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UC Study Questions Hydrogen-Fueled Cars

David Scharfenberg
Tuesday July 22, 2003

Embraced by politicians on the left and right, hydrogen-fueled cars may not be the best answer to the nation’s pollution problems, according to a new study by a UC Berkeley researcher. 

In a paper that appeared in the July 18 edition of the journal Science, Alex Farrell, assistant professor of energy and resources at UC Berkeley, and David Keith, associate professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, argue there are simpler, cheaper ways to reduce harmful emissions from vehicles. 

“Hydrogen cars are a poor short-term strategy, and it’s not even clear that they are a good idea in the long term,” said Farrell. “Because the prospects for hydrogen cars are so uncertain, we need to think carefully before we invest this money and all this public effort in one area.” 

President Bush has proposed a five-year, $1.7 billion research effort to develop hydrogen-powered fuel cells in an attempt to curb pollution and reduce the nation’s dependency on foreign oil. Several Democratic candidates for president have also proposed major research efforts. 

But Farrell said current methods of producing hydrogen from oil and coal produce substantial carbon dioxide. That leaves wind and solar power, which are in small supply, and nuclear power, which produces dangerous waste, as the only remaining means of producing hydrogen, he said. 

Farrell said it would also cost $5,000 per vehicle to create a new infrastructure for hydrogen distribution. 

The scientists found that improving current cars and strengthening environmental rules would be 100 times cheaper. 

“You could get a significant reduction in petroleum consumption pretty inexpensively by raising the fuel economy standard or raising fuel prices, or both, which is probably the cheapest strategy,” Farrell said. 

Farrell said hydrogen-powered vehicles may be politically popular because they don’t challenge drivers to change their habits. In addition, he said, the push for new research doesn’t place new requirements on automakers—it simply provides a subsidy for developing better cars. 


—David Scharfenberg