New Study Weighs Promises, Pitfalls of Hydrogen Cars

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
June 23, 2005
What would happen if all the vehicles in the U.S. swapped gas tanks for hydrogen fuel cells?

A team at Stanford University has studied the potential effects on pollution if all U.S. vehicles converted to hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (HFCVs).

The switch could prevent 3,700 to 6,400 deaths attributable to pollution in the U.S. each year, the team reports.

The team's complete findings are reported in the current issue of Science.

"This technology could potentially make the quality of life much better for hundreds of millions of people around the world," said Mark Jacobson, an engineer at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. "Gas and diesel produce photochemical smog. These pollutants have many adverse health effects like cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness, and asthma."

Hydrogen, meanwhile, can power a fuel-cell vehicle that emits very little pollution, Jacobson noted—essentially only a bit of water vapor.

Estimates about the climate-altering greenhouse-gas emissions that HFCVs might produce, however, vary widely, depending on how the hydrogen fuel itself is manufactured.

For their study, Jacobson and colleagues assessed the environmental effects of three different hydrogen production methods: making it from natural gas, with wind power, and from coal.

The team reported that using coal to make hydrogen would actually produce more greenhouse gases than if all U.S. drivers switched to gas/electric hybrid vehicles like those currently on the market.

The study found that other methods promised environmental benefits of varying degree, with wind power being the cleanest.

Currently, nearly all hydrogen produced for industrial uses, and for existing HFCVs, is made from natural gas.

"We concluded that if you generate hydrogen from wind or natural gas you get a clear benefit over gas/electric hybrid vehicles, though hybrids would also represent an improvement over the current fleet," Jacobson said.

"Hydrogen Highway" Possible?

Debates continue about whether hydrogen, given the existing production methods, could produce an economically feasible fuel.

The Stanford study estimates that hydrogen produced from wind, the most environmentally friendly method, would cost between $1.12 and $3.20 per gallon at the pump.

Such costs don't include the massive expense of converting the nation's energy infrastructure from petroleum to hydrogen. But those numbers are free of the "hidden" per-gallon costs of gasoline that come in the form of health care expenses.

Jacobson believes that converting the existing oil-based infrastructure to a hydrogen-based one is a reasonable, though expensive, long-term goal.

"The technology to change the infrastructure is already there for the most part," he said. "You can produce hydrogen by natural gas or by wind, and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles exist—every car company has them. Technical improvements will be necessary, but it's more a matter of getting [such a change] going—nobody wants to put in fuel stations until they know that someone wants them."

Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at University of California, Davis—and the owner of two prototype hydrogen vehicles—noted that automakers, too, realize the potential of hydrogen.

"Car companies have a huge motive and a huge interest in developing and commercializing fuel-cell technology," he said. The industry sees it as the future, Sperling observed—they just don't know when that future will become a reality.

Kazuo Okamoto, incoming head of Toyota's research and development group, said in a public statement last week that the automaker hopes to reduce the cost of an HFCV from today's typical $1 million per vehicle to $50,000 by the year 2015.

General Motors has also said it hopes to sell hydrogen vehicles in the United States by 2010.

Many Roadblocks Ahead

But some experts warn of major roadblocks that could keep hydrogen from becoming the fuel of choice in the U.S.

Joseph Romm helped oversee fuel-cell research for the U.S. Department of Energy during the Clinton administration and is the author of The Hype About Hydrogen.

"I think that the challenges to building a practical vehicle are enormous, and I suspect we are decades away from that," Romm said.

Even if vehicles can be affordably produced, Romm predicts difficulty in building a network of fueling, storage, and transfer facilities.

"Fuel providers know how to make money investing in gasoline," he said. "What would possess them to gamble tens of billions of dollars in a fuel when they don't know that people will want it? The government would have to intervene to get fueling stations into the marketplace."

Automakers will also be tasked, at least initially, to make such vehicles desirable—particulary in light of increasingly available, and environmentally friendly, gas/electric hybrids.

"The fuel is going to cost more, and the opportunities for fueling are more limited," Romm said. "These vehicles will have to be clearly superior in some category [in order to sell], and I think that is not on the horizon yet."

While Romm doesn't entirely dismiss HFCV research, he terms the technology "wildly premature" and favors a more immediate focus on hybrid vehicles and improved fuel-efficiency standards.

"We don't have vehicles that anyone would want to buy, and we don't have a fuel that's either inexpensive or environmentally benign," he said. "Could that be different in two decades? It could be, but it might not be. It's certainly not going to be any different in five years."

UC Davis's Sperling is more bullish on hydrogen's prospects.

The reality is, there's a whole range of strategies and options, some for the near term and some for the long term, he said. "Hydrogen has to be considered a leading option. It's clearly not [a technology] for tomorrow. But just as clearly, there is a need to get started soon to make it a plausible option for the future."

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