San Antonio Fuel-Cell Forum Energizes Experts Seeking to Lessen Oil Dependency

In these times of rising gasoline prices and global warming, energy experts are meeting this week in San Antonio with the aim of harnessing hydrogen power to lessen the world's dependence on oil.

Nov. 3—In these times of rising gasoline prices and global warming, energy experts are meeting this week in San Antonio with the aim of harnessing hydrogen power to lessen the world's dependence on oil.

"We're talking about nothing less than overhauling the engine of the world's economy," said Robert Rose, executive director of the U.S. Fuel Cell Council.

Rose spoke Tuesday at the 2004 Fuel Cell Seminar, a gathering of more than 2,000 scientists, educators, researchers and manufacturers of fuel cell products. The annual conference runs through Friday and focuses on commercializing fuel cell technology, which uses the chemical energy of hydrogen to generate electricity without combustion or pollution.

Today, the world is in the early stages of moving from engines requiring oil and gasoline toward fuel cells that run solely on hydrogen — a clean fuel, Rose said.

"This is in reality an even greater challenge than reaching the moon," said Samuel Bonasso, deputy administrator of the U.S. Department of Transportation, which supports fuel cell research.

But progress is being made. All major automobile makers are working to commercialize fuel cell cars. Toyota Motor Corp., one of the leaders in the industry, has a fuel cell hybrid vehicle, FCHV, on display at the seminar. Toyota's hybrid sports utility vehicle runs on both a fuel cell and a battery.

Fuel cells are also powering buses, boats, trains and scooters worldwide. Miniature fuel cells power laptop computers, cell phones and other devices. And fuel cells are also being used in hospitals, banks, prisons and breweries.

In San Antonio, the Texas Department of Transportation's Transguide facility is using fuel cells to power highway traffic signs. And Brooks City-Base has a pilot project using fuel cells to power commercial buildings and houses.

For more than a decade, the Southwest Research Institute has done research and development projects on fuel cells. At the seminar, the institute is offering test-drives in fuel cell cars from several top manufacturers.

In Texas, the fuel cell industry could become as big as the semiconductor industry, generating thousands of new jobs and pumping millions into the economy, said state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio.

"We feel Texas is uniquely positioned to promote our hydrogen economy," Van de Putte said at the seminar.

Texas is one of the leading producers of hydrogen in the U.S. and several projects using fuel cells are currently underway, she said.

Worldwide, the demands for power continue to increase as China and India's economies develop, said Bernard Frois, director of France's Department of Energy. Hydrogen is the answer to meeting those growing needs without further damage to the world's fragile ecological systems, he said.

Before fuel cells can increase in use, a few obstacles must be overcome. Those include lowering the cost of hydrogen, improving its storage, addressing safety issues and creating a reliable delivery infrastructure.

But by 2008, Frois said, all of the world's car manufacturers will have hydrogen cars on the market.

"The opportunities are enormous, but the challenges are great," Rose said.

The United States needs to spend $60 billion in the next 15 years to make the hydrogen economy a reality, Rose said. The goal is to have 8 million vehicles, or 3 percent of the U.S. fleet, powered by fuel cells by 2020, and 20 percent of the consumer power market using fuel cells, he said.

To achieve that, Rose said, the United States needs to give $10 billion to the Department of Energy, $10 billion to university research and development, $10 billion to build hydrogen infrastructure, and $10 billion in government purchases and tax credits. Another $16 billion must go to create vehicles and $4 billion for portable fuel cell power, he said.

Rose proposed raising the money from a 3-cent gas tax, a 0.16-cent tax on utility generation, 60-cent levy on a barrel of oil, $4 per ton of coal, 60 cents on carbon dioxide emissions and a $17 motor vehicle registration fee.

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