By on September 23, 2009

The House has authorized a new package of industry aid in the form of research and development funds for advanced technology vehicles. H.R. 3246 still needs to be funded, but authorization is for up to $2.9b over the next five years. The AP reports that the bill would fund research on “technologies such as batteries for hybrid vehicles, electric cars, hydrogen fuel cells and infrastructure for the electric grid.” Notice something strange there? President Obama had previously moved to cut funding of hydrogen research, a move that DOE spokesfolks at the time explained by gently reminding that “the probability of deploying hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles in the next 10 to 20 years is low.”

GM’s outgoing hydrogen-booster-in-chief, outgoing R&D boss Larry Burns, took the opportunity to answer hydrogen haters at a Fastlane webchat. And despite the return of hydrogen research funding, his tone was remarkably subdued. Especially for a long-time hydrogen advocate.

I’ve seen a tendency for people to promote one solution over another. They seem to think the question is batteries vs.   fuel cells. Or fuel cells vs. biofuels. I have become convinced we need all three. Like I said earlier, it’s “and” not “or.” Unfortunately, many of the players have a vested interest in a single solution. Therefore, they over-promote one and criticize the others.

Meanwhile, Burns and GM are far from the only ones rediscovering hydrogen post-Obama’s kibosh. Daimler’s Dieter Zetsche personifies the German ambivalence towards battery-electric technology in a BusinessWeek interview. “The chances further down the road seem to me better on the fuel-cell side than on the battery-electric side,” he says. Of course Germany has also committed $2.6b towards creating a 1,000 station hydrogen fueling infrastructure. That helps.

But it’s not just the Germans, who missed the early battery EV boat by ignoring hybrids in favor of diesels, who are talking up hydrogen. “Although batteries are evolving, I don’t think they can catch up with fuel cells,” is Honda CEO Takanobu Ito’s take. And though Toyota debuted its plug-in Prius at the Frankfurt Auto Show, the big T’s US head of advanced technology vehicle planning is even comparing hydrogen favorably to lithium-ion battery plug-ins. Michael O’Brien told the California Air Resource Board [via Green Car Congress]:

Major challenges still face plug-ins in terms of product readiness for market and the state of technology. Longer term shifts in consumers values, new frugality, may delay technology adoption by many consumers. These suggest that there is a limited natural market for plug-in vehicles, and that strong incentives will be needed to push demand to the higher levels, and to address challenges regarding battery technology, cost and suitability.

Meanwhile, “Toyota sees a clear path to the commercial introduction of fuel cell vehicles by 2015. We believe that hydrogen and fuel cells have a potential to significantly reduce the environmental impact of the automobile.” The perennial criticism of hydrogen boosters is that their cleaner future is always well, in the future. That hasn’t changed, but the death of hydrogen seems to have been at least slightly exaggerated.

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21 Comments on “Research Fund Authorization Heralds Hydrogen’s Return… At Some Point...”


  • avatar
    folkdancer

    Larry Burns, … Like I said earlier, it’s “and” not “or.”

    He is absolutely correct. We have no idea what “Black Swans” (fantastic book) are in our future and having researchers and back yard mechanics working on every conceivable propulsion idea is exactly what the world needs.

  • avatar
    sutski

    “the probability of deploying hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles in the next 10 to 20 years is low.”

    This hasn’t changed now has it ?

    “Therefore, they over-promote one and criticize the others. ”

    In my school rule book, it said “Only positive support allowed”.

    A rule that if all manufacturers followed would make watching TV commercials less painfull if nothing else. Sell what you have, not why it is perhaps better than some other thing (that I may think is crap anyway).

    I wish hydrogen was the solution, but really, it has sooooo many long term and production issues currently. Are batteries and bio-fuels and cng not hear already though, lets praise them and support them and jump on board the “move it all forwards” boat?

    I saw President Clinton on TV yesterday and he said that essentially it is not the nitty gritty of the healthcare bill that matters so much as that SOMETHING gets passed into being. It will evolve over generations such as Medicaid and the NHS, but just start with something quickly!

    Same for cars I reckon. Plenty of room for a few V8’s in an increasingly oil depleted future, but please, get the PHEV and electric cars out there asap to keep it all going so we can save some oil for later!!

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Burns is right. For alternative propulsion sources to work, there needs to be a range of them for consumers to choose from; this would promote competition and keep prices low.

    And as far as these energy sources are concerned, if you look at them as propulsion sources only, hydrogen’s a proven technology. Honda’s leasing hydrogen-powered cars as this is written.

    The problem is that there is no infrastructure to produce and distribute hydrogen on a scale to make it economically viable. The production of hydrogen itself is also very energy-intensive.

  • avatar
    jmo

    Two Options:

    1. Artificial Photosynthesis

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/03/090311103646.htm

    2. Atmospheric Carbon Capture

    http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/02/13/federal-lab-says-it-can-harvest-fuel-from-air/

    From what I can gather option 1 is still theoretical and option 2 is more energy intensive than cracking water molecules… But, I’m wondering if the stabilty and ease of transport of the fuel might make these options the ones that will win out – long term.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    The problem is that there is no infrastructure to produce and distribute hydrogen on a scale to make it economically viable. The production of hydrogen itself is also very energy-intensive.

    No kidding. It’s not getting any easier, either.

    The only way it will ever work will be if someone develops a) a practical way to extract it and b) a common, swappable fuel cell. It’ll never, ever be something that can be transported over a pipeline. A) is practically insurmountable without a quantum leap in power-generation technology; B) is only slightly less difficult.

    In holistic terms, cars powered by nuclear fission are probably more viable, while improved battery chemistry is more likely still.

    Or, you know, we could stop building communities that require cars to traverse them. Building cars that aren’t two or more tons of metal would be a good move, too.

  • avatar
    ClutchCarGo

    As much as I hope for a hydrogen break-thru, I believe the old adage is that “Hydrogen is THE fuel of the next decade, and has been for the last 50 years”.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Burns is right. For alternative propulsion sources to work, there needs to be a range of them for consumers to choose from; this would promote competition and keep prices low.

    No, he isn’t right. Having a range of technologies, all of which are receiving mediocre support just ensures that we stick with the status quo because the alternatives are perpetually immature, pricey and relegated to niche markets or development hell.

    Hydrogen has always been a Hail-Mary for the automakers. They like it because it’s great PR and relatively easy to do (no electric drivetrain or hybrid system, just good ol’ ICE), so it always looks “just around the corner. Meanwhile, electric power is becoming feasible not because it’s competing with hydrogen, but because economies of scale and R&D done in other markets (consumer electronics) has made it possible.

    Commoditization, not competition, is what drives adoption.

  • avatar
    rnc

    (no electric drivetrain or hybrid system, just good ol’ ICE), so it always looks “just around the corner.

    Thats actually the opposite of the problem in that they are trying to use fuel cells instead of ICE (BMW already sells a 7 that runs on H). Insisting on using fuel cells (which will probably never be cost effective enough for mass applications) is a built in delay.

    The reality is that there is a vested interest in keeping things the way they are, the entire global economy has been based around oil, the major players don’t want this to change. I mean we have the infrastructure to run cars on CNG or LNG (preferable) and you can refine clean desiel from it (just carbon and hydrogen, nothing else) and we have abundant supplies in this country.

  • avatar

    Same for cars I reckon. Plenty of room for a few V8’s in an increasingly oil depleted future, but please, get the PHEV and electric cars out there asap to keep it all going so we can save some oil for later!!

    Thank you!! Someone who gets it. Thank the heavens. It’s not all about ‘mine mine mine me me me!!’

    Also, General Motors + Hydrogen = BOOM!

    This can not end well. Can’t we get someone, anyone else to do the hydrogen fuel cell? Honda FCX Clarity, anyone? General Motors can and will find a way to make your hydrogen car blow up. I mean, like taking out half a city block.

    Be afraid.

  • avatar
    KarenRei

    Burns is right. For alternative propulsion sources to work, there needs to be a range of them for consumers to choose from; this would promote competition and keep prices low.

    No, that will keep prices *high*. It means lower volume productions of each and duplication of infrastructure production.

    To anyone who thinks hydrogen is anywhere close to reality: Toyota makes the FCHV-adv, the only H2 fuel cell vehicle with an unsubsidized lease. The cost? An $8k/mo lease. And it uses three times as much energy per mile as an EV, and involves the use of hydrogen, which is a PITA chemical in so many ways.

    It’s just not happening. Hydrogen is an excuse to not do anything now.

  • avatar
    european

    @rnc
    “and we have abundant supplies in this country”

    OYE OYE OYE!

    you really believe that? why is it then that you have to import NG from Canada? well maybe you’re canadian, i dunno.
    or (if you are an american) have to invade iran to get to their gas fields? “but they got bombs” ya think hahaha.

    but NG is same as oil, nonrenewable energy.

    and hydrogen can be easily be extracted from NG
    (not an option coz, ya know, nonrenewable)
    or
    hydrogen can be made by water-electrolisys or whatever its spelled. but that uses more energy to do so (and yea, you need electricity which doesnt grow on trees, heh) than it produces (stored in H2), being so a net-energy looser.

    the other issue is transport of H2 and so on.

    all in all, no, hydrogen is not a preferable option.

  • avatar
    european

    edit of prev post

    “but they got ‘r developing the n. bombs

  • avatar
    Da Coyote

    I remember a remark made by a fellow scientist at the company where I work – subject: a rather large DOD sponsored project.

    As per usual we were in an infinite loop trying to match company methods with govt methods with reality. (Reality was winning.)

    One very competent designer stated, “What we really need is to fire the bureaucrats, let 10 competent engineers into a room along with the specs, and we’ll have a successful project in a year.”

    Worked for us (really), and it might even work for GM (if they have 10 engineers left).

  • avatar
    CaFCPChris

    The problem is that there is no infrastructure to produce and distribute hydrogen on a scale to make it economically viable. The production of hydrogen itself is also very energy-intensive.

    Hydrogen is produced and distributed on a massive scale today. It goes into gasoline, food products, manufacturing and consumer goods. It’s safe and economically viable. Making hydrogen from natural gas takes less energy than making electricity from natural gas. About half the hydrogen stations make their fuel onsite at the station from natural gas (biogas and fossil gas) or solar or wind electolysis of water. http://www.cafcp. org is good source of well-referenced information about H2 and fuel cell vehicles.

  • avatar
    charly

    Hydrogen fuel cell cars are just electric hybrids with a fuel cell instead of Volts ICE. This leads to the question of how big should the battery be and will it be plugable. you end up with a kind of Volt as electricity will be cheaper than hydrogen. Add electrifying the highway and the end result is a battery powered car without a fuel cell

  • avatar
    PeteMoran

    Methanol fuel cells are likely even better.

    You can;

    1. Replenish the methanol fuel with essentially the same infrastructure we have now like gasoline, or

    2. “Reverse” the methanol fuel cycle with closed cycle regeneration and a home “charger” much like a battery, and

    3. Like Hydrogen, it’s based on really simple chemistry with plentiful simple elements unlike Li-on batteries etc.

    Methanol Economy.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    Yep, hydrogen is a delay tactic. We’ve got working NiMH full blown EV tech and the automakers and their PR people avoid mentioning it at all costs.

    Hydrogen just keeps the current money makers mking a profit.

    Thanks, I’d like to pay somebody else for my transportation needs.

    Funny how mention of the RAV4-EV never makes it into their conversation..

    Get EVs out there NOW to people like me (and my family) who want them and the V-8 drivers have longer to enjoy their thirsty vehicles. Get the EVs to the market and let EVs be used where they are capable of working well. 100 miles per charge with a NiMH battery life is a great commuter/errand vehicle.

    The problem is Chevron holds the patents and the current ICE based auto industry makes a TON of money for them.

    Be sure to give “Two Cents Per Mile” by Nevres Cefo a read. Give your local library a check. Book is new this year.

  • avatar
    european

    @PeteMoran

    yes sure, lets see what the link you mentioned said

    “Methanol can be efficiently produced from a wide variety of sources including still abundant fossil fuels (natural gas, coal, oil shale, tar sands, etc.), but also agricultural products and municipal waste, wood and varied biomass.”

    so do tell please im eager to know, how is this a replacement for oil if you NEED oil to make methanol??? hmmm….

  • avatar
    PeteMoran

    @ european

    Should I dignify your “question”? hmmm……

    Do you know what a closed loop fuel system is?

  • avatar
    european

    im amused how these know-it-all americans are avoiding to answer direct questions.

    its like asking for the time and he answers
    “5 oranges bigmacs and i had to eat em all. i was hungry”.

  • avatar
    PeteMoran

    @ european

    I’m guessing your “response” is to me.

    Firstly, I’m Australian, and secondly, I’m too lazy to respond.

    Get back to us when you understand closed-loop.


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