WASHINGTON -- A public-private effort to develop more fuel-efficientautomobiles and eventually introduce hydrogen as a transportation fuelis well-planned and identifies all major hurdles the program will face,says a new report from the National Academies' National ResearchCouncil. Many technical barriers must be overcome and new inventionswill be needed, but the program, which was launched three years ago,has already made an excellent start, said the committee that wrote thereport.
"The goals of this program are extremely challenging and success isuncertain, but it could have an enormous beneficial impact on energysecurity and the U.S. economy," said Craig Marks, committee chair andretired vice president for technology and productivity, AlliedSignalInc., Bloomfield Hills, Mich. "Although it is still too early tospeculate whether the program will achieve its long-term vision, it ismaking significant headway."
The FreedomCAR (Cooperative Automotive Research) and FuelPartnership, a research collaboration among the U.S. Department ofEnergy, the Big Three automakers, and five major energy companies,seeks to develop emissions-free and petroleum-free vehicles. Theprogram includes the President's Hydrogen Fuel Initiative -- initiatedin 2003 to develop technologies for hydrogen production anddistribution -- and is a successor to the Partnership for a NewGeneration of Vehicles, a collaboration between federal agencies andautomakers during the Clinton administration.
The long-term goal of the partnership is to develop technologythat will help automakers decide by 2015 whether it is possible tomanufacture and sell hydrogen-powered vehicles on a large scale. Toachieve this goal, the program's partners are examining cost-efficientand safe ways to produce hydrogen from traditional and renewable energysources, distribute it via filling stations, store it in vehicles, andconvert it to electricity with fuel cells. The program also sponsorsresearch to reduce the size, weight, and cost of all of the vehiclecomponents needed. While pursuing these goals, the program is exploringtechnology that, in the short term, will provide more efficient andless polluting combustion engines, as well as electric batteries thatcould be used in hybrid vehicles with either fossil fuel- orhydrogen-powered engines.
The program's most difficult long-term challenge is hydrogenstorage in vehicles, the report says. Hydrogen, whether gas or liquid,takes up more space than gasoline, requiring large, heavy tanks andfrequent refueling. Commercially viable fuel cells with the desiredperformance, durability, and cost are another major challenge. Also,appropriate hydrogen filling stations will need to be designed andwidely deployed. DOE should pay special attention to challenges andtechnological innovations that will arise during the shift frompetroleum to hydrogen as a transportation fuel, in order to set goalsand foster technologies that would speed the transition to a maturehydrogen economy, the report says.
Like gasoline, hydrogen is flammable, so safe systems fortransporting, storing, and handling it are needed. DOE should broadenits team of safety experts to identify overall safety issues, helpdevelop codes and standards, and increase public awareness of hydrogensafety issues to facilitate the introduction of hydrogen vehicles intothe marketplace, the report says. Also, DOE and the U.S. EnvironmentalProtection Agency should investigate the possible long-termenvironmental effects of large-scale hydrogen production and its use intransportation vehicles. The FreedomCAR and Fuel Partnership'smanagement should perform an overall program evaluation and analysis tohelp the program's partners establish priorities and make informeddecisions about possible trade-offs, the report adds.
Currently, short-term activities, such as research on advancedcombustion engines and electric batteries, receive 30 percent of theprogram's funding; long-term research on hydrogen energy technologiesreceives 70 percent. This funding split is suitable, the committeesaid, although for the past two years Congress has appropriatedsignificant portions of the overall funding for specific recipients andactivities not focused on program goals. If this practice continueswithout an overall funding increase to compensate for it, timingmilestones for the program will certainly slip, the committee said.
The study was sponsored bythe U.S. Department of Energy. The National Research Council is theprincipal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and theNational Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institutionthat provides science and technology advice under a congressionalcharter. A committee roster follows.
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