Opinions divided on hydrogen cars

Posted: 27 March 2003

The prospect of a hydrogen future was given a boost when US President George Bush unveiled a development plan, worth $1.7bn, in his State of the Union address, earlier this year. to help the US develop hydrogen-powered automobiles. But opinion is divided on the impact of this policy.

The first positive response has come from a partnership, announced in March 2003, between General Motors (GM) and Shell to move ahead with hydrogen-powered car production. GM promises to provide a test fleet of six fuel-cell Zafira mini vans costing $1m each, while Shell will install hydrogen pumps at one of its Washington gas stations.

The companies say they expect about 10,000 people to ride in the vehicles over the next two years.

New markets

Experimental fleets of hydrogen cars built by Toyota and Honda have been operating in California since last year. But, according to a report by Maggie Shiels, for BBC Online, the GM/Shell partnership is seen as pivotal because it is an oil company and an auto-car maker joining forces.

The benefit and flexibility of this technology is so powerful that it will open up hundreds of new markets around the globe says Larry Burns, General Motors vice president for research and development.

In hydrogen vehicles, an electric motor powers the wheels. A chemical reaction inside a unit called a fuel cell - usually between hydrogen and oxygen - creates electricity for the motor. The only emission is water vapour.

Some believe with the right commitment and investment, hydrogen cars could be ubiquitous in as little as 10 years. Peter Schwartz of the Global Business Network, told BBC Online that an investment of $100bn could shift the balance of power from foreign oil producers to US energy consumers within a decade.

By 2013 a third of all new cars sold could be hydrogen-powered, 15 per cent of the national gas stations could pump hydrogen, and the US could get more than half its energy from domestic sources, he said.

Research on fuel cells is being taken so seriously at GM that more than 500 scientists and engineers on three continents are working on this new technology.

"The benefit and flexibility of this technology is so powerful that it will literally open up hundreds of new markets around the globe," said Larry Burns, GM vice-president of research and development.

Improved efficiency

Other researchers are less optimistic. A recent report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says that even the most advanced hydrogen fuelled vehicles in 2020 would not be the most environmentally-friendly option.They point out that producing hydrogen fuel from natural gas or petrol would involve substantial carbon dioxide emissions, coupled with the environmental costs of distributing it.

The MIT team says that a better policy now would be to improve the efficiency of existing diesel and petrol cars. This could be accompanied by greater use of hybrid engines which link electric power to internal combustion engines.

Echoing this view, Dr Peter Wells, a senior research fellow from the Centre for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff University, in Wales, said there was a consensus that hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles would not be a viable alternative in the near future. Even if a million fuel cell vehicles were on the road in 2020, that would still leave 200 million conventional cars, he said.

The MIT report does agree, however, that in the longer term there is no alternative to hydrogen power. "If auto systems with significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions are required in say 30 to 50 years, hydrogen is the only major fuel option identified to date," says Professor John Heywood, one of the report's authors.

Source: BBC NEWS Online (27th March, 2003).See also:Renewable Options 2: Fuel Cells