By Phil Yost
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Behind the wheel of a fuel cell car on Earth Day, I'm driving the squeaky clean vehicle of the future. Hydrogen goes into the tank, electricity goes into the motor, only water vapor comes out the tailpipe.
Or maybe I'm driving into a technological dead end. A future of affordable fuel cell cars is far from assured. But at least the prototypes work. The car I drove looked and felt like a regular car.
The fuel cell car is certainly the vehicle of the future in one sense. It's the basket into which all the eggs have been put in the quest for a zero-emission car. The battery-powered electric car, the darling of a decade ago, has been parked in the back lot.
In his State of the Union Message in January 2003, President Bush vowed to boost federal funding for fuel cell vehicles to $1.2 billion over five years, replacing a program for a super-efficient gasoline car.
And two days after Earth Day 2003, the California Air Resources Board adopted new standards for zero-emission vehicles. Gone was the mandate for all-electric cars. In its place - in addition to a lot of encouragement for gasoline-electric hybrids and other ultra low-emission vehicles - was a target of 250 fuel cell vehicles on the road by 2008.
West Sacramento is fuel cell central, the home of the California Fuel Cell Partnership. It consists of eight automakers, four oil companies (since hydrogen is the fuel, they're called energy providers), two fuel cell makers, and six state and federal environmental and transportation agencies.
A fuel cell car is propelled by an electric motor. Instead of importing electricity through a cord into batteries, it carries an on-board generator, the fuel cell. Fuel cells turn hydrogen into electricity through a chemical process.
Fuel cell technology has come this far: It fits into normal-sized cars that perform with the acceleration and speed Americans are accustomed to.
Even so, fuel cell cars are a long way from a cinch to be the next big thing.
Fuel cells are much more expensive than engines, and they are not yet reliable enough. The cars' range of 150 to 180 miles between refuelings is only about 50 percent greater than that of a battery-electric car. The good news is that hydrogen cars can be refueled quickly. The bad news is that a hydrogen distribution system would have to be created.
Also, the pollution story is more complicated than the harmless water vapor coming out the tailpipe. Hydrogen doesn't occur by itself in nature. It has to be separated from something else - generally water or a fossil fuel - and separation requires energy. If a solar panel creates the electricity to divide water into hydrogen and oxygen, we've got a pollution-free, renewable system. If a coal-fired power plant creates the electricity to make hydrogen, we're not so far ahead.
Fuel cell research is easy to deride as yet another government pipe dream. Right now it probably pencils out as an investment only under the standards that applied for funding pet food dot-coms. In the short term, the increasing use of gasoline-electric hybrids will provide much quicker gains against pollution.
But I like the fuel cell pipe dream. A pollution-free car would be a great boon. Government is a logical funder of basic research in areas that offer potential benefits to all of society. I'd much rather have my tax dollars chasing this dream than, say, an orbiting space station.
If they spend a couple billion here, a couple billion there, it's just barely over the threshold for real money.
(Phil Yost is chief editorial writer of the San Jose Mercury News.)
KRT CALIFORNIA is a premium service of Knight Ridder/Tribune
© 2003, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.