Fuel-cell vehicles run on hydrogen gas, the most abundant element in the universe. The fuel cell, which chemically converts hydrogen to electricity (with water as a byproduct), has the potential to eventually replace the internal-combustion engine, because it’s far more than just the best environmental choice. The reason the auto industry is spending billions of dollars on fuel cells is because it sees the potential for a much better car than internal combustion can deliver, with improved performance, fuel economy, range and emissions, too.
The most optimistic predictions see us driving fuel-cell cars by 2015 or 2020, though skeptics such as Joseph Romm, author of The Hype About Hydrogen (Island Press), think it might take longer. General Motors has said it will have a production-ready fuel-cell vehicle in place by 2010. Honda is a significant contender in the fuel-cell race, and has made the most progress with cold starting and general drivability. Honda has lent its FCX fuel-cell vehicles to journalists and to average drivers as part of a testing program. The next generation of the FCX will reportedly have a 340-mile range.
Environmentalists such as Amory Lovins, head of the Rocky Mountain Institute, have long predicted that the world will eventually have a hydrogen energy economy, but in recent years the chorus has grown to include many people at high levels of government and industry. A hydrogen economy will abandon internal-combustion engines completely, and it will also eventually replace the electric grid to your house, and even your flashlight and computer batteries.
The supply of corn-derived ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol, is increasing rapidly, from 2.1 billion gallons in 2002 to 3.4 billion gallons in 2004. In early 2005, there were 81 ethanol plants in 20 states, with an additional 16 under construction. Ethanol is used both as an alternative fuel and as an octane-boosting, pollution-reducing additive to gasoline.
Traditional ethanol production from corn has not had a stellar track record. Congress routinely awards large subsidies and tax breaks for ethanol production, but its interest seems more to appease farm state voters and agribusiness than to provide an alternative to imported oil. Most “bi-fuel” vehicles equipped to run on ethanol (and receiving tax credits to do so) usually run on gasoline because ethanol infrastructure is lacking. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) describes the energy bill provision requiring ethanol content in gasoline “nothing less than an ethanol tax levied on every driver” and a “boondoggle.”
The U.S. is a major corn producer, so could corn-based ethanol take over from gasoline as the mainline fuel for transportation? Hardly. Cornell economist David Pimentel says we’d have to devote nearly all our farmland to the cause if we wanted to produce enough grain-based ethanol to power the economy. And corn ethanol is notoriously energy-intensive to produce, though the American Coalition for Ethanol denounces as “outrageous” the accusation that it actually has a negative energy balance.
Some environmentalists champion so-called cellulosic ethanol, which could be made from agricultural, municipal and forestry waste, including corn stalks, sawdust or waste paper. “Not quite lead into gold, but maybe more valuable for the U.S. economy, for cutting air pollution, and for reducing dependence on foreign oil,” says the Department of Energy.