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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Oily Politics

(Keywords: politics, environment, renewables, replacing oil with oil )

President Bush has used Earth Day to renew his call for advances in hydrogen fuel cell technology. "I strongly believe hydrogen is the fuel of the future," Reuters reports Bush as saying, "not a foolish dream."

But why fuel cells? People are using different technologies right now, biodiesel and ethanol both come to mind. Yet fuel cells are at least two or three decades from practical use.

Like everything the President advances, the answers may be found in the oil industry. According to the USDA, "In the hydrogen economy, hydrogen fuel cells would replace internal combustion engines in vehicles, and hydrogen would replace gasoline. However, current hydrogen fuel cell technology is heavily dependent on petroleum to make both the fuel cells and the hydrogen fuel." Hydrogen may be the most common element in the universe, but it's rarely found in pure form on earth - it must be extracted from other compounds. One of those compounds is oil.

It will be more efficient than burning oil, but it does little to move us away from the use of fossil fuels and toward renewable sources. The best use for fuel cells may be to power our homes and businesses, not our vehicles. And hydrogen is present in other compounds, like water, but the technology for non-petroleum based fuel cells may be even farther off than the fuel cells Bush envisions.

Fuel cells should be investigated - the lack of pollutants alone makes them worth it. But we need something now and we need something less dependent on fossil fuels. Which brings us to biodiesel.

It may be something that only trivia buffs are aware of, but diesels were originally designed to run on vegetable oil. Toward the end of WWII, the german army ran trucks on hemp oil. This is not a new or untested technology. The problem is that it does little to curb global warming. But it is renewable.

Fuel cells may be the way of the future, but we're not actually in the future. We need other options, even as only a stopgap for the next thirty or forty years. The last thing we need are new technologies based on the same old oil.