TCS Daily

It Takes a Village of Fuel Cells

By Brock Yates - June 20, 2003 12:00 AM

We the People now understand the benefits of hydrogen-powered fuel cells after the Congress of the United States has bestowed its benediction on the system via an enormous subsidy. A bill co-sponsored by Sen. Hillary Clinton mandates the Department of Energy to develop a plan to produce 100,000 fuel-cell cars by 2010 and 2.5 million by 2020.

No doubt this was inspired by the colossal success of California's edict to achieve zero-emissions from 10 percent of its vehicle population by the end of the decade. This idea, you may recall, just hit Sacramento's legislative rocks after sales of electric cars barely edged into the double numbers.

These grand mandates from the feds and the states are to be praised, not ridiculed. After all, if they are successful we can expect harsh laws outlawing cancer, the common cold, automobile crashes, insanity, financial panics, depressions, recessions and even war. Who is to question the wisdom and power of our government in such heady matters?

But of course there are potholes even for the divinities in the seats of power. For example, while we shout hosannas for the fuel cell and celebrate the impending doom of the internal combustion engine and its filthy petroleum energy source, bad news looms on the horizon.

Contrary to conventional thinking and the constant agitprop issuing from the elite media, fuel cells might not be the perfect solution for the environment. Recall that we have been led to believe the cells only emit is a few drops of water vapor. That is true, but a potential assault on the atmosphere comes from the source of the fuel cell power -- hydrogen.

We learn from new research that massive conversion to a hydrogen-powered vehicle network could lead to serious leakage of the volatile gas, which in turn could radically reduce the already threatened ozone layer. In case you missed high school physics, hydrogen is lighter than air. It is also highly explosive (remember the Hindenburg). Presuming we reach Dame Hillary's goal of 2.5 million fuel cell miracles on the road by 2020, this would radically increase the amount of hydrogen manufactured, stored and dumped into vehicle tanks on a daily basis. Leakage would inevitably occur somewhere during the cycle. (Not to mention the occasional explosion. Safe storage of the gas in vehicles remains an unspoken but serious dilemma for vehicle developers at General Motors, Honda and Toyota, etc.)

The entry of unwanted trillions of cubic feet of hydrogen into the earth's atmosphere could radically alter the climate by the gas oxidizing into water when it reaches the stratosphere. This could cause a dangerous depletion of the ozone layer.

Add that little problem to those already present in a hydrogen nirvana such as the massive energy costs in manufacturing the gas (which you don't exactly strain from tap water in your kitchen sink) and safely transporting it through a new network to filling stations. Suddenly the whole scheme begins to sound like another feel-good bamboozle, like the now-defunct electric car.

While billions are unloaded on fuel cells, our solons in Washington still choose to ignore the potential of diesels, which in widespread use would reduce petroleum consumption by 20 percent almost overnight. The mandate for lower sulphur content fuels and a sensible modification of emission laws involving the now-solved problem of exhaust particulates, and the powerful, efficient and clean diesels now in use in Germany could be operational here as well. But surely that would be too cheap and too invisible a solution for the posturing pols to tolerate.

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