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June 22, 2009

Hydrogen Trail Blazers


The future looks bright for clean and inexpensive power from hydrogen

Officer Tom McCloghry is a cop on the beat, patrolling downtown Columbia, S.C., working to keep the streets safe. And, though these days, it's not so unusual to see police on Segways, this one is different. It's a hydrogen hybrid.

"With the Segway, and with the hydrogen cell, it keeps it nimble going around parking garages, down alley ways--and quietly, with those that I have to interface with, and socially motivate them," said McCloghry, grinning.

In just the last few years, Columbia has transformed itself into a hotbed of hydrogen research--thanks in large part to the Industry/University Cooperative Research Center for Fuel Cells at the University of South Carolina, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

"What we're focused on specifically in this center is how to make a better fuel cell, how to make the fuel cell less expensive, how to make the fuel cell more reliable," said center director John Van Zee.

Fuel of the future

Hydrogen is widely hailed as the fuel of the future--plentiful and non-polluting, discharging only water vapor into the environment. Perfecting the fuel cell, which converts hydrogen into a steady stream of electricity, will be one of the keys to making hydrogen vehicles commonplace.

"We're not tied to the barrel of petroleum with respect to the hydrogen," said Van Zee. "The long-term goal of the hydrogen economy and fuel cells in themselves is to be completely renewable."

That means developing ways to generate hydrogen using renewable sources--like wind and sunlight.

"Hydrogen and fuel cells allow us to store the energy when the sun is not shining and when the wind is not blowing," Van Zee remarked. "It allows us to put that energy, that renewable energy, from sun and wind, to work in our transportation sector."

A cop on a hybrid Segway is just one example of what a city can do to promote the powerful potential of this technology. Columbia's mayor, Bob Coble, sees hydrogen research at the university as a huge opportunity to create high quality jobs in the community.

Pushing new technologies

"While we don't know exactly how it is going to unfold, and what technologies will be the primary technology 50 years from now, we know that there is going to be a green economy, a knowledge economy," said Coble. "We better be part of it, or we will be left behind."

To support the push to hydrogen, the city of Columbia, the university, and local business and industry are coordinating to put these new hydrogen technologies to work around town.

Over at the Carolina Baseball Stadium, where the University of South Carolina Gamecocks play, the scoreboard is partly run by a hydrogen fuel cell.

The city department of homeland security is testing a hydrogen generator that could be used during emergencies to power lights and computers for first responders.

And a hydrogen bus will soon be zipping around town.

"I think it's part of, sort of getting it--getting that there is a new economy out there. There's a green economy out there," said Mayor Coble. "We don't have all the answers. But you know, if you are not in the game, you're not going to be there in the fourth quarter to score the winning touchdown, unless you've done the preparation work on the front end."

Getting there

So how far away are we from a hydrogen economy?

"Of course, there is much more research that needs to be done on fuel cells," said Van Zee. "But we have working fuel cell cars right now. They are expensive, but the price will come down as we produce more of them."

How fast that happens, he says, is up to us--and boils down to a few big issues.

"One, a real recognition that CO2 will be a problem for our children, and that we want to do something about greenhouse gases. Second, a recognition that sooner or later, the price of gasoline is going to be so expensive that we won't have control over it and we, as Americans, will now worry about how soon do I fill up my gas tank."

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Kate Tobin, Science Nation Producer


Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.