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Driving Green

Automakers race to mate eco-friendly fuel alternatives with the performance options we love
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Gen. Tommy Franks, Nov/Dec 03


A chill wind is blowing off the glaciers, driving a stinging rain down on Iceland's capital city of Reykjavik. But after three years of planning and prepping, Jon Bjorn Skulason isn't about to let the weather ruin his day. Just think of it as "a little bit of energy pouring from the sky," the director of Icelandic New Energy Ltd. tells his shivering audience. And in a sense, he's right.

It's not often that journalists and dignitaries will fly from all corners of the globe to attend the opening of a new gasoline station. Or in this instance, the addition of one new pump to the Shell station along the city's northern coastline. But this isn't your ordinary service station.

If you were to peer over the cinder-block wall behind the pump, you'd discover a maze of hoses, wires and tanks, but in the end, the chemistry is surprisingly simple: take some water, whether from rain or well, apply a jolt of current, and through a process known as electrolysis, you get one part oxygen and two parts hydrogen. The latter gas is the most abundant element in the universe. It's also the fuel for an automotive revolution that may wind up in your own driveway in the not too distant future.

A century ago, when the horseless carriage was beginning to overtake four-legged forms of transportation, plenty of alternative power sources existed. At the 1900 New York Auto Show, the first of its kind, steam and electric vehicles outnumbered those running on gasoline. The discovery of cheap Texas crude closed that debate, and ever since, the vast majority of automobiles have relied on abundant and inexpensive petroleum.

Though the internal combustion engine is relatively efficient and affordable, it does have its drawbacks, as you discover during a rush-hour drive through almost any major American city. Even after a quarter century of ever more stringent emissions standards, the automobile continues to foul the air. And keeping our tanks filled is a major factor in the U.S. trade imbalance. If you believe a series of recent television ads, every time you top off the tank, you're funding a terrorist somewhere. Even when you tone down the rhetoric, there's a growing sense that the gasoline-powered car is an endangered species.

"We have been captive to petroleum," admits Alan Taub, executive director of General Motors' science labs. The challenge, he stresses, is finding an alternative that's not only technically feasible, but which will meet the expectations of demanding American motorists. The failure of California's experimental battery car project shows that won't be easy— tomorrow's green machines will have to match the range, comfort, cost and flexibility of today's cars—but neither is it impossible.


Gassing up

It may be frigid cold in Reykjavik, but on this early spring morning, a bright sun peers down from clear skies over Manhattan. A line has formed along Eleventh Avenue. The city's annual auto show is under way inside the Jacob Javits Convention Center. But in the service drive outside, Honda is offering demonstration drives in its FCX fuel cell vehicle.

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