WASHINGTON - By using his State of the Union address to tout fuel cells for future vehicles, President Bush did more than promise cash for research. He put the power of the presidency behind the technology.
But neither money nor presidential clout can guarantee that automotive fuel cells will overcome major obstacles quickly - including technical hurdles, cost and practicality - knowledgeable skeptics warn.
The Bush budget for fiscal 2004, scheduled to be unveiled today, Feb. 3, will recommend $1.7 billion over five years for fuel cell research, an increase of about $700 million over current levels.
Richard Okine, who is well acquainted with the technical hurdles, said the Bush emphasis on hydrogen fuel production and delivery is just one piece of the puzzle.
Fuel "is a really good place to be adding additional funds," Okine said after the speech. He is technical director for DuPont Fluoroproducts, a maker of membranes and other components in the stacks where fuel cells produce electricity.
In an earlier interview with Automotive News editors and reporters, Okine said fuel cells are a long way from being an affordable alternative to the internal combustion engine. He said researchers must:
Also, the nation's gasoline stations don't have hydrogen fueling equipment. According to BP America Inc. the cost to install the special tanks and pumps at just one gasoline station is between $500,000 and $1 million.
Those changes will take considerable time, and even the administration says fuel cells won't be widely available until 2020.
Therese Langer, transportation program director for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, wants action long before 2020. "Our energy problems can't wait, and they don't have to," she said.
The nonprofit council wants more emphasis on near-term remedies, such as higher fuel-economy standards and incentives for people to buy more efficient vehicles. And while it favors fuel cell research, the council warned against putting all of the nation's "eggs in the hydrogen basket."
A fuel cell combines hydrogen from some other fuel source with oxygen from the air to produce energy, with water as the only byproduct. But producing pure hydrogen, distributing it and storing it in a vehicle are steps that can be costly, polluting and even risky.