March 30, 2005 12:20 PM PST

Energy Department joins drive for fuel cell cars

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The U.S. Department of Energy will spend millions of dollars to help develop hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and raise public awareness about the technology that drives them.

The agency on Wednesday announced two separate five-year fuel cell agreements: an $88 million pact with General Motors and a $70 million deal with DaimlerChysler.

The Energy Department said it wants the programs to foster technology development and raise awareness about the vehicles, whose fuel cells use hydrogen to generate electricity that propels them.

Fuel cell cars

Many drivers are eyeing fuel cells as a potential replacement for gasoline engines in automobiles. Gasoline prices have shot up lately and now top $2.15 on average, according to the American Automobile Association.

Even before the spike, companies such as GM--which is showing its Sequel concept at this week's New York International Auto Show--DaimlerChysler, Honda and Nissan had begun work on fuel cells. However, the technology still needs work, manufacturers agree, on issues ranging from technology development to distributing hydrogen.

That's where the Energy Department steps in. The agency, together with automakers and energy companies such as British Petroleum and Shell, is tackling problems that are delaying widespread use of the vehicles.

Under its agreement with the Energy Department, GM will build a 40-vehicle fuel cell fleet. The company will spend $44 million to create fuel cell vehicle demonstration fleets in Washington, D.C., New York, California and Michigan, the company said in a statement, with the Energy Department contributing the remaining $44 million.

Separately, DaimlerChrysler said it will spend more than $70 million to further develop its fuel cell vehicles in the United States.

The company also plans to work to increase public awareness through outreach programs about fuel cell vehicles. Working through the Energy Department's Controlled Hydrogen Fleet and Infrastructure Demonstration and Validation Project, the company said it plans to place more fuel cell vehicles in the hands of customers to gain feedback about their performance in different conditions.

"This is an example of the type of partnership that is necessary to accelerate the evolution of the fuel cell vehicle and to reduce the dependency on oil in the United States," said Deborah Morrissett, vice president for regulatory affairs at the Chrysler Group.

As part of a separate agreement, Shell Hydrogen plans to support GM's fuel cell efforts by establishing five hydrogen refueling stations in Washington, D.C., New York City and points in between.

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And where do you get the hydrogen?

-breaking down hydrocarbons (probably natural gas, though, not oil), which releases carbon dioxide, and will run out eventually.

-electrolyzing water, which needs massive amounts of water and electricity. And where does the electricity come from? Probably fossil fuels, including a large amount of oil.

The government would MUCH more profitably be financing research into more efficient cars, or efficient renewable or safe nuclear electrical power.
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