President Bush sought to make developing clean-burning hydrogen fuel cells to power cars a high priority in his State of the Union address last January. Since then, the plan, calling for spending $1.2 billion in federal money on hydrogen fuel research over five years, ran into criticism for being too expensive and too far off in the future to be a credible alternative to conventional fuel.
But this month the fuel-cell research program got a huge boost in credibility when the National Science Foundation, a prestigious independent government agency, donated a $210,000 grant to the University of South Carolina's hydrogen research center, which has partnered with the Savannah River Site to make hydrogen fuel cells a reality. Eleven industrial partners will now contribute $1.2 million to the project.
The fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to create a chemical reaction that produces electricity, heat and water vapor. Researchers say the technology, when fully developed, could rid air pollution from energy production and be a new energy source for vehicles and power plants.
But if fuel-cell research excites scientists and researchers, it's making regional economic development officials positively ecstatic. The South Carolina Hydrogen Coalition envisions new missions and hundreds, possibly thousands, of jobs at SRS, rooted in a new state-based technology that will have an annual $10 billion impact on the nation.
Far-fetched? Not according to chemical engineer Professor John Van Zee, director of the USC research center, who says that hydrogen technology is about where computer technology was in the early '80s - and that it could be just as big.
This much is sure: If you don't dream big, you won't hit it big. Hydrogen technology is a big dream, but not an unrealistic one.