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Getting Hydrogen Cars To Live Up to Their Hype

When the lithium-ion batteries run down, a fuel cell powered by the central hydrogen tank takes over in the HySeries Drive of Ford's Edge.
When the lithium-ion batteries run down, a fuel cell powered by the central hydrogen tank takes over in the HySeries Drive of Ford's Edge. (Ford)

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By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Ford Edge gliding along the George Washington Memorial Parkway doesn't have spinning rims or a booming sound system. The bling in this SUV is the technology. The vehicle runs almost silently. It needs no gas and releases no polluting exhaust.

The HySeries Edge, which is to be unveiled at the Washington Auto Show today, is a plug-in hybrid with an electric drive powered by a battery and a hydrogen fuel cell. Its arrival intensifies the competition to manufacture a mass-market electric hybrid that reduces reliance on gasoline and curbs the emission of greenhouse gases.

But the futuristic Edge vehicle is Ford's only one, and it cost $2 million to build. To get a car like this into the showroom for sale to the public will require the automotive and energy industries to leap high technological hurdles. The infrastructure to deliver alternative fuels such as hydrogen is in its infancy, and engineers are puzzling over how to mass-produce a lightweight, inexpensive and safe electric battery.

Because development costs are steep, the industry is hoping President Bush will announce his intention to increase research funding during his State of the Union speech tonight. Already the government pumps millions of dollars into the development of automotive technology. The carmakers frame their latest request as a battle cry against Japanese rivals, whose fuel-efficient models have cut sharply into the U.S. market. They have asked for as much as $500 million for battery research and development.

The Edge plug-in, a vehicle Ford calls the first drivable plug-in hybrid from a major auto company, is one result of a $44 million matching grant from the government, which has gone into a variety of projects. Its on-board fuel cell is used to recharge the battery while driving; it has a range of 225 miles with fuel cell recharging. The vehicle also can be plugged in for recharging.

Its appearance on the roads around the District tries to trump General Motors' entry in the race. This month, GM revealed an electric plug-in hybrid with a small gas engine. But while GM's vehicle, the Volt, looked sharp under glass on the floor of the Detroit auto show, there was no road-ready version.

"We are past this being a science experiment," said Mujeeb Ijaz, who directs Ford's hydrogen plug-in Edge project. "It's a tough road to commercialize. It takes support."

The Department of Energy is finalizing a comprehensive plug-in plan, according to industry and government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan has not been announced. The goal is to get plug-ins on the road within the next several years.

During the Clinton and Bush administrations, the federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars a year on advanced automotive technology. Joseph Romm, an Energy Department official in the late 1990s, estimates the total expense at $3 billion since the early 1990s.

President Clinton launched an initiative called the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles. The goal of the program was to deliver an advanced hybrid family sedan that could get 80 miles per gallon.

The Bush administration revised the program when it took power. In his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush said the goal of the government's auto policy would be to advance hydrogen technology in cars.

"As soon as George Bush got elected, the U.S. car companies walked away from the partnership and didn't continue developing hybrids," Romm said. "And the Japanese did. As a result, they ended up the leaders."

Producing electric batteries for automobiles presents several challenges. The preferred technology is found in lithium-ion batteries, which are smaller and lighter than others and have the capability to store two to three times as much power. But without the benefits of mass production, the batteries are still far too costly.

Battery engineers are also working on the safety problems of lithium-ion batteries. Under certain conditions, some of the materials in the batteries are unstable and can ignite or explode when packed together. Scientists have been working on reducing the risk, but technologies needed for those improvements make the batteries less powerful and less effective. Engineers are also testing to make sure the batteries can survive a 15-year lifetime without malfunctions.

Ford's Ijaz said the biggest hurdle is getting the costs down. Among the vehicle's other expenses, fuel cell technology is dependent on precious metals such as platinum.

"History shows that we are making the steps," he said. "Before, there were no fuel cell cars. Ford has 30. We've cut the weight of fuel cell power by half. The auto industry is pushing forward."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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