AIKEN - A scarcity of new, big-ticket prospects for Aiken and Edgefield counties has forced the area's biggest industrial booster to place another bet on the future of a proven job source - Savannah River Site.
The Economic Development Partnership serving both counties has seen a 60 percent drop in industrial prospects this year, Director Fred Humes said Monday. That dip has forced the group to focus more than ever on promoting hydrogen technology at SRS, a gas many experts say will one day replace gasoline in automobiles.
Besides improving the prospects of winning a $4 billion plant that would make new triggers for nuclear weapons, hydrogen research would help ensure a steady stream of jobs at SRS, which employs about 13,000 people.
So it's no coincidence that the guest speaker at the development partnership's annual meeting tonight is the director of General Motors' hydrogen fuel cell research.
Dr. Jim Spearot is set to discuss the use of hydrogen in the automotive industry, an idea that gathered steam earlier this year when President Bush said the gas would be fueling American cars before 2020.
"e's) here because the Savannah River Site and the Savannah River Research Center has the world's greatest expertise in hydrogen-related issues," said Tom Hallman, the chancellor of the University of South Carolina Aiken, which has applied for grant money to help promote hydrogen research.
SRS, which has developed a hydrogen-powered bus, has teamed with the development partnership and USC in Columbia to form the South Carolina Hydrogen Coalition. The partnership is working on ways to better store hydrogen for long-term use and has attracted interest from more than 10 companies.
Mr. Humes stressed that the partnership wasn't abandoning its pursuit of more traditional industrial companies, such as Bridgestone/Firestone and United Parcel Service, which arrived in recent years, though many industries are increasingly locating overseas.
"We're going to build upon the foundation that we have" at SRS, Mr. Humes said. "That's one area where we certainly have an advantage over a lot of other communities."
Hydrogen technology doesn't necessarily mean more industry for Aiken and Edgefield, said Ralph White, the dean of USC's school of engineering in Columbia, who works with the hydrogen coalition.
"If people at SRS could produce something better to store hydrogen, that would spawn business," he said. "I think it would be a very valuable, worldwide commodity."
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