The latest technological advancements in the automobile industry not only reflect on how far we have come, but also accentuate what opportunities are on the horizon. We are driving safer and more fuel-efficient cars that run better and last longer with less maintenance. At the same time, we are on the brink of experiencing something many could not have imagined even 20 or 30 years ago-the multitude of automobile engine types and power choices.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), nearly every automobile manufacturer is working on an alternative fuel option. These choices will come in the form of traditional hydrocarbons (gas or diesel) or alternative fuels, such as electric, the varying degrees of hybrids, or the latest, hydrogen.
If they haven't already, most major automobile manufacturers will be demonstrating hydrogen-fueled vehicles within the next several years. According to DOE reports, the early fuel cell demonstration programs will consist of pilot-plan "batch-builds" of approximately 10-150 vehicles. These early vehicles are most likely to be deployed in fleets with a centralized or shared re-fueling infrastructure to limit capital investment.
The enthusiasm for hydrogen fuel is largely attributed to two of DOE's major initiatives that have both stemmed from the National Energy Policy. The first is the National Hydrogen Vision that resulted in the publication of the National Vision of America's Transition to a Hydrogen Economy (February 2002). Following this action, a committee was formed consisting of representatives from government, business, non-governmental organizations and universities that was tasked to develop the second major publication: The National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap (November 2002). It is from this research and think-tank activity that the Bush Administration became convinced that hydrogen power could be a reality.
Hydrogen can be produced from a variety of sources, including fossil fuels; renewable sources such as wind, solar, or biomass; nuclear or solar heat-powered thermochemical reactions; and solar photolysis or biological methods. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe; conversely it does not naturally exist in large quantities or high concentrations on Earth-it must be produced from other compounds such as water, biomass or fossil fuels. It is relatively clean burning (based on the technology) and therefore provides long-term benefits in air quality and global climate change. It also provides the U.S. with a stronger national security position and supports global population and economic growth.
According to the Hydrogen Energy Roadmap report, the U.S. hydrogen industry currently produces nine million tons of hydrogen per year for use in chemical production, petroleum refining, metals treating and electrical applications. This amount of hydrogen would provide enough energy for approximately 20-30 million cars or 5 to 8 million homes that could be powered for an entire year. Because hydrogen is currently produced as an intermediary for other operations, a void in the technologies necessary for mass-producing hydrogen, developing an infrastructure including delivery and storage and creating applications for general consumption does not exist.
Likewise, the political and societal influences necessary for change have not been painstakingly analyzed to evaluate the profound transformations needed in individual perceptions regarding the use and form of available energy. Specific to transportation, fuel cell vehicles are in the early stages of development and the first vehicles are likely to fall short of consumer expectations (e.g., range, cold-weather capability). By comparison, conventional internal-combustion engine vehicles have had the benefit of more than 100 years of technological refinement as well as reliable, low-cost gasoline to power them. As a result, the Hydrogen Energy Roadmap report states that convincing Americans to use hydrogen applications will require incentives, policies for price parity, and "rights-of-way" for hydrogen infrastructure (similar to those in the natural gas industry).
The next steps identified in the Hydrogen Energy Roadmap report are two-fold. First, additional and ongoing research and development for each technology area must continue and be increased. Secondly, government leadership will be necessary to develop policies that consistently incorporate the external costs of energy and provide a clear signal to industry and consumers.