Crude oil prices spurted to an all- time high near $67 a barrel this month. Regular gasoline kissed $2.90 a gallon locally. All motorists could do about it was pucker up to Big Oil, dig a little deeper in their pockets and wonder: When will cars run on something besides gasoline or diesel?

Something like hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe.

“There is a potential for replacing essentially all gasoline with hydrogen over the next half century using only domestic resources,” the National Academy of Sciences reported last year.

Some think hydrogen will soon emerge as a force in the economy, just as oil did 100 years ago.

They believe that the nonpolluting hydrogen-powered fuel cell, which makes electricity for running cars and just about anything else, will be fairly common in a decade or two.

Others are more skeptical.

Fuel-cell technology has many hurdles to clear before it is commercially viable, they say.

It won’t seriously challenge the gasoline engine for many dec- ades.

One thing they all agree on: Hydrogen carries a price tag that makes $2.90-a-gallon gas look cheap.

It costs at least $5 to deliver the hydrogen equivalent of one gallon of gasoline, though advocates say the price could come down as the technology catches on.

“It’s absolutely expensive” to move from oil to hydrogen, says John Turner, principal scientist at the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. “But I don’t know what choice we have.”

After all, as the world’s appetite for oil keeps growing, no one can say for certain just how much is left in the ground. Yet hydrogen has its own limitations, leading some to argue that all the excitement about fuel-cell cars is premature.

“There are so many problems with hydrogen that the odds of simultaneously solving all of them is just very small,” says Joseph Romm, author of “The Hype About Hydrogen” and an energy technology consultant in Washington, D.C. Romm was a manager in the Energy Department’s energy efficiency and renewable energy office during the Clinton administration.

Those problems include the price people are willing to pay for new technology. Every major car manufacturer is testing fleets of fuel-cell cars, and the Bush administration anticipates mass production beginning by 2020. General Motors Corp. insists it will have a hydrogen car on the market in just five years.

Better hope employee pricing lasts that long. Today’s test vehi cles cost about $1 million each. To price production models competitively, GM will have to figure out, in a short time, how to build them for around $25,000.

If fuel-cell cars can’t be sold for just a few thousand dollars more than a fuel-efficient gasoline- electric hybrid like the Toyota Prius, Romm says, “you have no product at all.” Base price for a Prius is about $21,000.

At least a decade
The National Academy of Sciences believes it will take at least a decade to bring down fuel-cell production costs. But even if the pricing problem is solved, where will drivers fill up their hydrogen cars?

Oil companies have spent a century building a network of refineries, pipelines and gasoline stations. Romm is skeptical that they will gamble billions of shareholder dollars on upgrading that profitable infrastructure to handle hydrogen, a fuel consumers might or might not embrace.

But Turner believes that incentives like tax breaks will encourage companies to take the chance. “This is a huge monolith, if you will, and clearly we’re going to have to change it,” he says.

California has taken the first steps. A public-private partnership promoting fuel cells expects to have 50 hydrogen fueling stations open in two years to serve about 300 test vehicles around the state. The number of stations could quadruple by 2010.

A few hydrogen stations have been popping up elsewhere, too, in places like New York City, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C.

Designing fuel-cell cars that can go at least 300 miles between fill-ups – enough range to find another place selling hydrogen – is a big challenge. So is making sure that the highly flammable gas can be handled safely. Perhaps the biggest conundrum, however, is producing hydrogen in a way that makes both economic and environmental sense.

Hydrogen sources
Though hydrogen is plentiful, it always attaches itself to other elements – joining with oxygen to form water, for example, or with carbon to make methane, the main component of natural gas. Water and natural gas are considered likely sources of the hydrogen that will run fuel cells.

Nearly all the hydrogen produced today comes from a method called reforming, which pulls hydrogen atoms out of natural gas. Both Romm and Turner see contradictions in a non-polluting vehicle getting hydrogen from a fossil fuel in a process that also releases carbon dioxide, a gas linked to global warming. Still, Turner says, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per mile would be only half that of a gasoline engine.

A simpler method of producing hydrogen is electrolysis. Applying an electrical charge to water, easily done in a high school chemistry laboratory, splits off the hydrogen atoms.

But electrolysis on a large scale would take a lot of electricity. Most electricity comes from coal-burning power plants. Coal, too, is a fossil fuel that produces greenhouse gases.

That means electrolysis is an inefficient and dirty way to make hydrogen, Romm argues. No problem, Turner counters. Just generate the electricity with a sustainable energy source, like solar power.

“I think the sun has four and a half billion years of fuel left,” he says. “It probably won’t peak for a while.”

In May, Midwest Optoelectronics LLC in Toledo introduced a solar-powered electrolysis system that it says can make enough hydrogen in a year to power a fuel cell car for 10,000 miles.

Midwest is one of at least 15 companies in Ohio hoping to cash in on demand for fuel cells. Some, like GrafTech International Ltd. in Parma, make components for proton exchange membrane fuel cells, the kind that power cars. Some work with other types of fuel cells for different uses, from substituting for batteries in cell phones and laptop computers to serving as backup power supplies for business and industry.

SOFCo-EFS Holdings LLC in Alliance is working on solid oxide fuel cells that could produce cabin power, but not propulsion, for trucks, boats and recreational vehicles.

Later this year, SOFCo will become the main tenant of a new fuel cell prototyping center at Stark State College of Technology. The prototyping center will help companies perfect their products before taking them to market, says Rodger McKain, SOFCo’s president.

“There’s a critical gap between the laboratory and the manufacturing arena” that the prototyping center will fill, he says.

Also this fall, the Wright Fuel Cell Group will settle into a new building at Case Western Reserve University that one day will have a testing center open to fuel-cell companies nationwide.

“We’re really starting to pull things together” to advance the industry in Ohio, says John McGrath, executive director. The Wright group is a partnership of Case, Stark State, Cleveland State University, Ohio State University and the University of Toledo.

The energy bill that cleared Congress this summer includes $3.5 billion for fuel-cell and hydrogen research over five years. But if Ohio hopes to carve out a significant piece of the hydrogen economy, it will have to go toe to toe with the competition.

Both the House and the Senate have hydrogen fuel-cell caucuses. Every member of South Carolina’s congressional delegation belongs to one or the other. But no Ohio member has joined.

“What Detroit was to the automotive industry, South Carolina can be to hydrogen,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, predicted when the energy bill passed.

Probably not for a while, though. The National Academy of Sciences expects the transition to hydrogen-fueled cars to follow a long, crooked path. If technological breakthroughs and innovations can solve the many problems, it could happen around the middle of the century.

“The enormity of the problem is staggering,” says Turner of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

“Energy is as important to us as food and water. So we need to be very thoughtful about how we make the transition.”

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:
[email protected], 216-999-4446