Nothing like the threat of war to heighten the awareness of our reliance on, as well as preference for, petroleum-based products to fuel vehicles and equipment. Certainly, the next few months will find the aviation ground support industry, as well as the world, looking a little harder at fossil fuel alternatives.
In a recent speech, President Bush lauded hydrogen as a vehicular fuel because it can be produced from domestic sources - specifically natural gas - and proposed to spend $1.7 billion over the next five years for the development of hydrogen-powered fuel cells and hydrogen infrastructure. According to the Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition, "Hydrogen made from natural gas at a local fueling station will be the preferred source of vehicular hydrogen for the foreseeable future. And since some equipment needed for fueling a hydrogen vehicle also can be used to fuel a natural gas vehicle, the most cost-effective site for early hydrogen fueling will be at natural gas fueling stations. Therefore, developing the current natural gas fueling infrastructure will speed the introduction of a fuel cell economy."
While hydrogen vehicles are most likely a generation away and natural gas vehicles (NGV) are available now, proponents of alternative fuel development are puzzled as to why the President's FY 2004 budget recommendation to Congress cuts funding for NGV technology development. The President apparently has asked Congress to provide tax incentives for the purchase of hybrid and fuel cell vehicles but not NGVs. It looks as though Mr. Bush is relying on industry to ditch the here and now technology in favor of the longer term development of the hydrogen cell. Perhaps it is because he is still interested in drilling for oil in Alaska?
Whatever the motivation, those in aviation ground support will be pushed to act more quickly than a generation's time frame to reduce emissions on the ramp. Unfortunately, ground support is the low-hanging fruit that can be picked first to comply with cleaner air mandates. Yet, many times, it is the infrastructure, or lack thereof, at the airports that causes difficulty in implementing new technologies.
So what's to be done? While we can hope industry comes through with the clean solution, who is willing to pay for the R&D? Who will fund the needed infrastructure upgrades? Aviation will continue to struggle in the near term - new equipment purchases could be thin again this year - but deadlines for airport and government agency cleaner air mandates keep coming. There is, however, some encouraging news in the ground support manufacturing sector as more hybrid vehicles and supercharging units are introduced to help bridge the gap between infrastructure and innovation for reducing emissions on the ramp.
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