House backs multimillion-dollar hydrogen prizes

A series of federally-funded prizes aimed at inspiring breakthroughs in hydrogen energy have moved a step closer to reality.

By a vote of 416 to 6, the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a slightly leaner version of the H-Prize Act of 2006. The bill won't become law unless the Senate also approves.

An initial version of the proposal offered a one-time, $100-million top prize for a "transformational technology" using hydrogen energy. Fueled in part by concerns from some politicians over that seemingly vast sum, the final bill pared back that amount to $10 million in federal funds. The berth, however, could increase by an additional $40 million through non-federal "matching" funds obtained by whichever non-profit entity the government chooses to administer the awards.

The approved bill also retains smaller awards of up to $1 million, which would be distributed every other year to inventions in four categories: hydrogen production, storage, distribution, and utilization. In alternate years, one prize of up to $4 million would go to those who achieve prototypes of hydrogen-powered vehicles or other products that meet certain standards.

All told, the proposal would set aside $52 million in taxpayer dollars between 2007 and 2016.

President Bush has already made research on hydrogen fuel-cell cars a major part of his energy policy agenda. But the technology faces major hurdles, not least of which is its expense. According to researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy, hydrogen would cost three or four times more than gasoline.

The H-Prize is intended to be modeled after prizes offered by the the X Prize Foundation, which most recently partnered with NASA to offer a $2.5 million prize for a next-generation spacecraft that can land on the moon.

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