By an overwhelming vote of 416 to 6, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 5143, the H-Prize Act of 2006. (Earlier post.) The legislation, introduced by Research Subcommittee Chairman Bob Inglis (R-SC) and modified after its passage out of Committee, would, if it becomes law, establish a national prize competition to encourage the development of breakthrough technologies that would enable a hydrogen economy.
The H-Prize, modeled after the successful $10M Ansari X Prize—which spurred the first privately funded suborbital human spaceflight last year—seeks to help overcome technical challenges related to hydrogen by offering prizes in three categories:
Technological Advancements. Four prizes of up to $1 million awarded biennially in the categories of hydrogen Production, Storage, Distribution and Utilization;
Prototypes. One prize of up to $4 million awarded biennially that forces working hydrogen vehicle prototypes to meet ambitious performance goals; and
Transformational Technologies. One grand prize consisting of a $10 million cash award, funded in whole or in part by federal contribution. Additional matching funds could be awarded for development of well-to-wheels breakthrough technologies.
H.R. 5143 would authorize appropriations during fiscal years 2007 through 2016 totaling:
$20 million for the Technical Advancement prizes;
$20 million for the Prototypes prizes (awards in these two categories alternate each year);
$10 million for a single Transformational Technologies grand prize; and
$2 million annually for administrative and advertising costs.
The legislation would direct the Secretary of Energy to contract with a private foundation or other non-profit entity to establish criteria for the prizes and administer the prize contest.
In passing the bill, the House amended the version of the bill that had passed in Committee by:
Allowing the Transformational Technologies grand prize to be offered only once in the 10-year period covered by the bill, reducing the authorization levels in the bill by $80 million;
Clarifying that the Technological Advancements prizes do not have to be awarded if there are no significant advances in the two-year period being covered by a prize competition; and
Requiring the entity that administers the prizes to protect any intellectual property, trade secrets or confidential business information provided by prize contestants.
Hydrogen may be the Holy Grail of transportation fuels. It is clean, it is abundant, and it can be produced here at home. If we are able to overcome the technical barriers that currently block its wide-spread, practical use, the potential payoff will be huge: cleaner air, less global warming, and most importantly, an economy that is not held hostage by foreign regimes or volatile oil markets. There’s no guarantee we’ll get there, but by summoning our nation’s best and brightest to the challenge, the H-Prize will greatly increase our chances of success.—House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY)
Contenders and the H-Prize. Compared to the Ansari X Prize competition, which required competitors to build and fly a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 km and then within two weeks repeat the flight, the goals and criteria for the H-Prize (assuming it is enacted into law) are much broader, and still need to be defined. Capital requirements for inventors pitching their notions into the contest ring are likely to be lower for some as well.
While a number of contenders undoubtedly will come from the mainstream hydrogen and transportation sectors (research, academic and commercial)—just as Ansari X Prize winner Burt Rutan and his group came from the aerospace industry—the prize opens the door for the competitive evaluation of less orthodox approaches.
Two examples of such are Hydrogen Technology Applications, with its claims for electrolyzing a “unique type of hydrogen/oxygen gas”—HHO—as a potential automotive fuel with 3.1 times the energy of hydrogen; and Energy Ventures Organization, which claims to use a modified resonance field to enhance the electrolytic production of hydrogen from water.
Hydrogen Technology Applications in particular has recently generated an enormous amount of buzz subsequent to a segment on FOX News that featured its “water fuel” for cars.
As questionable as the claims around some unorthodox approaches might be, one of the most efficient ways to sort it out is in a competition just of the sort the H-Prize anticipates.
Nor is the government alone is eyeing a prize strategy to catalyze activity. The X Prize Foundation plans to roll out its own Automotive X Prize (not focused just on hydrogen).
Between 1905 and 1935, hundreds of aviation prizes stimulated the advancement of aircraft technology. One of the best known prizes was The Orteig Prize, $25,000 offered by hotel magnate Raymond Orteig to the first person to fly non-stop between New York and Paris. In 1927, with the whole world watching, Charles Lindbergh won the prize, becoming the most famous person on Earth.
Where no government filled the need and no immediate profit could pay the bill, the Orteig Prize stimulated not one, but nine different attempts to cross the Atlantic. These nine teams cumulatively spent $400,000 to win the $25,000 purse.
Prior to his flight, the press of the day characterized him as a daredevil, an amateur, “the flying fool,” and a “lanky demon of the air,” he was actually a skilled professional and military aviator. Many of the other Orteig Prize attempts utilized heavy, multi-engine planes with large crews. Lindbergh’s meticulously planned single-engine/single-pilot strategy was a radical departure from the conventional thinking of the day, but his innovative thinking and careful preparation won the full support of the Spirit of St. Louis Organization.—“History of Prizes,” the X Prize Foundation
For legitimate startups, out-of-left-field inventors and those otherwise without exposure to and connections in the mainstream but with real solutions, contests and trials such as these could prove invaluable. For a world requiring real solutions to pressing energy and transportation problems, the prizes could be equally valuable.