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Senate Approves Bill Restoring Funding for Hydrogen Car Research

The Equinox is a General Motors trial hydrogen vehicle. The automaker has invested more than $1.5 billion in hopes of making the technology a reality.
The Equinox is a General Motors trial hydrogen vehicle. The automaker has invested more than $1.5 billion in hopes of making the technology a reality. (General Motors)
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By comparison, the amount appropriated Thursday is meager: $187 million. But even that level of government support has critics, who say the possibilities and benefits of the technology have been wildly exaggerated.

One of the essential arguments for hydrogen fuel-cell cars is that they may provide the best means of reaching the goal of emission-free vehicles.

The cars, which are fueled with hydrogen gas, operate by combining the hydrogen with oxygen to produce electricity, which drives the engine. Water vapor is the car's only emission.

"It was just a pleasure to drive, smooth all the way and quiet," said Donald Lewis, a Fairfax County resident and retired tech company executive who drove one of General Motors's trial hydrogen vehicles, an Equinox, for five months. "Government should play a role in getting hydrogen moving. Why do we have a Department of Energy if they're not going to get this country off of foreign oil?"

Yet doubts about hydrogen cars arise because there remain daunting obstacles regarding the cost and practicality of building the cars and creating a network of refueling stations.

In its report last year, the National Research Council said the technology needs to meet "very substantial challenges." Or, as Chu told Technology Review, it needed "miracles," involving the way hydrogen fuel is derived, stored and distributed. He also said more work needs to be done to develop the fuel cells.

Cost is also a critical issue. Though GM, Toyota, Honda and Daimler all have hydrogen fuel research programs, none is close enough to announcing a price. Some of the experimental vehicles being used cost upwards of $300,000, partly because they are not built in mass production.

Investment in Hope

Currently there are only about a few dozen places in the United States where a hydrogen car can refuel. The stations cost about $2 million to build.

Despite these obstacles, some automakers and governments have invested billions in hopes of making the technology a reality.

GM has invested more than $1.5 billion.

"It's not that far out there," said Charles Freese, GM's chief of fuel-cell activities, said of the technology's prospects. Freese, noting that the weight of the engines has been significantly reduced and the need for precious metals halved, said a hydrogen car could be commercialized by 2015.

In the 2003 State of the Union Speech, Bush proposed spending $1.2 billion "in research funding so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles."

The governments of Japan and Germany also are investing hundreds of millions in the technology, with the Germans aiming to build 1,000 stations by 2015, according to auto industry sources.

"We're grateful to the Congress for seeing the value in continuing this work," said Jerome Hinkle, vice president of government affairs for the National Hydrogen Association. He added that the administration has since seemed to moderate its opposition to hydrogen cars.

"They've made peace with it," he said.

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