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Last Updated:  Thursday, 27 March, 2003, 01:49 GMT
Is hydrogen the fuel of the future?

By Maggie Shiels
San Francisco

America's first street-ready fuel-cell-powered car in California 1998
America's first fuel-cell-powered car
Hydrogen is the new buzz word as oil companies and car makers back the view that it will be the successor to oil in the coming decades.

The drive towards a hydrogen future was given a real boost when President George Bush unveiled a development plan, worth $1.7bn, in his State of the Union address, to help the US lead the world in developing clean hydrogen-powered automobiles.

Now just weeks after that commitment comes a significant partnership between General Motors (GM) and Shell to provide a taste of the future.

GM says it will provide a fleet of six fuel-cell Zafira mini vans at $1m each for people to test drive while Shell will install hydrogen pumps at one of its Washington gas stations.

The companies say they expect about 10,000 people to ride in the vehicles over the next two years.

Shell Hydrogen chief executive Donald Huberts said his company wants to demonstrate the practical and everyday use of hydrogen fuel.

Within reach

Experimental fleets of hydrogen cars built by Toyota and Honda have been operating in California since last year, but the GM/Shell partnership is seen as pivotal because it is an oil company and an auto maker joining forces.

A ceremony to mark the deal between GM and Shell
The benefit and flexibility of this technology is so powerful that it will open up hundreds of new markets around the globe
Larry Burns, GM

Of course the fact that the price of a barrel of crude has touched 12-year highs in recent weeks, coupled with the war in Iraq provides further urgency to finding alternative fuel sources.

In hydrogen vehicles, an electric motor powers the wheels.

A chemical reaction inside a unit called a fuel cell - usually between hydrogen and oxygen - creates electricity for the motor.

The only emission is water vapour - although the air pollution is only moved up the supply chain, and occurs when hydrogen is produced using oil or gas.

Some believe with the right commitment and investment, hydrogen cars could be ubiquitous in as little as 10 years.


Peter Schwartz of the Global Business Network charts trends and shifts in the worlds of energy, business, technology and government.

In an article for Wired magazine, he has devised a five-point-plan to build the hydrogen economy so that people can continue their love affair with the car.

Peter Schwartz of the Global Business Network
Peter Schwartz: people can continue to love their cars

Mr Schwartz told BBC Online an investment of $100bn could shift the balance of power from foreign oil producers to US energy consumers within a decade.

By 2013 a third of all new cars sold could be hydrogen-powered, 15% of the national gas stations could pump hydrogen, and the US could get more than half its energy from domestic sources, he said.

The race is on to bring the first fuel cell vehicle to market - at the National Hydrogen Conference in Washington GM declared that it is poised to become the first automaker to sell a million fuel cell vehicles in the next decade.

"We will remain competitive only by providing the technology that customers expect and deserve - today and tomorrow," said Rick Wagoner, GM president and chief executive.

Research on fuel cells is being taken so seriously at GM that more than 500 scientists and engineers on three continents are working on this new technology.

"The benefit and flexibility of this technology is so powerful that it will literally open up hundreds of new markets around the globe," said Larry Burns, GM vice-president of research and development.

To date DaimlerChrysler, Ford and GM have spent roughly $2bn developing fuel cell cars, trucks and buses with the first products due to hit the market this year.

Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr has proclaimed that fuel cells will finally end the 100-year reign of the internal combustion engine.

Financial sense

For the customer, cost is king.

Chris Birroni-Bird, one of GM's leading fuel cell experts, said the gas-powered engine on a $20,000 vehicle costs about $3,000.

A hydrogen fuel-cell engine on the same automobile would cost $30,000.

But Jeff Serfass, president of the National Hydrogen Association, said you must include the cost of fuel in the comparison.

"You have to compare the cost of hydrogen combined with the efficiency of the fuel cell, which is about twice as efficient as today's engine, to give you a competitive cost per mile," he said.

Futurist Peter Schwartz says the genie is now out of the bottle and the need for hydrogen to replace oil cannot be ignored any longer.

Scientists estimate that the days of cheap oil will end anywhere between 2007 to 2040.

The stakes are high and energy independence bears directly on US self-determination.

The turmoil in the Middle East, the growing national security budget, the promise of technology that needs only a financial push, appear to make this the right moment to launch an Apollo-scale commitment to hydrogen power.

Fuel-cell car hopes played down
11 Mar 03  |  Science/Nature
The long road for hydrogen
29 Jan 03  |  Sci/Tech
Hydrogen Economy
21 Aug 02  |  Archive
Why own a car when you can share?
22 Oct 01  |  dot life

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