NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Ruts Along the Road to Hydrogen-Powered Autos

March 7, 2003

The prospect of cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells generates excitement among environmentalists and energy analysts who would like to see the United States reduce its dependence on foreign oil. But achieving a hydrogen-powered future means overcoming so many challenges that industry insiders predict that future is still a decade to half a century away.

In theory, hydrogen fuel cells would -- in one clean chemical reaction -- combine hydrogen with oxygen to produce electricity to power cars. Only warm water would spit out as exhaust.

  • Hydrogen -- which requires less of a spark to ignite than gasoline does -- presents such tricky safety issues that some technicians wear antistatic lab coats when filling a tank.
  • The fuel also will emit some carbon dioxide.
  • Perhaps the major obstacles are distribution and paying for the giant network which will carry hydrogen to the nation's gas stations.
  • Meanwhile energy producers and the auto industry are debating which should come first -- a clean car or the clean fuel?

Both sides want government subsidies to smooth the way for them and, indeed, President Bush has proposed a five-year, $1.7 billion federal subsidy for hydrogen research.

General Motors claims it has already spent nearly a billion dollars trying to get its fuel-cell prototypes ready for the road, and hopes to sell a million fuel-cell powered vehicles a year by the middle of the next decade. That would be equal to about 10 percent of its annual production.

Source: Jeffery Ball, "Hydrogen Fuel May Be Clean, But Getting Here Looks Messy," Wall Street Journal, March 7, 2003.

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