Commentary

Skeptical of the prospects for a hydrogen economy?

Larry Burns certainly isn’t.

As head of research and development, Burns is in charge of General Motors’ E-Flex project, aimed at delivering production-ready and cost-competitive plug-in hybrid-electric and fuel-cell vehicles. And while some might label his decidedly optimistic views “polyannish,” he brings a unique perspective to how the U.S. could transition away from a dependence on oil to a transportation infrastructure centered on hydrogen.

Currently, 35% of the world’s energy comes from petroleum, and expectations are 70% more energy will be needed annually by 2030. With oil already at a premium, something has to give, Burns points out.

Converting to hydrogen as a primary fuel would be a monumental task, however, and many see it as a mountain much too high to climb.

Of course, before anything can happen, auto makers have to succeed in making hydrogen work as a viable fuel for cars and trucks. But that’s where considerable progress already is being made.

BMW, for instance, is on the verge of rolling out a 7-Series sedan with a conventional internal combustion engine that runs on either hydrogen or gasoline.

The next big step is the fuel cell, which converts hydrogen into electricity. Honda, DaimlerChrysler, Ford and GM are among auto makers with fuel-cell vehicles undergoing real-world testing, and Burns says his E-Flex fuel-cell concept could be fully developed by 2009.

But even if all goes well on that front, the question of a hydrogen-refueling infrastructure remains unanswered.

Currently, 170,000 gasoline stations service the more than 240 million vehicles in operation in the U.S. With the cost of adding hydrogen refueling estimated at $1 million per station, the total investment mushrooms to a potentially astronomical $170 billion.

And that’s why many conclude a hydrogen-based economy can’t be done.

But Burns contends the trick simply is to avoid trying to swallow all that in one big gulp.

Seventy-percent of the total U.S. population is centered in the country’s 100 largest cities, and it would take only 12,000 refueling points to make hydrogen available every two miles (3.2 km) in those 100 cites, he says.

That would bring the startup cost down to a more manageable $12 billion, what Burns says is half what it would take to build the Alaskan oil pipeline today.

“People have to take (it) not as one step, but a sequence of steps,” he says.

Hydrogen supply is less of an issue. Enough already is being produced today for use as a gasoline additive that if diverted directly to refueling could power 60 million electric vehicles, Burns says. “So the hydrogen infrastructure is already off to a good start.”

But what’s really going to drive the movement is good old-fashioned “greed,” he says.

“There’s so much money being made by the energy companies today, if somebody suddenly has a vehicle that’s exciting to customers and they can make some money by selling energy, we’ll find all kinds of ways to make that hydrogen conveniently safe and affordably available.”

Now that’s a theory even a cynic can believe in.

dzoia@wardsauto.com