A new study released by the National Research Council (NRC) indicates that an investment on the order of $200 billion would be required for the U.S. to successfully transition to zero-emissions hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles. That cost, which according to NRC data would be spread over a 16-year period from 2008 to 2023, reflects $184 billion dedicated to vehicles and hydrogen production and another $16 billion in supplemental R&D. The direct government stake in that mix would be $55 billion while private industry would underwrite the remaining $145 billion in the form of research, vehicle development and production, and creation of the necessary infrastructure.

The NRC study concluded that the maximum practical number of hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road by 2020 would be about 2 million, but to reach that level would demand that annual R&D spending be bumped by 20 percent or more over its current $300 million level. It also postulated that by 2023, costs of a vehicle fitted with a hydrogen fuel cell would be on par with a conventional gasoline-powered car.

Undertaken in response to a congressional request made in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the NRC's comprehensive study generated a number of other interesting tidbits of information. It anticipates the first wave of lower-cost fuel cell vehicles could be on the road in a 5-10 year period. However, it also pointed out that one of the prime hurdles in making hydrogen fuel cells viable is the cost of the platinum they require, as that precious metal currently accounts for about 57 percent of the price of each fuel cell stack.

One of the NRC's other key findings is that by cultivating a portfolio of new technologies, including hybrid, plug-in electric, biofuels and even increasingly clean types of gasoline-powered vehicles, fleet greenhouse gas emissions can be cut to less than 20 percent of their current levels by 2050.

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