Mon, Jun 30, 2003 - Page 16 News List

The dirty side of clean energy

While hydrogen might sound like the perfect solution to the US's dependance on oil, environmentalists point out that it is far from being the cleanest source of energy available


Anthony Eggert of Think Technologies points with his foot at the exhaust system and the trunk mounted hydrogen fuel tank in a vehicle being developed by Ford Motor Company.


Every day, American drivers eat up nearly 11.3 billion kilometers of pavement -- roughly the distance to Pluto and back -- getting where they want to be.

In the process, they consume enough oil to fill more than 150 supertankers. More than half of that oil comes from abroad, weakening the US's economy and complicating its foreign relations. And when burned, every drop spews pollutants that damage health and contribute to global warming.

It can't go on indefinitely. With automobile use rising worldwide, petroleum reserves gradually dwindling and concerns over US dependence on foreign oil increasing, most energy experts agree that a shift away from fossil fuels is inevitable during this century.

President George W. Bush has responded with a US$1.7 billion research program to develop hydrogen as America's next energy source. In 20 years, he predicted, Americans will drive cars propelled by hydrogen-powered fuel cells that emit exhaust containing nothing more toxic than pure water.

``Our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom,'' Bush said in his last State of the Union address, ``so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free.''

Even so, both enthusiasts and critics of the technology agree that switching from fossil fuels to a hydrogen-based energy infrastructure will be no small feat.

Right now it costs about 10 times as much to operate a hydrogen-powered fuel cell car as it does to run one with an internal combustion engine. And the small amount of hydrogen that is produced today comes from natural gas and other fossil fuels, generated in a process that releases the greenhouse warming gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

To create an environmentally friendly and economically viable hydrogen energy economy, engineers will have to develop a safe and cost-effective way to store and distribute a highly flammable gas, both on board vehicles and throughout a fuel distribution system. They will also have to either develop ways to make hydrogen with renewable energy, or find a way to capture the carbon dioxide released in hydrogen production and keep it out of the atmosphere.

``This is barely the beginning of the learning curve,'' said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis.

The administration proposes spending a total of US$1.7 billion over the next five years on two related lines of hydrogen research: One program funds the development of cars that can run on hydrogen; a second funds the creation of a storage and distribution infrastructure that will keep their tanks topped off. Automobiles are at the center of the administration's hydrogen plan, Department of Energy Assistant Secretary David Garman explains, because of the unsustainability of their fuel source.

``Over the long term a petroleum-free option is eventually required,'' Garman recently told the House Science Committee. ``That's why the president, during his State of the Union address, announced a groundbreaking plan.''

Hydrogen power itself is hardly a new idea. Hydrogen fuel cells already propel experimental vehicles and supply power for some buildings. NASA has used them on spacecraft for decades.

Though you can get energy from hydrogen simply by burning it, the most efficient way to harness the element is with a fuel cell. Like a battery, a fuel cell generates electricity with a chemical reaction. The most common type combines hydrogen and oxygen to make water, generating electricity that can be used to drive a motor, light a neon sign or power a computer.

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