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Hydrogen fuel far from ready for prime time
San Francisco Chronicle


May 02, 2006

President Bush has pointed to hydrogen technology as the ultimate solution to the nation's fuel supply problems, but one big question waits to be answered: Where will all the hydrogen come from?

Even if manufacturers can produce affordable hydrogen-powered vehicles that people will want to buy, energy experts say the nation's petroleum addiction - a key source of carbon emissions contributing to global warming - won't end until an environmentally sound hydrogen supply and distribution system is at hand.




"If we don't generate hydrogen in an environmentally responsible way, we'd be going five steps backward, rather than forward," said Scott Samuelsen, director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California-Irvine, where he is also an engineering professor.

Samuelsen calls for a comprehensive national effort, backed by the kind of resources and coordination that resulted in the first moon landing, to map out a clean and sustainable energy future. The administration's $1.2 billion, five-year hydrogen initiative is a useful step, he added, but not nearly enough.

"We need to invest a lot more," he said. "I think it's doable, but it will take a unified strategy."

Making cars that work well on hydrogen may be the critical step needed to spur development of any new energy infrastructure. The reason there's no supply system readily apparent now is not so much a problem of technology, but simple economics, said Julio Friedmann, who runs a research program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory involving carbon emissions.

"There's still no demand for hydrogen," he said. "Until you have hydrogen cars, there's no reason to have pipelines and production."

Even if a storage scheme is found, it's still not entirely clear where all the hydrogen would come from to run any significant part of the national transportation system.

It's not that hydrogen is so hard to find. It's the most abundant element in the universe, the H in H2O - ordinary water - and the "hydro" in "hydrocarbon" - as in natural gas or other fossil fuels. Hydrogen today, in fact, is produced almost entirely from natural gas.

The trouble is that it takes energy to get hydrogen in pure, usable form. That's why it's really not considered a fuel at all, but rather an energy carrier - a method of storing power generated any number of ways.

The question is which way, and at what cost.

"It's just like electricity - it's as clean or expensive as what you make it from," said Gene Berry, an engineer at Lawrence Livermore who analyzes hydrogen technologies.

Energy companies, academic scientists and government researchers are beginning to investigate the possibilities. Early outlines of a California "hydrogen highway" of refueling stations call for the first ones to carry hydrogen made from at least 20 percent renewable energy sources.

But no large-scale supply and distribution network will emerge until there's enough demand - and that's going to take a while.

"You need to see a clear path to a commercial market," said Tim Lipman, a research engineer at the University of California's Institute of Transportation Studies.

Optimists insist the technology problems can be solved - eventually - but nobody believes it will be easy.

Hydrogen already is being used to power reconfigured Prius hybrids, 30 of which are being delivered now to local-government fleets in pollution-sensitive Southern California, in a five-year demonstration project designed to help spread the word about hydrogen's potential.

These early hybrids may help prime the market, but they clearly aren't the ideal vehicles for mass consumption. The supplier, Quantum Fuel Systems Technologies Worldwide, said the cars go only 70 to 80 miles before needing a refill, and cost $60,000 to equip - not counting the cost of the Prius.

Vehicles equipped with hydrogen fuel cells - quickly rechargeable battery-like units - could someday replace internal-combustion engines altogether. That's only if engineers can find a way to make the fuel cells efficient enough to drive long distances, and cheap enough to be affordable. Fuel cell cars now cost on the order of $1 million apiece.

Efficient hydrogen storage is one of the toughest technical problems blocking headway.

"You have to have cost-effective hydrogen storage technology to cram enough on board a vehicle to get adequate driving range," said Jason Mark, vehicles director in Berkeley for the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group.


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