The U.S. government plans to award $50 million over the next three years in research grants to advance hydrogen fuel cell technology, U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said Thursday.

Bodman said the department will begin soliciting research proposals from private companies, laboratories and universities later this month on a variety of issues in fuel cell research, including materials that could be used to store hydrogen and that could enable hydrogen-powered vehicles to travel more than 300 miles before refueling.

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The grants are part of the government's goal of putting hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road by 2020, Bodman said in a speech to the Society of Automotive Engineers in Detroit.

Most automakers are working to create vehicles that rely less on gasoline as energy prices rise and governments pass stricter laws controlling emissions.

Fuel cells rely on hydrogen, which reacts with oxygen to create electricity and power vehicles. The only emission is water vapor. But widespread use of the odorless, colorless hydrogen still needs technological breakthroughs for commercial viability.

Bodman said for now, flex-fuel and E85, or 85 percent ethanol, are proven alternatives to gasoline.

Interest in E85 has grown in recent months. The fuel, made mostly from corn, produces less pollutants than gasoline, burns cleaner and is a renewable, U.S.-based resource.

General Motors Corp. (GM), Ford Motor Co. (F) and DaimlerChrysler AG (DCX) have all said they would build so-called E85-powered vehicles this year.

GM plans to build 400,000 so-called flex fuels, while Ford said it will produce up to 250,000 ethanol-capable vehicles by the end of 2006.

"To push this process along, the energy department will be coming out with a solicitation later this month for proposals on how we can form public-private teams and other affiliations to maker E85 more widely available in the marketplace," Bodman said. He said there are only about 600 retail outlets for E85 today.

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