Fuel cell cars face high hurdles to reality
Justin Hyde, Reuters
DETROIT -- It's the holy grail of the auto industry: pollution-free power
for cars and trucks, fueled by an abundant substance found around the world.
After a decade of research, automakers still
have a tough quest ahead of them.
Hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles got a boost
Tuesday when President Bush proposed in his State of the Union address spending an additional $720 million in research over
the next five years on hydrogen power, saying "the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen and
But there are many factors that could keep mass-produced
fuel cell vehicles off U.S. roads for a decade. Power from a vehicle-ready fuel cell costs
100 times more than power from a gasoline internal combustion engine. The United States would need to produce at least four times more hydrogen a year to sustain a large fuel
cell vehicle fleet, and there's no consensus on how highly volatile, hard-to-handle hydrogen gas can be carried long distances
and easily stored.
Automakers have spent at least $2 billion in
recent years on fuel cell research and development. How certain are they about solving all the problems surrounding hydrogen-powered
"Very certain," said Philip Chizek, marketing
manager for Ford Motor Co.'s fuel cell vehicle program. "We've been working on fuel cells since the early '90s. We've put
a lot of money in the program and a lot of support."
Fuel cells create electricity without pollution
by combining hydrogen and oxygen, with water the only by-product. While fuel cells were invented in 1839, only in the past
decade has there been a push to adapt them for powering cars.
Nearly every major automaker worldwide has some
form of fuel cell vehicle program under way. A few, including Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. Ltd., and DaimlerChrysler
AG, have leased a few experimental vehicles to test fleets.
But mass production on the scale of today's gasoline-powered
vehicles is at least a decade away. Chizek and other auto executives cite cost as the most immediate challenge: A gasoline
engine can produce one kilowatt of energy for about $50, while a one-kilowatt fuel cell on the market today costs $5,000.
A contender for the most immediate problem facing
fuel cells is how to store hydrogen in a vehicle. To meet the roughly 350-mile range of today's vehicle, a fuel-cell car would
need about five kilograms (11 lbs) of hydrogen stored on board. Few test vehicles have even come close.
The consensus method for storing hydrogen --
which burns without a flame and is hard to control -- appears to be tanks capable of holding hydrogen gas under high pressure.
That's the method used by Ford's test vehicles as well as General Motors Corp.'s Hy-Wire concept. Another alternative is storing
hydrogen with another chemical, which is the system Chrysler used in a concept minivan last year.
Even if there is a way to store hydrogen in vehicles,
companies still would have to find a way to make enough hydrogen and move it around the country easily. The United States produces about 9 million tons of hydrogen a year, most from natural gas, which
is enough to power about 20 million to 30 million vehicles, according to federal estimates. Power for half the U.S. vehicle fleet -- roughly 100 million vehicles -- would require 40 million tons
of hydrogen a year.
A federal report on fuel cell vehicles lists
20 different hurdles just for carrying hydrogen gas. GM estimates that if a hydrogen-delivery system were built today, hydrogen
would cost four to six times as much as a comparable amount of gasoline.
PROMISE OR FEINT?
The $720 million in new federal funding proposed
by Bush is aimed at hydrogen production, storage, and delivery. That is on top of another $1 billion already devoted to automotive
fuel cell research. A senior administration official said Wednesday the funds would help solve the "chicken-and-egg problem"
of whether fuel cell vehicles can come to market without a fueling structure.
"It's designed to show a national commitment
to ensure that both the automobile and the infrastructure of hydrogen-fueled vehicles can be deployed rapidly and together,"
the official said.
Environmentalists chided Bush's proposal for
failing to require automakers to build fuel-cell vehicles in return for federal funding. Dan Becker, director of the Sierra
Club's global warming projects, noted that despite a similar government plan to boost hybrid vehicles in the 1990s, Detroit's Big Three have yet to build a single one for sale.
"What we would like is a program that would bring
forward the day fuel cells are available," Becker said. "This program is a fig leaf behind which the president can hide his
lack of an environmental program."