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President Bush talked about investing $1.2 billion dollars toward hydrogen fuel cell technology in his State of the Union Address.

I wondered just how feasible this technology was, so I did a little poking around.

First, here's an explanation of how the technology works from, um, How Stuff Works.

A fuel cell is an electrochemical energy conversion device that converts hydrogen and oxygen into water, producing electricity and heat in the process. It is very much like a battery that can be recharged while you are drawing power from it. Instead of recharging using electricity, however, a fuel cell uses hydrogen and oxygen.

Sounds great, huh?

Well, here's an overview of different researchers' positions on the feasibility of the technology and the wisdom in focusing primarily on hydrogen cells, as opposed to other forms of alternative fuel.

According to the article, there are three large barriers to overcome:

The technology already exists, but comes with a trio of challenges production of the hydrogen itself, the large size of the hydrogen fuel cells and their exorbitant costs. Researchers were split yesterday on whether devoting so much governmental money is the wisest course.

But how likely is it that these obstacles can be dealt with, enabling the practical use of hydrogen cell technology?

The pessimist, Carnegie Mellon University Professor Lester Lave:

"When you were 3 years old, you heard all about the Tooth Fairy. Well, this is the Tooth Fairy of the car world. This is so seductive (an idea) that sophisticated men and women just fall to their knees and weep," said Lave, professor of engineering and public policy. " I'm sort of surprised at the president's speech, thinking he had smarter advisers than that."

The optimist:

Wipke, of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said most industry experts predict hydrogen-powered cars to be on the road in seven years, although he expects it could take a few more than that. The president's research push, though, should accelerate the progress, he said.

"When you get a lot of money and identify something as a national priority, a lot of things can happen that otherwise would bubble along on their own," Wipke said.


And the sensible, broad-based approach:

Chris T. Hendrickson, head of CMU's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, struck a middle-of-the-road stance.

"I would say what you want is a research portfolio so you're investing in a number of different things. It may not make as big a political statement, but I think it makes sense from a research point of view."


This last view makes the most sense to me, from what I've learned so far. There are a number of different types of alternative fuels, from existing hybrid technology to biodiesal (made from renewable vegetable oils and animal fats) to CNG (Compressed Natural Gas).

By focusing entirely on hydrogen fuel cells, it seems likely that the President is not only avoiding an immediate problem by focusing on a technology that likely will not produce results for a decade or more, but that he's putting all the eggs in one basket.


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