NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Hydrogen Research May be Hot Air

March 17, 2004

President Bush has advocated spending $1.7 billion on hydrogen research with the aim of making it practical and cost-effective to use clean, hydrogen-powered vehicles by 2020. But the new initiative has technological and economic challenges to overcome, and concerns about cost, environmental impact and safety that need to be addressed.

A full transformation to hydrogen fuel cells, however, could take until 2050, says the National Academy of Sciences. Concern over that long timetable has split the auto industry. General Motors (GM) prefers to wait until fuel cells are readily available, while Ford is considering a half-way alternative -- hydrogen-burning internal combustion engines.

Citing a soon-to-be-released study by Argonne National Laboratory, GM indicates that hydrogen-combustion engines may be no cleaner than gasoline-powered engines:

  • Gasoline-burning engines emit (per mile) .165 grams of nitrogen oxide, .023 grams of soot particulates and 540 grams of greenhouse gases.
  • Hydrogen-burning engines reduce greenhouse gas emissions only slightly, producing 507 grams per mile, while slightly increasing emissions of nitrogen oxide and soot particulates.
  • The currently impractical hydrogen-powered fuel cells, however, would significantly reduce emissions per mile, producing 0.036 grams of nitrogen-oxide, .036 grams of soot particulates, and 252 grams of greenhouse gases.

Environmentalists have accused automakers and proponents of using hydrogen-powered engines as a way to avoid designing more gasoline-efficient vehicles.

Additionally, the biggest proponents of hydrogen-burning combustion engines are in California, but that state's Clean Air Resources Board says that those vehicles will get no credits under zero-emissions rules imposed by the state unless they burn cleaner than what the Argonne study suggests.

Source: Jeffrey Ball, "Car Makers Split Over Timing of Hydrogen-Powered Vehicles," Wall Street Journal, February 26, 2004 and "The Hydrogen Economy: Opportunities, Costs, Barriers, and R&D Needs," National Academy of Sciences, February 4, 2004.


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