Bush Hyrdrogen Proposal Stirs Debate

Critics say premature for government to pick fuel cells and hydrogen as winner.

Published: 19-Feb-2003

In recent weeks, President George W. Bush has been promoting the development in the United States of hydrogen fuel-cell technology, which many experts say could replace gasoline and become the automotive fuel of the 21st century. In a speech in Washington February 6, Mr. Bush called on the U.S. Congress to support a $1.2 billion plan to accelerate the manufacture of fuel-cell powered vehicles: "If you are interested in our environment, and if you are interested in doing what is right for the American people, if you are tired of the same old endless struggles that seem to produce nothing but noise and high bills, let us promote hydrogen fuel cells as a way to advance into the 21st century," said President Bush.

President Bush says his plan will reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and cut the greenhouse gas emissions thought to cause global warming. While the Bush Administration believes cost-effective fuel-cell vehicles could be on the road by 2020, experts say a number of technological, economic and political barriers stand in the way. A simple chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen can generate enough electricity to power a car. A vehicle powered by hydrogen would revolutionize the automotive industry by replacing the century-old internal combustion engine and the polluting fossil fuels on which it runs. John DeCicco is an automotive engineer and senior fellow with Environmental Defense, a Washington-based lobby group. He says a hydrogen fuel cell works like a battery. "It uses a chemical reaction, but unlike a battery, which either has the charge built in it when you buy it off the shelf, or gets recharged like a car battery, a fuel cell generates electricity when you feed a fuel to it,” he says. “And the type of fuel that works best for fuel cells is pure hydrogen."

Hydrogen is the most abundant substance in the universe. It's clean and can be extracted from water, natural gas, coal, nuclear energy or from renewable non-polluting energy sources like wind and solar power. The by-product is water and heat. The promise of fuel-cell powered cars might be all the rage, but they're not a new idea. General Motors, the world's biggest auto maker, built its first fuel-cell vehicle in 1968. Since the late 1990s the company has invested over $100 million each year on hydrogen technology, the largest single research and development program at General Motors. The company has built two hydrogen-powered "concept" cars. One features a novel "skateboard-style" chassis, a low platform with four wheels to which any kind of auto body can be attached. The second concept car is named Hy-Wire, because it uses so-called bi-wire technology, which GM's Hydrogen Fuel Program head Brian McCormick says operates on electronics instead of cables. "It is sort of like a modern fighter plane, where the controls from the driver go down through electronic signals and all of the steering, breaking, acceleration, and control of the vehicle is done electronically,” he says. “You can do that when you have big electric motors and a big electric power source. And that's a drivable vehicle."

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