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Fuel Cell Technology: not a Simple, Quick or Cheap Solution

Most of the automotive industry had nothing but praise when President George Bush, in his State of the Union address, proposed government spending $1.2 billion over the next five years to speed the development of fuel cell technology.

The timing of the president’s initiative could not have been better. With the threat war against Iraq growing ever closer, gas prices have risen significantly in the past weeks (even though fuel costs have not come close to matching the rate of inflation over the last 20 years).

The domestic automakers also have been feeling pressure lately about their failure to improve fuel economy standards, well as their increased production of gasguzzling vehicles, and SUVs in particular (even though fuel economy is better than was 25-30 years ago, and the public continues to clamor for SUVs and other bigengine products).

I certainly agree that it’s time the United States stopped — or at least significantly reduced — its reliance on foreign oil. And fuel cells certainly seem like an attractive alternative because it is a virtually emission-free technology. Fuel cells work by creating electricity caused by a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. The only emission from such a reaction is water vapor.

While fuel cells may seem like the best solution to America’s thirst for oil, the transformation from gasoline to fuel cell power systems is not going to be easy. President Bush’s proposal calls for researching such issues as producing hydrogen safely, building an infrastructure that can deliver hydrogen to consumers much like current stations, and storing hydrogen safely these stations and in these new hydrogenpowered vehicles.

These are very serious issues that must addressed long before any fuel-cell powered vehicles make their way to the public. there’s one more very critical issue that to be answered. And that is, if fuel cells become the power of choice for the automotive industry, what will become of today’s powertrain manufacturing facilities?

Fuel cell technology is not compatible today’s internal combustion engines. switching technologies will require a great deal of time — and investment.

The automotive industry sold nearly 17 million vehicles in 2002 — in North America alone. Engines and transmissions are manufactured at dozens of plants in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Tens of thousands of workers are employed just to produce these products. And the automotive companies have billions of dollars invested in these operations in both labor and equipment.

What’s more, if fuel cell technology is going to take over the American automotive industry, it’s going to spread globally as well. If worldwide production is about 57 million vehicles annually, imagine the impact when powertrain facilities are affected in Europe, Asia, South America and throughout the rest the world.

Old powertrain facilities could well be rendered useless. And new fuel cell facilities may have to be built. But how are the automotive companies going to fund the new plants and new systems that will be required to produce these new technologies? What will be the impact on the current work force? And what will become of today’s engine and transmission plants? Will they turn into ghost towns if fuel cells become the automotive industry’s technology of choice?

Like the ones raised by the Bush administration, these questions also must be answered before there can be any concerted effort to switch from today’s internal combustion engine technology.

It’s no surprise that President Bush said hydrogen-powered cars may be the vehicles of choice for children born today, because that day is still a long way off. But reducing our country’s reliance on foreign oil, eliminating emissions and improving fuel economy are issues that need to be addressed today.

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Sun. January 29th, 2023

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