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Fuel Cells Could Cut Oil Dependence
Politicians, Auto and Oil Executives Call Cells 'Wave of the Future'

Listen to John Ydstie's report Listen to John Ydstie's report.

In Part Four of All Things Considered's March 4-7, 2002, series on energy independence, NPR's John Ydstie reports that advances in fuel-cell technology could be the key to reducing America's reliance on foreign oil.

Roughly two-thirds of the oil consumed in the United States is burned on the nation's road and highways -- a fact that must be addressed in any discussion of U.S. energy dependence. Boosting domestic oil production, or raising auto fuel economy standards, are two short-term moves away from dependence that are being debated this week in the Senate.

But on the more distant horizon, a world beyond oil is taking shape. It's a world of hydrogen-powered fuel cells -- a technology that could once again give the United States control of its energy security.


A world of fuel cells powering cars on the nation's highways used to exist only in the dreams of environmentalists and a few scientists and engineers. But that's changed in the past decade. Touting his administration's energy plan, which includes funding for fuel-cell research and rebates for fuel-cell cars, President George Bush declared, "We happen to believe fuels cells are the wave of the future."

Oil company and auto company executives echo the president's statement: Fuel-cell technology "offers zero emissions in cities, it's noiseless, it accelerates quickly," says Shell Oil's Jed Davis. "It's a worthy successor to the internal combustion engine."

Oil company and auto company executives echo the president's statement: Fuel cell technology "offers zero emissions in cities, it's noiseless, it accelerates quickly," says Shell Oil's Jed Davis. "It's a worthy successor to the internal combustion engine."

Fuel cells aren't a new technology -- they've been providing heat and light on the space shuttle for more than two decades. But in recent years, the auto companies have taken a close look at fuel cells -- and they've concluded the technology might make consumers abandon their internal-combustion-powered cars.

Last summer, Ford Motor Co. unveiled an experimental fuel cell vehicle, the P2000. Hydrogen combines with oxygen in the car's fuel cell to produce the electricity for the car's electric motor. "And the amount of electricty generated is surprising," says Ydstie, who went for a test ride in the P2000. "It's enough to support many more accessories than current cars have -- in addition to things like global positioning systems, and DVD players for the kids in the backseat, this car could power your whole house."

It's likely to be at least ten years before Ford could mass produce this kind of vehicle. But with the major auto companies on board, Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California-Davis, says its very likely fuel cell vehicles will eventually succeed the internal combustion engine. "The future on the automobile is the fuel cell -- GM has said that, Ford, Toyota," Sperling says. "The question is how you get from here to there."

Even if the auto companies marketed them vigorously, Sperling says, it could take decades for fuel cells to supplant the internal combustion engine. But he and others believe a crash program -- a sort of Manhattan Project for fuel cells and hydrogen -- could dramatically accelerate the transition, and make a significant contribution to energy independence in a decade or so.

Other Resources

P2000: A Total Systems Approach to Fuel Efficiency

Automotive Intelligence article on the P2000



   
   
   
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