Hydrogen Cars May Hit Showrooms by 2005

Janet Ginsburg
for National Geographic Today
January 29, 2003 (Originally published on October 16, 2001)

Viewers of National Geographic Today in the United States can watch an update on hydrogen-car technology in tonight's broadcast, which follows yesterday's announcement by President Bush that he proposes U.S. $1.2 billion in funding for this research over the next few years.

In the clean, "green" future envisioned by energy expert Amory Lovins, cars not only get 99 miles per gallon emissions-free, but they may also play a key role in providing electricity to a power-hungry world.

The solution, according to Lovins, is a "hypercar"—a lightweight vehicle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, with enough style and space to compete with luxury sport utility vehicles (SUVs). Lovins is with the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank in Colorado, and chairman of its corporate spin-off venture Hypercar, Inc.,.

Some of the giant car companies are also designing hydrogen-powered cars. Hypercar Inc. hopes to have its first model ready to roll off the production line by 2005.

Today, an estimated 210 million vehicles are stuck in traffic on America's roadways. Collectively they spew nearly a billion and a half tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year. According to a recent EPA report, the latest conventional models average a little more than 20 miles per gallon—the worst showing since 1980.

While some blame America's love affair with the fuel-hungry SUVs, Lovins says the problem comes down to design.

A decade ago, Lovins was asked to address a National Academy of Sciences meeting about how to build cars with greater fuel efficiency. The general thinking was that fuel efficiency could be increased by only 10 percent because otherwise the car would become too expensive, says Lovins.

He was unconvinced of that assertion, however, and set up an informal team to rethink the automobile from the tires up. "I'm not a car guy, which actually was a bit of an advantage because I didn't know too much about how it ought to be done," said Lovins.

The result is a car that is as much as eight times as efficient as most standard models.

Lightweight Parts, Heavy Results

How did the Lovins team do it? They began by "light-weighting" the car.

They started with the body, which is made from a composite of carbon fibers set in a plastic matrix. It's a stronger version of the material used in skis and tennis rackets—and, per pound, five times as strong as steel.

Continued on Next Page >>


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