Friday, 12 Oct 2001

DAVIS, Calif.

When I can squeeze time away on Fridays, I head up to the University of California at Davis, where I am still employed part-time. I did my graduate work at UC-Davis, and I’ve stayed on to help organize three conferences over the next few months. The conferences will be held in Davis, Sacramento, and Washington, D.C., and will focus on educating people in government, the
private sector, and environmental communities about fuel-cell vehicles.

I have been working on fuel-cell vehicles and the issues surrounding them for at least eight years now. The vehicles promise to reduce the impact of driving on our environment — plus, as an engineer, I find them to be a fascinating technology. In the future, we could have a transportation system that produces almost none of the emissions that cause global warming. This system would rely on sunlight to produce electricity, which would then be used in a device called an electrolyzer to produce hydrogen. The hydrogen would be transported to filling stations that would work much like the kind we’re all familiar with. Once in your car, the hydrogen would be combined with air to produce electricity, which in turn would power an electric motor to carry you on your way. The only thing that would be emitted would be water vapor — no smog-forming pollution, no toxics, and no global warming gases. Every major automaker that sells cars in the U.S. is developing a fuel-cell vehicle, and fuel-cell developers, like Ballard, are working to perfect the fuel-cell systems themselves. While fuel-cell vehicles will not eliminate of all of the impact of driving on the environment, they would go a long way toward a sustainable transportation system.

The goal of the conferences we are putting together is to first help people get a better handle on exactly what fuel-cell vehicles are and what are the differences in the various types of systems that can be built up from a fuel cell for use in automobiles. We are also trying to give some perspective on where the technology stands today. Fuel cell vehicles hold a lot of promise, but they are not there yet. There are still some complications that keep fuel-cell vehicles from being ready to hit the roads in large numbers in the immediate future. There are also other variations of fuel cell vehicles that are being considered: ones that use other fuels besides hydrogen, such as methanol or some sort of gasoline-like fuel. The conferences will look at the barriers fuel-cell vehicles are facing, as well as how to overcome them and take advantage of the many good things they have to offer.

The conferences themselves are being put on by the UC-Davis Institute for Transportation Studies and fits in quite well with UCS’s goal of getting good technical information in the hands of policymakers and environmental groups. Already, fuel-cell vehicles are at a stage where government help can accelerate the progress towards a cleaner transportation system. The U.S. Department of Energy has been providing some funding for many years to develop fuel-cell vehicles, and, in California, a partnership has been formed among automakers, oil companies, fuel-cell developers, and governmental agencies to help get fuel-cell vehicles on the road over the next few years. But if we want to cut down on our greenhouse gas emissions and have cleaner air as soon as possible, these activities need greater support from all levels of government. We are hoping that the knowledge transferred through our conferences will help policymakers decide on the best course of action to make fuel-cell vehicles a reality. We are also hoping that we can provide a realistic view on the technology, both so that people do not expect too much too soon, but also so that the government support that is provided can be in the forms that are most helpful.