Pittsburgh, PA
May 16, 2022
    News           Sports           Lifestyle           Classifieds           About Us
Health & Science
Place an Ad
Running Calendar
Travel Getaways
Headlines by E-mail
Home >  Health & Science >  Environment Printer-friendly versionE-mail this story
Debunking the hype of hydrogen cars

Using the gas as a fuel for cleaner cars presents a host of problems, critics contend

Monday, July 28, 2003

By Karen Hoffmann, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Automobiles as we know them are almost out of gas. Engines that burn gasoline emit pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, that cause global warming. And we're running out of gasoline itself; Americans already import over half the oil they consume, weakening energy security.

Many people, notably the president, have touted hydrogen-powered cars as the solution to these problems. These cars are powered by fuel cells that combine hydrogen with oxygen from the air to produce electricity. The only waste emitted is water.

But David Keith, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, is a hydrogen car skeptic who believes less expensive fixes for these issues are available, such as making cars more fuel efficient and tightening emissions standards.

"For any serious problem you care to name that hydrogen cars might address -- climate change, air pollution, energy security -- I think that hydrogen cars are an expensive choice," said Keith, assistant professor of engineering and public policy.

Keith and a colleague at the University of California, Berkeley, Alexander Farrell, emphasized that message earlier this month in a commentary published by the journal Science.

Hydrogen "is an attractive vision that demands serious investigation," Farrell and Keith wrote, "but it's not a sure thing."

They suggest that a better strategy would be to tackle the problems of air pollution, global warming, and energy security by funding basic research into alternative fuels including, but not limited to, hydrogen, while increasing fuel efficiency and tightening emissions standards.

In January's State of the Union address, President Bush proposed spending $1.7 billion on hydrogen-powered fuel cells, a hydrogen infrastructure, and advanced auto technologies in his FreedomCAR (Cooperative Automotive Research) and Fuel Initiative.

"Hydrogen is the only fuel that offers the prospect of a domestically produced, zero-emissions transportation fuel," said David Garman, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy at the Department of Energy, which oversees the initiative.

Keith nevertheless thinks the initiative is a waste of money. "I don't think we should spend major funding to put hydrogen cars on the road fast," he said. "I think we should do background research that might one day lead to energy technologies."

Garman, meanwhile, insists that is exactly what the initiative is doing. "What's remarkable is that President Bush is doing something that political leaders rarely have the courage to do," he said.

"They're taking a long-term view and they're pursuing it even though the benefits can't possibly be perceived within the president's timeframe.

"The president was quite clear that this is a long-term challenge -- for automakers to build commercially viable [hydrogen] cars between 2015 and 2020. We think it's unlikely that affordable vehicles will be produced for mass consumer markets before then."

Hydrogen has several problems as a fuel. First, it is difficult to make. Right now the cheapest way to make it is from natural gas, which would release carbon into the atmosphere. The National Energy Technology Laboratory, based in South Park and in Morgantown, W.Va., is conducting research into sequestering that carbon -- storing it in underground oil reservoirs, coal seams or salt formations, enhancing carbon uptake by trees and crops, or injecting carbon dioxide into the oceans -- so that carbon dioxide isn't released into the air.

Hydrogen can also be made from water using electrolysis, but that requires a significant amount of energy, whether from gas, coal, nuclear power, or renewable sources, like solar or wind.

Once hydrogen is produced, transporting and storing it become problems. As a gas, it requires a lot of energy to compress into a volume small enough to fit in a car.

Next, broad use of hydrogen cars will require additional infrastructure. Filling stations, delivery and distribution systems all would have to be built to make hydrogen cars a viable way to get around.

"Hydrogen cars have attracted an extraordinary following that cuts across environmental groups and the business community," Keith said.

"I think it's because they're kind of a gleaming technological solution that seems to cut through environmental problems and solve them in one swoop."

Keith said that research should focus on fuels other than hydrogen. "I think there are answers other than hydrogen that might make a lot of sense," he said.

He mentioned liquid fuels such as methanol, which, like hydrogen, can be made from a number of energy sources.

"We're not all focused on hydrogen," DOE's Garman countered. He said the department is funding research into cleaner diesel engines, ethanol, biomass, natural gas, and renewable energy.

And the government is doing more than study the problem. "The Bush administration proposed tax incentives for energy-saving hybrid vehicles," Garman said.

"The Bush administration raised Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards for the first time since the 1966 model year."

But Keith and Farrell believe there are further steps, like tightening emissions standards, that the government can take right now without further study.

"Research must not stand in the way of action," they concluded.

Karen Hoffmann can be reached at khoffmann@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1994.

Back to top Back to top E-mail this story E-mail this story
Search | Contact Us |  Site Map | Terms of Use |  Privacy Policy |  Advertise | Help |  Corrections