Priced at more than $1 million, the biggest challenge is cutting production costs.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
WASHINGTON -- As oil prices approach a hefty $40 a barrel, hundreds of scientists and others, fueled with innovative ideas, are to talk today about how to create a new way to power cars.
Their challenge: To find ways to make hydrogen-powered vehicles affordable for the average car buyer, to develop a system to get hydrogen to motorists at filling stations and to find a way to safely put hydrogen storage tanks on the vehicles.
More than 500 engineers, researchers, automakers and others are attending the 14th annual U.S. Hydrogen Conference this week in Washington, D.C. It is the first high-profile conference on the topic since President Bush proposed in January spending $1.2 billion over five years on hydrogen-powered vehicle research.
There are three main challenges facing the hydrogen industry, which hopes to mass-produce the vehicles by 2010, when you could see them in auto showrooms and maybe in your neighbor's driveway.
One of the biggest issues is how to lower the cost of producing hydrogen-fueled vehicles, whose price tag is $1 million to $2 million now.
One of the biggest cost drivers is the fuel cell itself, which costs about $200,000 each.
A fuel cell is an electrochemical device, much like a battery, that produces electricity. Unlike a battery, however, a fuel cell does not run down so it doesn't require that consumers plug their car in at night, which was a major drawback of electric cars.
A fuel cell will continue to produce electricity indefinitely as long as hydrogen and oxygen are supplied to the device. Instead of an exhaust, the fuel cell produces pure, clean water. Space shuttle astronauts have been able to drink the water produced by a fuel cell.
Dennis Campbell, president and chief executive officer of Burnaby, British Columbia-based Ballard Power Systems Inc., said his company is trying to find ways to mass-produce different parts of the fuel cell itself as well as the engine, which would bring down costs.
"Many of the pieces of the fuel cell engine must be built by hand," Campbell said. "That won't work for an automotive industry that will demand thousands of fuel cells to be built daily."
The company also is trying to reduce the number of parts needed to build a fuel cell and the engine from a few thousand to a few hundred.
"You want as few as parts as possible," Campbell said.
Daniel O'Connell, GM's staff engineer at the Fuel Cell Development Center in Honeoye Falls, N.Y., added that about 200 engineers and chemists are working to find new materials to use in the fuel cell.
"We are looking at everything," O'Connell said. The industry has been testing everything from plastics to metals such as gold.
"We have proven that we can get fuel cells in cars; now it's getting them down the cost curve so they can be competitive with the internal combustion engine of today," O'Connell said. "We are making progress and there are advancements on a daily basis."
More than 30 hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles with such names as the DaimlerChrysler Sprinter van, the General Motors Phoenix minivan and the Toyota HyPower are being tested on the roads these days.
"Some people, like NASA, will pay a premium price for that kind of clean-burning fuel," said Tony Androsky, deputy executive director of the U.S. Fuel Cell Council in Washington, D.C. "But motorists are a little more finicky. Vehicles are pretty darn cheap. I would pay a premium price if my car will cut emissions and get better energy use. But I won't pay that much."
Chris Borroni-Bird, one of GM's leading fuel-cell experts, said the gas-powered engine on a $20,000 vehicle costs about $3,000. A hydrogen fuel-cell engine on the same vehicle would cost $30,000.