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Element tricky, supply system is nonexistent, science panel reports

By Carl T. Hall / San Francisco Chronicle

Despite all the promise of pollution-free vehicles, a transportation system based on hydrogen fuel cells is anything but a sure bet, members of a National Academies of Science panel has concluded.

Even if the most optimistic predictions prove true, and the first hydrogen fuel cell vehicles reach commercial showrooms by 2015, it would take at least another quarter-century before they have a major effect on the market, the panel concluded.

“This is a tremendously important, transforming opportunity we are talking about, but it’s not going to happen with current technology and current knowledge,” said Dan Sperling, a panel member and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California-Davis.

The report was designed mainly to guide research programs and set priorities for hydrogen development at the U.S. Department of Energy. Backed by a year of study, the report is perhaps the most comprehensive nonpartisan attempt yet to analyze hydrogen’s potential, along with its drawbacks.

President Bush has pinned his energy policy on a quest to develop hydrogen, touted as the “fuel of the future” capable of ending the United States’ dependency on oil imports while greatly reducing tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases.

In his recent budget message to Congress, Bush called for a $228 million hydrogen program in fiscal 2005, a 43 percent increase from 2004, aimed at developing hydrogen fuel cell cars and the roadside infrastructure needed to keep them running.

Against the background of hydrogen’s true believers, the National Academies of Science report seemed calculated to stay reasonably optimistic despite a host of reasons to be skeptical.

Experts said those reasons involve basic performance and cost issues that will take research breakthroughs to solve.

* For starters, fuel cells, which convert chemical energy into electricity, have a short lifespan and cost at least 10 times too much to present a cost-effective alternative in the consumer market.

* A fuel cell vehicle’s driving range is only about half that of conventional cars.

* Hydrogen must be made, stored and transported using other energy sources, whether natural gas, coal or renewable generation strategies such as wind or biomass. Biomass is made up of organic materials such as switchgrass, orchard prunings, agricultural waste and even dedicated crops.

* There is no supply and manufacturing system capable of serving a mass market, and it’s unclear how to bring such a system into existence.

Hydrogen, usually stored as an odorless gas under high pressure, needs specialized tanks and pipelines. Handling it raises some difficult safety issues, including the scary prospect of leaky tanks and exploding garages in the suburbs.

The National Academies of Science panel, which included representatives from oil companies, car markers, environmental groups and academia, agreed with the politicians and manufacturers on one point: The most ubiquitous element in the universe, if harnessed here on Earth, has tremendous potential.

Hydrogen “could fundamentally transform the U.S. energy system,” the panel concluded. It’s only a matter of time. Lots of time.

After the first hydrogen car is ready for showrooms, “it will take at least 25 years before it will have any big impact,” said Michael Ramage, chair of the academy panel and a former executive vice president for technology programs at ExxonMobil.

“Even if the cars are introduced in 2015, which is the president’s vision, to get those cars into the market, and the infrastructure built, is a long process.”
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