Hydrogen Cars: More than Just Saving Gas

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One alternative to oil is so abundant, it's literally all around us. And itt's the most common element in the universe -- hydrogen.

Both John McCain and Barack Obama have made it abundantly clear, getting free of foreign oil will be a major goal whichever of them becomes president.

The cost of oil is draining billions of dollars out of Americans' wallets and putting it in the hands of regimes often unfriendly or downright hostile to the U.S.

"We simply cannot rely on countries that simply don't like us for our fuel," General Motors' spokesman Dave Barthmuss said.

Some see hydrogen as ultimately the cleanest and best replacement. And it's not just a pie-in-the-sky idea.

Hydrogen-powered cars are steadily marching their way toward us.

General Motors has a fuel-cell vehicle called the Chevy Equinox Fuel Cell that's been placed in the hands of hundreds of drivers in the New York City, Los Angeles and Washington areas where hydrogen-fuel stations already exist.

"This is the greenest thing I've ever done. It makes me feel great. And I haven't stopped at a gas-station in months," Tom Albert, a participant in GM's Project Driveway said.

These vehicles can do up to 100 miles an hour and go about 150 miles before they need a hydrogen fill-up.

In Japan, Toyota already has the "fuel cell advanced" operational and going some 470 miles before it needs a fill-up.

And last year, they gave a hydrogen-powered car one of North America's toughest tests: the freezing cold and often rough road of the Alcan Highway, stretching from Fairbanks, Alaska to southern Canada.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe.

You can get it many ways -- from water, by pulling the hydrogen out of the h2o, using renewable resources like solar, geothermal, wind-power or something called biomass.

"It's crop waste. It's maybe the husks and hulls from the corn, or the stalks and stuff like that, and really a step toward compost," Bill Reinert of Toyota explained.

He says fuel cells in an h2-powered car work pretty simply.

"All you're doing is combining hydrogen with oxygen. You get an electrical reaction (and) produce electricity," Reinert said.

And that runs the vehicle.

Chris White works for the California Fuel Cell Partnership, where automakers, energy companies and government are all working together to create the hydrogen future.

"The beauty of hydrogen is that no one country or no one region of the world can own the energy source," he said. "It can be manufactured by every country, every region, in the way that makes the best sense for them."

They call this a 'disruptive technology.' Imagine the world of gasoline-powered cars completely thrown out and replaced with a hydrogen economy.

"These hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles will do to today's cars and trucks what today's cars and trucks did to the horse and buggy of a hundred and 50 years ago," Barthmuss claimed.

And they may actually be cheaper to operate.

Studies show when a hydrogen economy is fully up and running, a fill-up will cost the equivalent of two to three dollars a gallon of gas. if it's taxed just like gas, add on another 57 cents to make the cost $2.57 to $3.57, still a bargain compared to what most Americans are paying at the pumps right now.

White says one reason power's so expensive is the cost of getting it...producing it...transporting it.

But hydrogen could be home-made.

"It is entirely possible that one day we could have refueling stations in homes, with a fuel-cell connected…that that fuel-cell could power our houses, and then at night while we're asleep, that power could be re-directed into creating hydrogen that we'd be storing that we could put in our vehicles," White said.

But till that day comes, getting the hydrogen to the cars may be the biggest roadblock.

Because who'll want to buy the cars if there aren't enough refueling stations? And who'll want to build the stations till there are enough fuel-cell cars to keep them in business?

Government help may be the only way to jump the roadblock. GM estimates 12,000 hydrogen stations built near the hundred largest metro areas would put hydrogen within easy reach of 70 percent of American drivers.

The cost to build those stations would be roughly 24 billion dollars. Sounds expensive, but maybe not so bad as the price-tag for eventual freedom from foreign oil?

Some suggest government could heavily subsidize those stations, or even build and operate them itself till the car world's jumped to hydrogen, then sell them off to the private sector.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing to get 200 hydrogen filling stations built in his state, part of an ambitious plan to build a "hydrogen highway" that stretches from Vancouver B.C. all the way down to Baja California.

With Californians buying one-fifth of the country's cars, their going hydrogen in the next few years would be a huge leap forward in turning the whole nation away from oil. It would help wipe out one of their worst problems: air pollution. Because when you use hydrogen, the only byproduct is water vapor.

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Paul Strand

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