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Hydrogen power lures companies, politicians

By Sharon Collins
CNN Headline News

hydrogen car
A Hyundai fuel cell electric vehicle is seen next to the hydrogen refueling station at the California Fuel Cell Partnership facility in West Sacramento, California.

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(CNN) -- As the United States prepares for a possible war against Iraq, many are concerned about how such a confrontation would affect oil prices.

Americans consume about 20 million barrels of oil a day, more than half of which is imported. Many are working to reduce the United States' dependency on oil -- including President Bush.

In his State of the Union address January 28, Bush lauded the benefits of hydrogen power and vowed to set aside more than a billion dollars for research.

"Tonight I'm proposing $1.2 billion in research funding so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles," Bush said.

The lure of hydrogen power is that it is not taken from a source, like oil. Hydrogen is the most plentiful gas in the universe. A hydrogen-powered car would emit water vapor, which doesn't pollute the air.

The automotive industry and many oil companies are signing on. The auto industry, though, has often been at odds with environmentalists and Democrats for promoting gas-guzzling SUVs and opposing better fuel efficiency standards.

Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut has called Bush's hydrogen proposal a "pipe dream." If Bush wants to reduce oil dependence, he said, the United States should emphasize things like better fuel efficiency.

In addition to political opposition, there are several other barriers to developing hydrogen-powered cars. For one, it costs about 10 times more to power a car with hydrogen than with gasoline. One reason is that most methods of producing hydrogen require electricity. A bigger problem is that few refueling stations exist. There are only two in California and fewer than a dozen around the country.

Bush hopes the allocation would to address these problems in the next generation or two. "I don't know if you or I are going to be driving one of these cars, but our grandkids will. And we can say we did our duty [and] proposed some initiatives," he said.

Hydrogen-powered cars might be closer than he thinks. Amory B. Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a global energy research institution, predicts, "At least eight major automakers will be introducing low-volume fuel-cell cars from this year through 2005."

Oil companies are exploring the option, too. ChevronTexaco has established joint ventures with Energy Conversion Devices, a leader in hydrogen fuel cell research and production. Shell is racing to beat its competitors in the development and commercialization of large-scale, zero-emission solid oxide fuel cells driven by natural gas.

But more than just the automotive industry stands to benefit from fuel cell technology. According to Bill Acker of MTI Microfuel Cells Inc., a lack of increasing energy has limited the electronics revolution of expanding bandwidth and increasing computer power. His company is trying to solve that problem with methanol fuel cells.

MTI has developed a prototype mobile phone powered by a methanol, which is a carrier of hydrogen. Other potential applications for methanol fuel cells include PDAs and laptops. Methanol has 10 times the energy potential of lithium batteries and could allow laptop users to stay unplugged much longer than today.

Additional targets for hydrogen fuel cells include scooters, stoves, lawn mowers and kitchen appliances.

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