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Breakthrough reported in electric cars

Researchers have developed a gasoline-powered fuel cell that could lead to fuel-efficient and virtually pollution-free electric cars that don't need bulky batteries.

The development was being announced Tuesday by Energy Secretary Federico Pena and Arthur D. Little Co., a Boston-based energy consulting firm that conducted the fuel-cell research with technical help from one of the government's weapons labs.The method used by the researchers is significant because it uses a fuel cell that gets hydrogen from gasoline, a department official said late Monday. The official emphasized the research is in the laboratory stage.

The development was first reported by The New York Times, which quoted Pena as calling the finding "a terrific breakthrough" and saying vehicles using the process could be on the road within a dozen years.

Other sources familiar with the project said use of gasoline as a source of hydrogen for the fuel cell would allow for development of an electric car without the need of heavy batteries and that could use the existing network of gasoline stations.

The researchers have told the Energy Department a car using the technology could get twice the fuel efficiency that an internal combustion engine does - but with only 5 percent of the pollution.

One Energy Department source emphasized late Monday that while the research so far has been confined to the laboratory, researchers believe they have come across a significant technological breakthrough in fuel-cell development.

A number of companies, including the Big Three automakers and major oil companies such as Exxon Corp., have been involved in fuel-cell research, believing the technology is key to developing the next generation of highly efficient motors without heavy reliance on fossil fuels.

Various types of fuel cells have been developed, including ones that derive hydrogen from such fuels as methanol, ethanol or natural gas. Only last week, Toyota Co. announced it soon will sell a hybrid electric car that would use a small gasoline engine to recharge the battery. Toyota claims that technology also doubles gasoline mileage.

Despite fuel-cell developments, the technology is not expected to produce a car for general sales for years to come. One problem is that the cell itself is costly. Engineers, however, believe these costs would be reduced once mass production is begun.