In his State
of the Union speech in January 2003, President Bush laid out his
hopes for the future of hydrogen fuel cell cars.
a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome
obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom, so
that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered
by hydrogen, and pollution-free."
pledged $1.7 billion for hydrogen research and development (R&D)
over the next five years to make fuel cell cars a reality. With
government funding secured, the race is on to overcome the obstacles
involved in making hydrogen a viable energy source.
fuel supporters cite its significant environmental benefits: unlike
fossil fuels, hydrogen can be pollution-free and infinitely renewable
through wind, solar and hydropower sources.
that the fuel source does have its environmental drawbacks, and
are concerned about the Bush administration's plan to extract
hydrogen. Instead of generating hydrogen from water and sunlight,
the 2002 National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap requires that up to
90 percent of all hydrogen be refined from non-renewable resources,
oil, natural gas and other fossil fuels.
Once the hydrogen
is in a fuel cell car, only water vapor and heat will be expelled
from the tailpipe, but the process of burning fossil fuels to
obtain the hydrogen will release carbon dioxide, the primary cause
of global warming.
say that if hydrogen is only extracted from fossil fuels, the
environmental impact of the carbon dioxide released from the burning
of fossil fuels will outweigh the environmental benefits of a
clean-burning energy provider.
to John Heywood, director of MIT's Sloan Automotive Lab, "If
the hydrogen does not come from renewable sources, then it is
simply not worth doing, environmentally or economically."
Bush's 2004 budget asks for more than $22 million for hydrogen
research and development to be devoted to coal, nuclear power
and natural gas, and $17 million for renewable sources.
R&D for renewable sources and replacing them with fossil and
nuclear doesn't make for a sustainable approach," said Jason
Mark, director of the clean vehicles program for the Union of
A recent study
warns of the danger of releasing hydrogen itself into the atmosphere.
Los Alamos researcher Thom Rahn led a team of scientists from
California universities and the National Center for Atmospheric
Research in Boulder, Colo. Their study of the natural cycle of
atmospheric hydrogen was recently published in the British science
journal Nature, and finds that substantially increased hydrogen
production has the potential to damage the upper atmosphere.
could build up, depleting the ozone layer near the North and South
poles and triggering an increase in global warming. The study
also warns that hydrogen may further contribute to global warming
by aiding other chemicals in producing increased amounts of water
vapor in the upper atmosphere.
impossible to manufacture, store and transport hydrogen without
at least some fractional loss (to the atmosphere)," Rahn
from the California Institute of Technology estimate that leaked
hydrogen in a hydrogen economy could cause as much as a 10 percent
decrease in the stratospheric zone. If hydrogen replaces fossil
fuels as the world's main energy source, the researchers believe
that each year 60 trillion to 120 trillion grams of hydrogen could
be released into the atmosphere. This is four to eight times the
amount that is currently released.
of increased hydrogen production depends on how well the earth
adapts to the change. John Eiler, assistant professor of geochemistry
at CalTech, said, "This man-made hydrogen will either be
absorbed in the soil -- a process that is still poorly understood
but likely free of environmental consequences -- or will react
with other compounds in the atmosphere. Determining which of these
two processes dominates should be a solvable problem."
another CalTech researcher, contends that early recognition of
problems will mitigate hydrogen fuel's environmental flaws.
emissions present an environmental hazard, then recognizing that
hazard now can help guide investments in technologies to favor
designs that minimize leakage," Tromp said.
researchers, like other scientists looking at the environmental
impact of increased hydrogen production, believe that the sooner
such problems are identified, the easier it will be to find solutions
to make a hydrogen economy truly feasible.
By Katie Mulik, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer