil needs and reduced carbon emissions.
"There needs to be durable, substantial and sustainable government help for this to happen, just like there is for ethanol," said Michael P. Ramage, who chaired the study panel. Ramage is a retired executive vice president of ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Co. who has a doctorate in chemical engineering.
The study estimated the government would need to invest about $50 billion over the next 15 years to subsidize early, expensive hydrogen vehicles and hydrogen filling stations and about $5 billion for research and development. It noted that this compares with $160 billion for ethanol over the same 15-year period if current subsidies are extended.
Fuel cell vehicles are powered through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen vehicles would emit water and heat as exhaust.
Ramage said fuel cell costs are "rapidly moving down," but obstacles remain. Advances would have to be made in the cost and durability of the fuel cell and vehicle, and in the long-term storage of hydrogen. In addition, filling stations would have to be rebuilt to offer hydrogen gas instead of liquid gasoline.
ExxonMobil has invested in efforts to develop a system that would use diesel to create hydrogen in a vehicle, eliminating the need for hydrogen fueling stations.
The company is working on hydrogen and other alternatives to oil and expects that with demand rising worldwide, "there will be a market out there for all energy products," said spokesman Alan Jeffers.
The National Petrochemical and Refiners Association supports "the broadest mix of fuels possible to meet an ever-increasing demand, but we draw the line at federal mandates that would create winners and losers in the marketplace," said spokesman Bill Holbrook.
Matt Hartwig, a spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association, a lobby group for the ethanol industry, said exploration of fuel cell vehicles should continue, but not at the cost of abandoning research on ethanol and other biofuels.
"Our current energy situation requires that we take a hard look at all energy options available to us, including biofuels and hydrogen," he said. "While yet-to-be commercialized technologies are developed and deployed, it is important that we don't walk away from the progress being achieved by today's evolving renewable fuel technologies."
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