Hydrogen Is in His Dreams

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To most people, hydrogen power might sound like something out of Star Trek, but not to Roger Billings. Known to many who follow his exploits as Dr. Hydrogen, Billings is an affable inventor who has been promoting hydrogen since he was in high school. He has built hydrogen cars and a hydrogen house. He has converted small appliances to run on it, and he owns patents on hydrogen processes. He's a professor at an institution called the International Academy of Science, an unaccredited, nonprofit group in Independence, Mo., that conducts hydrogen research and grants degrees. Billings himself received one of its first Doctor of Research degrees.

Billings has been frustrated by America's refusal to embrace hydrogen power, which in his opinion is "the only way to go." That's why he likes President Bush's proposal to spend $1.2 billion to develop hydrogen-powered cars. "I think for the first time in 30 years the government has its act together on hydrogen," he says.

Billings started his experiments in 1965 as a student in Provo, Utah, when he modified a Model A Ford to run on hydrogen. In 1977 he drove a hydrogen-powered Cadillac in President Carter's Inauguration parade. In 1991 he converted a battery-operated Ford Fiesta donated by the Postal Service into what he claims is the world's first hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicle.

To conduct his hydrogen experiments and other ventures, Billings has started many companies over the years, first in Provo and later in suburban Kansas City, Mo. Billings says he has invested millions of dollars of his money from his profits in software development. Other support, he says, comes from the auto industry and its suppliers. Many of his experiments have been carried out in an abandoned quarry near his office.

The biggest obstacle to the widespread use of hydrogen power is the enormous amount of energy necessary to produce hydrogen in the first place. Billings has a ready answer: Build dozens of coal gasification plants across America to produce hydrogen from deposits of low-grade coal. "It's not an easy way to go," he admits. "It will take some real work to get us there."

Of course, that's what another inventor, Louis Enricht, thought when he sold his hydrogen formula for powering cars to the Maxim Munitions Corp. for a reported $1 million. A spokesman for Maxim, every bit as excited about the prospects as Billings, announced that "experiments up to this time prove conclusively that this invention, when fully perfected in some of its minor details, will be revolutionary in character."

The year was 1916.