Princeton scientist urges Congress to help develop 'hydrogen economy'

Hydrogen fuels have tremendous long-term potential to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and improve the global environment -- providing the proper economic, political and technological forces come together, a Princeton University scientist told members of Congress March 5.

Joan Ogden , a research scientist at the Princeton Environmental Institute , testified before the House Committee on Science as part of a hearing on "The Path to a Hydrogen Economy." The hearing was the first formal effort by Congress to respond to President Bush's announcement during his State of the Union speech of an initiative to promote hydrogen as a new generation of fuel.

"Hydrogen fuel cells, although they are longterm, potentially have a very high pay-off," Ogden told the committee. "And I think they deserve significant government support now -- insurance, if nothing else, that they will be ready in 15 or 20 years if we want to deploy them on a very wide basis."

Ogden was one of five panelists to address the committee and was the only research scientist among the group, which also included officials from the Department of Energy, Shell Hydrogen, General Motors and the California Fuel Cell Partnership. Ogden, who holds a Ph.D. in theoretical plasma physics, has spent the last 15 years conducting technical and economic assessments of new energy technologies.

Hydrogen, she said, would cost more than current conventional fuels because it requires energy to extract it from fossil fuels, water or other sources. It would, however, be much more efficient to use and cause less pollution. "Use of hydrogen in vehicles could result in near-zero emissions of greenhouse gasses and air pollutants on a 'well-to-wheels' basis -- that is all the emissions involved in extracting the [fuel source], producing the hydrogen and using it," she said.

Hydrogen can be burned so efficiently that if all of today's vehicles could suddenly be converted to hydrogen derived from natural gas, the nation's natural gas consumption would increase only 25 to 30 percent, she said. She agreed with other panelists in estimating that, while significant new uses of hydrogen could develop within 10 years, a complete switch would take about 40 years.

Some elements of the technology and infrastructure needed for widespread use of hydrogen already exist, said Ogden, but further progress will require better fuel cells -- the end-use devices that burn hydrogen -- and better delivery systems for transporting the fuel to automobile fueling stations, businesses and other users, she said. The system currently in place for delivering hydrogen for common industrial uses already is sufficient to fuel 1 percent of U.S. cars, she said.

"It's not so much a matter of a technology breakthrough needed to do it. It's more a matter of matching supply and demand in a cost-effective way as the system grows," she said.

Ogden urged Congress to develop policies that take into account the "externalities" of a hydrogen economy -- the environmental, strategic and social benefits that, when factored into the cost, make hydrogen an attractive fuel source.

"I would like to see a comprehensive strategy and policies to encourage use of more efficient (conventional) technologies in the nearterm coupled with a longer-term strategy, which we seem to be embarking on, that involves development of hydrogen fuel cells," she said.

Although some committee members voiced concern about focusing too much attention on hydrogen to the exclusion of interim technologies or other long-term alternatives, the calls by Ogden and the other panelists for government involvement had a warm reception.

"No transportation revolution in American history has occurred without massive government involvement," said Sherwood Boehlert, the New York Republican who chairs the committee. Citing examples of government help in digging canal systems, developing aircraft and airports and constructing the interstate highway system, Boehlert said, "It would be absurd to think that hydrogen would be an exception. The magic of the marketplace alone is not going to create the hydrogen economy, at least not anytime soon."

Contact: Lauren Robinson-Brown (609) 258-3601