The BMW Hydrogen 7 features a bi-fuel motor which can burn either liquid hydrogen or gasoline. The hydrogen pump is slightly more daunting.  (Source: BMW)
The U.S. really could have the hydrogen economy, it just might take 50 years.

If there's one thing many Americans agree on, it's that the nation is far too dependent on foreign resources. If you can't get behind that, there's also the environmentalist angle: burning fossils fuels makes us icky. Both ideas are becoming very motivational, but maybe not as much so as the constant flux and steady rise of gasoline prices. You hit our pocketbooks; we start to think about what's going wrong.

Between the various camps, just about everyone has started to realize that it's time to figure out a new way to derive power – especially for vehicles. Non-commercial vehicles account for 44 percent of the oil used in the United States yearly. They also contribute 20 percent or more of the carbon dioxide pollution produced nationally. Alternative energy sources for transportation alone could put a huge dent in national oil consumption.

The government has even jumped into the pool now, having mandated an investigation by the National Research Council on how we can get out of this seemingly endless black hole of oil dependence and price gouging. The NRC's conclusion? Hydrogen could do it for us. Only it may take half a lifetime to accomplish – not something environmentalists and economists want to hear.

There are several problems with building a hydrogen economy. First, there is the lack of infrastructure. How does the hydrogen get to consumers? Second, hydrogen isn't exactly inexpensive to produce as needed for hydrogen fuel cells. And since it involves using some amount of energy from some process, it's likely being made by using “dirty” power somewhere. Third, the general technology involved in hydrogen production and vehicles is not yet comparable to gasoline and internal combustion vehicles as far as cost versus performance is concerned.

On the subject of the latter, the NRC report states that though with continued development the total hydrogen fleet might reach two million vehicles, nationally, by 2020, it wouldn't be until approximately 2023 that the technologies could compete on equal footing, economically. The government would need to invest approximately $55 billion over the next 15 years, expecting private investments of approximately $145 billion in the same time frame, to push the evolving technology to that level. While those seem like big numbers, they estimated that the yearly subsidy for ethanol fuels could reach as much as $15 billion per year in that time. Two minutes with a pencil and paper can tell you which of these will cost less in the long run.

After the new H vehicles become cost efficient, the NRC says, their population would likely explode. By 2050 there could be as many as 200 million, replacing a large portion of ICE-powered jalopies, thus cutting a noticeable swathe through oil dependency and pollution rates.

Unfortunately, the report, titled “Transition to Alternative Transportation Technologies: A Focus on Hydrogen,” is a best-case scenario. They also include that the best way to go about making the H economy a reality is not simply by snubbing oil and its dark miasma, but by encouraging other forms of alternative energy and a continued push for gasoline fuel efficiency while hydrogen technologies advance.

Overall, the future of hydrogen looks bright. Though the infrastructure will be costly to implement, it seems to suffer less of a poor reputation than other alternative fuels like biodiesel, which is being blamed for various economical woes like the rising price of meats, grains and dairy products. Every other day a new advance in fuel cell construction or efficiency surfaces and the media is thick with hoopla about fuel cell vehicles from various manufacturers. The only real problem the U.S. might really have if it were to make a concentrated effort to convert to the cleaner economy is a lack of patience.

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