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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Road to Hydrogen

Air Date: Week of

In his State of the Union address, President Bush called for more research on hydrogen fuel cells. This isn’t the first time the president focused on hydrogen: in his first term in office, Mr. Bush set aside more than a billion dollars for fuel cell research. Bob Rose of the Breakthrough Technologies Institute talks with Living on Earth host Steve Curwood about the state of fuel cell technology and when he expects a hydrogen car will be on the road.


CURWOOD: As we just heard, President Bush is promising more funds for research to develop cars powered by hydrogen. It’s not the first time Mr. Bush has pushed hydrogen as a technical fix for the nation’s energy woes. In his State of the Union address back in 2003, he targeted $1.2 billion dollars to work on getting hydrogen fuel cells to market.

BUSH: A simple chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen generates energy, which can be used to power a car – producing only water, not exhaust fumes. With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom, so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free. (Applause.)

CURWOOD: To gauge where we stand in hydrogen fuel cell technology, we turn to Bob Rose. He heads the Breakthrough Technologies Institute, and he directs the U.S. Fuel Cell Council, the business association for the fuel cell industry. Welcome to Living on Earth, Mr. Rose.

ROSE: Thank you for having me.

CURWOOD: You’re welcome. So the president has long talked about increasing research funding for alternative vehicles, including that money he called for in 2003. Has this just been talk, or has he made good on that promise?

ROSE: I think the president deserves some credit for making good, at least in his budget submissions to Congress. He has used that 1.2 billion dollars as his roadmap, and every year there has been a moderately increasing amount of money proposed for hydrogen and fuel cells. The challenge we have is that Congress has not always given him everything he asked and, in some cases, has redirected a significant portion of that money to favorite local programs, otherwise known as pork barrel programs.

CURWOOD: Now, as I understand it, and some critics say this, it may well be some 20 years before a hydrogen-fueled car is commercially viable. It only took us, what, nine years to put a man on the moon when we decided to do that. Why is this project taking so long?

ROSE: Well, one wag said it was easier to put a man on the moon. I’m not so sure. But I think there are a lot of factors.

This is an industry that’s already entrenched in the marketplace and so, while I think the auto industry understands that developing hybrid vehicles in the short-term and hydrogen vehicles in the longer term is the right strategy – certainly they’re all committed to hydrogen vehicles – you know, there’s a certain tension there. They’re making money in the marketplace right now.

So, could one do it in nine years if one devoted, say, 30 billion dollars rather than one billion dollars to it? Well, you can’t rush science but you can hurry technology along, and it’s possible that we could accelerate this effort. On the other hand, there are some things that need to be done and some problems that need to be solved that are going to take us some time.

CURWOOD: How is the hydrogen research development faring at this point? I mean, okay, Mr. Bush asks for more funding, but how well is the process doing?

ROSE: If you just look at the research there has been substantial progress, particularly on fuel cell cost and durability. Hydrogen storage remains a challenge, and there are a lot of people pursuing an enormous number of ideas on that subject. But if you look away from the research for a minute and look at the kinds of vehicles that the auto industry itself is developing and putting on the road for tests, a lot of the problems seem to be on their way to solution.

For example, Honda just showed a car last fall at the auto show that achieves a 350 mile range basically with technology that’s more or less off the shelf today; they have made some modifications and some improvements on it. But a 350 mile range is a very good range. It’s certainly better than a Ford 150 will get you.

The cost issue seems to be going away. General Motors has said that cost will not be a barrier. But I think the most significant benchmark is that the auto industry is promising again – you know, back in the 90s some of the auto companies said, “well, we’re going to solve this problem in ten years.” And it’s proved to be tougher than that. But if you look at what the auto industry is saying today: General Motors is saying we’ll have the technology ready for commercial production by 2010; Ballard, the leading independent engine maker, is saying pretty much the same thing; DaimlerChrysler’s saying 2012; Honda just put out a press release saying that it would begin manufacturing fuel cell vehicles in small numbers in three or four years.

So, it seems to me that is much better a benchmark of our progress than the government’s research or, indeed, the hopes and fears of the various commentators around the world.

CURWOOD: Bob Rose is executive director of the Breakthrough Technologies Institute. He also directs the U.S. Fuel Cell Council, the business association for the fuel cell industry. Thank you, sir.

ROSE: Thank you very much.



Robert Rose bio

Fuel Cell Information


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