Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Powered Cars Promise Major Benefits

The Washington File is a product of the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.

Published: 05-Mar-2003

arolene Langie
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The prospect of hydrogen fuel-cell powered cars,
highlighted by President Bush in his January 28 State of the Union
address to Congress, promises the benefits of major reductions in air
pollution and U.S. dependence on foreign oil suppliers.

In his speech, Bush announced a $1,200 million initiative to develop
technology to produce commercially viable, hydrogen-powered fuel cells
to power non-polluting cars, trucks, homes and businesses. The
Department of Energy says Bush's Hydrogen Fuel Initiative will make it
practical and cost effective for large numbers of Americans to use
fuel cell vehicles by 2020.

Hydrogen fuel is about two times more efficient than fossil fuels,
which is why many automakers are working on the technology, says T.
Nejat Veziroglu, president of the International Association for
Hydrogen Energy. Another benefit would be a reduction in noise
pollution since fuel cells don't function through combustion or moving
parts, he noted.

"Fuel cells and batteries are electrochemical devices, and by their
very nature have a more efficient conversion process," points out a
report entitled "Fuel Cells, Green Power" by researchers at Los Alamos
National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Scientists have known about fuel cells since William Grove discovered
the principle in 1839. The National Aeronautics and Space
Administration (NASA) has used the technology during space flights.
The U.S. Department of Energy has been supporting research and
development of fuel cell technology since 1984. But current hydrogen
fuel cells use expensive materials such as platinum and rhodium as
catalysts. Technological advancement is necessary to make the cells
less costly before companies can realistically commercialize them for
distribution, say the experts.

Hydrogen is usually stored on board vehicles as compressed gas,
similar to compressed natural gas. The hydrogen flows into the fuel
cell, where it undergoes a cool, electrochemical reaction with oxygen
from the air to produce electricity. An electrical motor connected to
the axles turns the vehicle's wheels. The only emission from the car
is water.

Hydrogen fuel cells are not dangerous, Veziroglu said. But hydrogen,
just as any other fuel, can be dangerous and must be handled with
care. Unlike fossil fuels, hydrogen fuel is not poisonous, he said.

Another challenge to creating a world of fuel cell-powered automobiles
is building the infrastructure to service the cars. Instead of pulling
up to gasoline pumps, drivers would have to take their fuel
cell-powered mobiles to hydrogen fuel stations.

Showa Shell Sekiyu KK, partnering with Iwatani International
Corporation and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, is building Tokyo's
first hydrogen refueling station, slated for completion in 2003.
Technical expertise is coming from Amsterdam-based Shell Hydrogen,
which boasts projects in the United States and Europe as well as
Japan.

In Iceland, Shell is working with DaimlerChrysler and Norsk Hydro on
ways geothermal energy and hydropower can contribute to eventually
eliminating fossil fuel use and creating hydrogen exports.

Meanwhile, the race is on for auto companies to produce hydrogen fuel
cell-powered vehicles. Ford, BMW, DaimlerChrysler, General Motors,
Honda and Toyota are just a few looking to move beyond experimental
cars.
 

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