WASHINGTON —The soaring price of gasoline is giving new momentum to President Bush's dream of a non-polluting "FreedomCAR" powered by hydrogen, the most common element in the universe.
Twenty years from now, if scientists and engineers can make the dream come true, motorists should be able to drive to a nearby hydrogen service station, fill their tanks and travel as far as 300 miles without a refill.
The only byproducts of the hydrogen fuel would be oxygen and pure water—no noxious, smog-causing, global-warming exhaust.
But the cost of delivering a hydrogen-powered car to market is a major obstacle, as is the cost of converting tens of thousands of service stations from gasoline to hydrogen. Despite its abundance in nature, producing hydrogen in a usable form costs three to four times more than refining crude oil into gasoline.
What's more, while burning hydrogen is non-polluting, generating the electric power needed to produce it, say by splitting water (H2O) into hydrogen and oxygen, could produce more pollution.
Scientists are experimenting with enlisting living organisms, such as bacteria and algae, that can make hydrogen from sunlight and are seeking ways to generate hydrogen from nuclear and solar power. The costs of such technologies are still unknown.
The higher the cost of gasoline, however, the more competitive hydrogen will be, said Thomas Sheahen, an analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Washington office.
"At most, the cost (of hydrogen) should equal the cents-per-mile cost of gasoline," said Steve Chalk, the Energy Department's National Hydrogen Program manager. "I hope it will be lower."
This year, it costs an average of 8.5 cents to drive a mile, about 30 percent more than the 6.5 cents it cost in 2004, according to the American Automobile Association. Tougher auto mileage standards, improvements in automobile efficiency or more widespread use of hybrid cars could help offset higher gas prices, though.
Enormous technical problems also stand in the way of converting from gasoline to hydrogen. They include how to produce, store and distribute the flammable gas safely and efficiently; how to design and manufacture hydrogen-burning fuel cells made of novel materials, and how to build hydrogen cars that people can afford and will want to buy.
"This is really the leading edge of applied science," said Ed Wall, head of the FreedomCAR office in the Energy Department. "We're engaging the scientific community very heavily."
"Fundamental breakthroughs are needed in the understanding and control of chemical and physical processes ... at the atomic and molecular level," said Raul Miranda, a program manager in the department's Office of Basic Energy Sciences. "Such breakthroughs will require revolutionary, not evolutionary, advances."
The target date for deciding whether a hydrogen-fueled car is practical isn't until 2015—long after Bush leaves office. Critics contend that his hydrogen plan is a retreat from previous, less ambitious proposals to raise mandatory mileage standards and improve the efficiency of gasoline engines.
Meanwhile, multimillion-dollar preliminary hydrogen development contracts have been let, and more are coming this spring. Energy companies and auto manufacturers have agreed to provide 134 hydrogen fuel cell demonstration vehicles and 28 hydrogen service stations this year.
Despite the federal budget squeeze, the president has asked Congress for a substantial increase _from $310 million to $360 million—for the hydrogen program in the fiscal year 2006. By 2008, $1.7 billion will have been committed since Bush announced the program in January 2003.
To the dismay of the program's leaders, however, almost half the money previously requested has been diverted to congressional pet projects, known on Capitol Hill as "earmarks."
Energy Department officials told a National Academy of Sciences panel last week that congressional earmarking might cause them to miss their goal of having a hydrogen car ready for commercialization in 2015.
"We're pushing back our interim milestones," said Chalk. "If this continues, we'll definitely have to push back the 2015 milestone."
Last year, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, for example, siphoned off $11 million for demonstration projects, such as a hydrogen fueling station, in his home state. Although these projects are related to hydrogen, they aren't part of the plan designed by Energy Department scientists.
John Sakioka, the director of research and advanced engineering for the FreedomCAR program at Ford Motor Co. in Detroit, said the congressional earmarks "are throwing everything out of kilter" because they take control of the federal funds "away from the most knowledgeable people."
For more information, go to http://www.eere.energy.gov/hydrogenandfuelcells/
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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