Discover Data: How Clean is the Hydogen Fuel Cell?

By Maia WeinstockDec 3, 2003 6:00 AM


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How Clean is the Hydrogen Fuel Cell?

The Bush administration and automakers are touting fuel-cell vehicles as a nonpolluting technology, but engineers at the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment at MIT say the nonpolluting claim is not necessarily true. The group found that although fuel-cell vehicles would produce zero greenhouse-gas emissions during use, the extraction and refinement of hydrogen fuel would release three to five times as much carbon into the air as is released in procuring and refining gasoline and diesel. A near-future fuel-cell car would not be much cleaner than a well-designed battery-gasoline hybrid. John Heywood, an engineer at MIT, suggests following parallel paths for developing cleaner vehicles. “First, we need to improve standard combustion engines and transmissions so we can reduce energy consumption,” he says. But he also advocates starting work on hydrogen technology because in the long run fuel-cell vehicles that use “clean” hydrogen would reduce emissions. “If we do nothing in the short term with hydrogen, what we might have to do in 2050 will be twice as difficult,” Heywood says.

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