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Source: Rena Pederson, The Dallas Morning News

Posted: June 8, 2004

Flying High with Hydrogen

Americans may think they are burning money instead of gas this summer. As the vacation driving season gets under way, the average price of gasoline has speeded past $2 a gallon.

That wallop in the wallet is a reminder of how dependent Americans are on their cars and on OPEC. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries produces a third of the world's oil, which gives the cartel the upper hand on the spigot. The United States still imports more than 60 percent of its oil, and, at $40 a barrel, we are paying dearly for that addiction. (That rumble you hear in the background is the trade deficit growing by the minute.)

It's a good time to think hydrogen. The president has been talking about it for some time, but the message has been overshadowed by events in the Middle East. Most Americans probably have forgotten that in his 2003 State of the Union speech, President Bush launched the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative. For someone with an oil patch background, it's a noteworthy departure, an un-oil deal.

The idea is to find power sources that are cleaner. And more secure. Then we wouldn't have to grovel before countries with liquid gold ("Bandar, you're looking good! Nice suit!")

Though some have criticized the hydrogen project as window dressing, the administration is putting more money behind it than ever before next year's budget includes $228 million for the initiative, an increase of about $69 million, or 43 percent. More than $1.2 billion is planned over five years.

Perfecting fuel cell technology is the centerpiece of the campaign. Fuel cells have been touted for years as the "energy hope for future," much as Brazil has long been tagged as the "country of the future and always will be." But Dr. John Marburger, the science adviser to the president, promises fuel cells will propel your car someday. It's just a matter of time. And lots more money.

"Photo cells are a good example of what is going to happen with fuel cells," he said in a recent interview. "It wasn't that long ago that it would have cost you $50 to buy a tiny photocell to light a flashlight, but today they are inexpensive. The manufacturing problems have been overcome, and they are more efficient. Year by year, they have been getting better. That will happen with fuel cells."

Fuel cells are available now, he pointed out, but they are bulky. But they are in use in some industrial applications, and General Motors has vowed to have a fuel cell car by 2010.

If you ask Dr. Marburger how the hydrogen cars would work, he graciously gives you a Science 101 class, which might be expected, since he is a former university president and an expert in applied laser physics. Though his name isn't a household word, President Bush reportedly enjoys his company and has given him more "face time" than most science advisers get. "Jack" Marburger also is unusual in that he is one of the few Democrats in the upper echelon and the kind of guy who once built a harpsichord by hand just for fun.

"Gasoline is a really good medium for transforming energy," he begins his fuel cell explanation, "but it is the hydrogen you are burning in gasoline. Hydrogen doesn't like to be compressed in a small volume. It is a gas, and the molecules are very light, and they tend to fly apart. So to compress hydrogen for storage and transmission requires a lot of pressure, and it is best to lower the temperature as well. But that is very inconvenient. That's where gasoline comes in. Gasoline has a molecule that has a backbone of carbon atoms to attract the hydrogen to it. So in a way, gasoline is a trick for carrying hydrogen around in a convenient form.

"But, unfortunately, when you use the hydrogen in gasoline, it leaves the carbon behind," he went on. "It combines with oxygen in the air to make carbon dioxide and sometimes other things that are worse. We are realizing that by using the petroleum-based fuels, we're putting a lot of carbon into the atmosphere that hasn't been there before and possibly causing problems for ourselves in the future."

Anyone who has seen the blockbuster movie The Day After Tomorrow and its eye-popping special effects about global warming will understand exactly what he means.

Enter the hydrogen initiative to find a way to use the hydrogen without the bothersome carbon. Hydrogen used in fuel cells produces electricity like a big battery and the only waste product is water. The problem, Dr. Marburger says, is the hydrogen "can get away from you, so we still have to overcome the problems of storing and transporting it." That search could dramatically expand our knowledge about materials, he says, perhaps by using nanotechnology.

If all that sounds improbably theoretical, General Motors already has started taking out full-page newspaper ads promising the hydrogen economy isn't a pipe dream. GM says it is testing a fleet of fuel cell vehicles right now in downtown Tokyo and Washington. And the auto giant has 500 engineers on three continents working on hydrogen solutions.

The cost of fuel may not go down with hydrogen cars but the result will be more environmentally friendly for the day after tomorrow. And we won't be whip-sawed by events on the other side of the world, like the terrorist bombings in Saudi Arabia that sent oil markets into a tizzy.

Rena Pederson is editor at large of The Dallas Morning News. Her e-mail address is rpederson@dallasnews.com.

The opinions presented here do not necessarily represent the opinions of the editors of HydrogenHighway.

 Attention Educators

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• To encourage investment in hydrogen fuel cell technology and the infrastructure needed to create a hydrogen-based economy.

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