Hoping speech fuels studies


Cars: Scientists and automakers hope President Bush's address will help advance research into vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

January 30, 2003|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Engineers know they can build cars that run on hydrogen fuel cells. The question is, where do you get a hydrogen fill-up?

That's one of the issues President Bush plans to address in a $1.2 billion plan to encourage the development of automobiles that run on hydrogen fuel.

Studied and tinkered with since the 1970s, fuel cell technology is used as a power source by NASA today and even powers a few cars on the road. Proponents say widespread adoption could drastically reduce pollution and our dependence on foreign oil.

But scientists, engineers and automakers say it has a long way to go. They hope the president's decision to highlight the program in his State of the Union message will help advance the technology.

The nation's automakers, along with federal officials, have announced a joint program to develop vehicles that run on hydrogen. DaimlerChrysler has put a new hydrogen-powered test car on the road every year for the past five years.

"It's something that's been around a long time," says John Wozniak, chief of mechanical and aeronautical engineering at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel.

Wozniak and his colleagues have been working for two years on fuel tanks made of lightweight carbon-fiber, the same material used in tennis rackets. They hope the tanks can safely store explosive hydrogen under the chassis of fuel cell cars in the same location as most gas tanks today.

Those familiar with research into auto technologies say there is no way to know when - or if - the nation's cars and trucks will ever be powered entirely by hydrogen fuel cells. But they expect to see hydrogen-powered cars mass-produced for the U.S. market in the next 10 to 15 years.

"The fact is, we really don't know how fast the technology is going to catch on, but it is going to catch on and become something consumers see in their lives eventually," says Max Gates, a spokesman for DaimlerChrysler.

DaimlerChrysler plans to put 80 fuel cell powered cars on the road as early as next year, including 20 in the United States.

Gates says the company hasn't announced who will get the cars, but they are likely to be leased to governments or large fleet operators who can handle special fueling requirements. The company could market hydrogen-powered cars to consumers as early as 2010.

"What we'll be seeing is a gradual increase in these cars over the years," he says.

Environmental groups praised Bush's announcement as a step forward for a technology that can cut back on greenhouse gas emissions created by burning fossil fuels.

The $1.2 billion will be spent over the next five years to come up with a uniform approach to automotive fuel cell design and to help create a system of hydrogen fueling stations.

"The idea is to have an infrastructure, a system of gas stations so to speak, for the cars that are running on fuel cells," says Thomas Welch, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Gates and others say that hydrogen-powered cars are just one approach in the industry's long-term effort to come up with alternatives to the traditional gasoline engine.

Diesel engines, which are fuel efficient and produce fewer hydrocarbons, have been powering cars and trucks for decades, although they have never been a big hit with Americans. Still, DaimlerChrysler plans to introduce a diesel powered jeep in the United States next year.

On another front, fuel-efficient hybrid cars from Honda and Toyota that run on a combination of gasoline and electricity have moved beyond the experimental stage and are now appearing in significant numbers.

But scientists say that hydrogen is an almost ideal fuel source. It's the most plentiful element in the universe and when burned, it produces only water vapor and heat. Fuel cells have proved to be a reliable source of power for hospitals, hotels and the space program.

From a technological standpoint, a fuel cell is something like a battery, using a chemical reaction to produce electricity. Like a battery, it can be recharged while it's providing power, but its energy source is a steady supply of hydrogen.

Internally, a fuel cell contains an anode and cathode, separated by a catalyst. When pressurized hydrogen strikes the catalyst, it splits into ions and electrons. The latter create direct currents that can be used to power an electric motor. The ions combine with oxygen to create water vapor, the only byproduct of the reaction.

Supporters say that replacing gasoline-powered automobiles with fuel cell cars would reduce by one-third the 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide that Americans pump into the atmosphere each year.

There are other potential uses. A town in Connecticut has used a stationary fuel cell, powered by the hydrogen from the methane in its landfill, to generate enough electrical power for 100 homes.

But experts say the challenge lies in developing fuel cells durable enough to handle the kind of punishment drivers dish out when they get behind the wheel.

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