DOE flushes $15 million down the hydrogen toilet

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"DOE flushes $15 million down the hydrogen toilet"

There are only three sure things in life — death, taxes, and you won’t be buying a hydrogen fuel cell car. Sadly, the US Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy has not gotten any of the memos (see “The Last Car You Would Ever Buy — Literally” and “This just in: Hydrogen fuel cell cars are still dead“).]

As GreenCarCongress reports:

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has selected 10 cost-shared hydrogen storage research and development projects to receive up to $15.3 million over five years, subject to annual appropriations.

The selected projects seek to develop hydrogen storage technologies to enable fuel cell vehicles to meet customer expectations for longer driving range and performance. The projects include development of novel hydrogen storage materials, development of efficient methods for regeneration of hydrogen storage materials, and approaches to increase hydrogen binding energies to enable room temperature hydrogen storage.

It would be difficult for “fuel cell vehicles to meet customer expectations for longer driving range and performance” given that there are no customers for fuel cell vehicles nor are there going to be any time soon and I mean soon in the sense of Hell-freezes-over soon.

I predict that by the end of the first term of the next president — whoever he is — the hydrogen fuel cell budget will be cut in half. If it were up to me, it would be cut 90% or more. Depending on what you include, the current budget is close to $300 million a year. All of that money should be shifted towards developing advanced batteries and cellulosic ethanol — and deploying plug-in hybrids.

This latest DOE announcement shows just how bad an investment hydrogen technology has become for taxpayers:

DOE will negotiate the terms of 10 cost-shared projects currently planned for a total of approximately $18 million, with up to $15.3 million total government share, subject to annual appropriations, and $3 million applicant cost share.

In the good old days, we tried very hard to get 50-50 cost share. Now, at a time when the nation and the world has simply run out of time for pursuing high-in-the-sky projects, if you can’t get the private sector to cough up half of the project cost, that is a pretty good sign that you are not pursuing a technology that is going to make much of a contribution for decades to come.

In case you want to know what rabbit hole your taxpayer dollars are disappearing down, here is the list of the 10 projects:

  • Los Alamos National Laboratory (Los Alamos, N.M.) Up to $2.3 million for a novel concept using an electric field to increase the hydrogen binding energy in hydrogen adsorbents.
  • Northwestern University (Evanston, Ill.) Up to $2.2 million to design novel multi-component metal hydride-based mixtures for hydrogen storage.
  • Northwestern University (Evanston, Ill.) Up to $1.3 million for novel hydrogen adsorbent materials with increased hydrogen binding energy through metal doping.
  • Ohio State University (Columbus, Ohio) Up to $1.1 million for development of high capacity, reversible hydrogen storage materials using boron-based metal hydrides.
  • Pennsylvania State University (University Park, Pa.) Up to $1.5 million for development of novel nanoporous materials for use as hydrogen adsorbents.
  • US Borax Inc. (Greenwood Village, Colo.) Up to $600,000 for development of a high-efficiency process for the regeneration of spent chemical hydrogen carriers.
  • University of Missouri (Columbia, Mo.) Up to $1.9 million for development of boron-substituted, high-surface area carbon materials made from corncobs for use as hydrogen adsorbents.
  • University of Oregon (Eugene, Oregon) Up to $640,000 for novel boron and nitrogen substituted cyclic compounds for use as liquid hydrogen carriers.
  • University of California at Los Angeles (Los Angeles, Calif.) Up to $1.7 million for novel hydrogen adsorbent materials based on light metal impregnation for increasing hydrogen binding energies.
  • Sandia National Laboratories (Livermore, Calif.) Up to $2.0 million for development of materials with tunable thermodynamics through the stabilization of nanosized particles.


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40 Responses to DOE flushes $15 million down the hydrogen toilet

  1. charlesH says:


    Here is one where I completely agree with you. However, who were the people/groups pushing hydrogen over the last 20 yrs? [In the same vein as CA mandating an EV as if the capability would magically appear if a law was passed. ] I can remember many a press piece touting the virtues of pollution free hydrogen but never mentioning how one obtained hydrogen. Like you could mine it or drill for it.

  2. Eric Roston says:

    Wait… They finally got the hydrogen toilets to work?

  3. Paul K says:

    Environmentalist movie star Jamie Lee Curtis has a very different opinion on hydrogen.

  4. nataraj says:

    I bet this is small change compared to all the other stuff Bush govt is doing to waste our (and Chinese) money.

    The basic problem is ideology. They think govt should not “choose” winners in alt fuels.

  5. Mark Shapiro says:

    So the future of transportation is electric, and the big vexing question is how to get electricity to the wheels.

    Battery only, series or parallel hybrid, and PHEV are inside the box of possibilities we are considering. Joe puts fuel cells way outside the box. But are there any other ways to get juice to the wheels? Catenary wires are ugly I guess (except for trains like TGV), but there are other ways to induce current. EM induction? Microwaves? Anything else out there?

    Clearly we want better batteries, lighter more aerodynamic cars, better mass transit, more bikes and even more shoe leather in the transport mix, but how do we best get electric current to the wheels? That appears to be the big question.

  6. crf says:

    For the 2010 Olympics, hydrogen fuel cell buses will be used in Whistler, British Columbia. The refueling station and garage will be built on a rare wetland. The compressed hydrogen gas will be trucked in from thousands of kilometres away, from a plant in Quebec deriving the Hydrogen from natural gas.

    I find it amusing that people get all up in arms about lip-syncing fakery at the olympics, but will swallow hydrogen fakery without much criticism.

  7. Mark Shapiro says:

    Thanks to Michael Hoexter at for his discussions of the renewable electron economy, and specifically about electrification of transportation rights of way.

    My more general question: how can we provide electricity to vehicles safely and reliably while they are moving?

  8. I am really confused. Can’t Hydrogen be stored just like propane in a pressuretank, and fill a car like we fill propane tanks?

    Honda is sending 200 Hydrogen cars to Calif. next year. Off their production line. Which they are selling to other countries. What are those countries doing for infra structure, (production and distribution of Hydrogen). curious. Why can’t we do the same?

  9. Joe says:

    William — It could, but high-pressure onboard storage, typically 5000 pounds per square inch, is simply not practical either from the vehicle side or, more importantly, from the fueling side. Nobody is going to build thousands of fueling stations with expensive, unreliable, energy-intensive multistage hydrogen compressors.

  10. Earl Killian says:

    Joe, that was an unusual answer to William. I would think the pumping into and storage of hydrogen in vehicle tanks would be the least of the issues to cite against hydrogen. Inherent inefficiency and the cost/lifetime of the fuel cells are of more concern, IMO. After all, the Honda Clarity FCX is showing 5000 psi (350 bar) storage now. Far more significant is that it will take 2-4x as many windmills to power the FCX as it would a plug-in version of the same vehicle. Such a multiple on the renewable energy requirement for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles makes them a horrible choice for replacing gasoline vehicles. The extra windmills required by FCVs would be far better directed at replacing coal power plants.

  11. Earl Killian says:

    Mark Shapiro said, “how do we best get electric current to the wheels? That appears to be the big question.

    It isn’t that big of a question. It is hard to beat delivering electricity over the grid to your garage plug at 93% efficiency, converting it to DC in the car at 92% efficiency, and then charging/discharging batteries at 94% efficiency. Until something else can come close, there’s no real question there.

  12. Rick C says:

    They’d be better off giving that money away to people who will receive the money who vow to spend it on buying a Tesla.

    I’m waiting for my check in the mail :-)

  13. Lou Grinzo says:

    Everyone interested in this topic should read Joe’s book, The Hype About Hydrogen, which he links to above. It’s a devastating critique of HFC’s in cars.

    If you want something shorter, then I highly recommend the paper “Does a Hydrogen Economy Make Sense?” (12 pages, 459KB PDF) ( by Ulf Bossel, which I mentioned over on The Cost of Energy several times, including the following post:

    Bossel does a detailed analysis of the energy losses at every stage of creating, transporting, compressing, dispensing, and using hydrogen in a FC vehicle, and compares it to a battery electric vehicle. The BEV wins by a factor of 3.

  14. Doug says:

    My views on hydrogen are evolving, from naive optimism years ago, to utter skepticism like Joe’s as of maybe a month ago, and now sliding to something of a middle ground.

    My current thinking can be summed up as this: hydrogen is not competitive against battery-electric serial hybrids, but may become so against biofuels. At least for large-usage cases such as airplanes, ocean liners/freighters, and large trucks — applications that truly require high on-board energy density, unlike 90% of auto usage.

    I did some back-of-the-envelope calcs, and estimated that, for the same land area, hydrogen from a PV installation could yield around 10x the mileage to a car as can cellulosic ethanol (both as the range-extenders in a serial-hybrid setup). I had to use auto mileage for comparison, as I don’t know any hydrogen or electric numbers for large trucks/ships/airplanes. I also have no idea about biodiesel from algae, as I have not seen any numbers for that.

    On top of the simple land-area advantage, solar installations will of course not be competing with food crops for land (and perhaps fertilizer and irrigation) as cellulosic ethanol would, and would have more-reliable yields to boot. Again, I don’t know about algae, but algae would require significant infrastructure — perhaps more intensive than a solar installation, due to the need for all sorts of fluids shunting about. Algae certainly will require plenty of water.

    For jets, I don’t know if hydrogen will be an adequate substitute for injecting into the air stream instead of a hydrocarbon; but if it is, a big jet is so expensive already that hydrogen storage might be fesable (e.g. in liquid form).

    For large ships and trucks, the transition to diesel-electric either is already underway (ships) or will be soon (e.g. Wal-Mart’s fleet-efficiency project to double mileage by 2015). It stands to reason that adding battery capacity will follow soon after. But it will be quite a while before such huge batteries could even be charged easily, on a widespread basis, due to the amperage requirements. So a secondary fuel source will be needed for quite a few decades. Due to the massive fuel requirements of these applications, I worry that it will be difficult for biofuels to accommodate it. That’s where hydrogen may come in.

    So continued research into improved H2 storage, fuel cells, and electrolysis is warranted; but probably not to be targeted for production until at least a decade from now. Compared to the multiple billions we should be spending on PV, solar-thermal, batteries, and grid improvements, 300 million for hydrogen sounds reasonable. It’s just that we need to get those other billions actually allocated!

  15. ClaudeB says:

    crf: The liquid hydrogen will travel for some 4,725 km (using the Trans-Canada Highway instead of the southern route used by Google Map) from the factory in Montreal to Whistler. Assuming the semi uses the same amount of diesel than a bus (6 mpg or 38 l/100 km), the one-way trip will take 1800 l (472 US gallons) of diesel… to transport one load of the precious gas .

    Unless they ship the precious cargo using the CN train line.

  16. Paul K says:

    The big difference between hydrogen and plug ins is that hydrogen cars are on the road in the hands of environmental opinion leaders. High quality, major car makers are producing fuel cell vehicles while still trying to perfect the plug-in hybrid.

    Earl Killian is certainly correct that EV is the best path and I wish he could have been one of the Californians allowed to lease a hydrogen car.

    nataraj: They think govt should not “choose” winners in alt fuels.
    This is why some climate voters will vote the other way.

  17. Earl Killian says:

    Paul K, there are more plug-in cars on the road than hydrogen cars. My wife and I have two plug-in cars in my garage. I would characterize your statement, “High quality, major car makers are producing fuel cell vehicles” as false. Automakers are still doing research on making FCVs feasible; they are experimenting with prototypes, not producing vehicles.

  18. John Hollenberg says:

    I haven’t read Joe’s book on hydrogen, but the paper Lou cited above:

    is certainly a damning indictment of the extreme energy inefficiency of the hydrogen economy.

  19. Martin says:

    Since y’all are on the subject of cars, I thought I’d bring up something about electric cars that has puzzled me and others.

    For longer distance trips, electric would seem to have a major drawback. With gas, when one runs out after 300 or so miles, one merely pulls into a service station and refills in a couple of minutes. With electric, what does one do? Recharging batteries takes a much longer time, I assume.

    Obviously, most car trips are not so long that this is an issue. In addition, gas/electric hybrids can solve some of this. But presumably we don’t want to have the inefficiency of maintaining both gas and electric distributions infrastructures.

    So, what is the electric car answer for long haul trucking and spring break road trips?



  20. John Hollenberg says:

    > So, what is the electric car answer for long haul trucking and spring break road trips?

    Two possibilities: recharging stations or swapping the battery for a fully recharged one. Both are planned for electric car initiative in Israel by Renault-Nissan. See for example:

  21. Earl Killian says:

    To add to John Hollenberg’s reply, there are also plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs). However, in the long-term fast charging is likely to have pure Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) replace PHEVs. In May 2007 a 10-minute recharge of a 150-mile BEV was demonstrated to the California Air Resources Board. The technology to support this therefore already exists. It is a matter of making it cost-effective.

  22. Ronald says:

    For the question about long trips in BEV and PHEV’s, some have looked at the problem and came up with this report ‘Low-emissions Range Extender for Electric Vehicles.’

    Go to this Website:

    Go to Resources and you can download the report.

    The question about what to do with long haul trucking is harder. Batteries aren’t at the point yet of doing it yet and may never be able to. My thinking on the problem is that if fossil fuels are used, they should be used in the most valuable state for the end use, otherwise power, heat and cooling needs should be handled with the electrical grid and then feed the grid with as much Renewables (nondepleatables, nonexhaustables) possibles.

    Example. Instead of heating houses in the Northeast with Fuel oil as many do now, they should be using Geothermal heat pumps that are powered from the electrical grid thats powered by Renewable low and non carbon sources. Then use the fuel oil saved from that to power the trucks needed for medium distance heavy transportation.

  23. Martin says:

    Let me follow up by saying that I like the idea of an electric car world. I think it could, in the very near term, provide terrific benefits. Israel will reap the rewards relatively easily (props to my peeps in the promised land!). It’s a tiny country, so long-haul isn’t a huge issue there. We’ll need some different solutions in the rest of the world.

    I guess if we already have 10 minutes/150 miles (refill time divided by range… a good measure of convenience, no?) for recharging batteries that’s certainly promising. Presumably, technology will improve on that. Gasoline gets a convenience ratio of what, 3 minutes / 300 miles? That’s about six times better than the previously cited demonstration before the CARB.

    I’m not particularly enamored of the idea of swapping out batteries. The US, in particular, has issues with standards (witness our mobile phone “system”), and without a standardized battery system, swapping becomes logistically VERY challenging. Then there’s the labor. We’d be forced back into full service service stations! That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s certainly an impediment to uptake of the technology.

    In short, I’d put my money behind improving recharging technology. Or maybe solutions for the problems dogging hydrogen will be found. Ya’ never know. Just don’t count on it.

    Cheers y’all!


  24. Doug says:

    …swapping out batteries. … We’d be forced back into full service service stations! That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s certainly an impediment to uptake of the technology.

    Actually there would be far fewer such service stations as there are gas stations now, as 90% of the electric fleet’s driving needs would be met by home chargers. But you’re right about the danger of too many proprietary battery types.

    I skimmed the subject of long-haul trucking in my other post above. Basically, the battery needs will be enormous here, so the best hope is to transition as much as possible to biodiesel, ultimately derived from algae. In the meantime, battery technology does improve, and these trucks should switch largely to diesel-electric setups by maybe 2020. I base that date on the fact that Wal-Mart is already planning for that transition of its fleet by 2015 (that, together with numerous other measures, will double their trucks’ gas mileage by that time). So once that’s pioneered, the larger fleet should switch over — if gas prices remain high, it could be rather quick.

    With diesel-electric in place, there will be a natural transition to start adding batteries in the middle, making the trucks into serial hybrids. Then the batteries’ capacities can increase until the technology hits a wall — or, if we’re lucky, it doesn’t, and the only issue is how to charge them fast enough. But if it does, then the question will be is hydrogen or biodiesel better as the range-extending energy carrier.

    BTW, someone here mentioned fast-charging batteries. I don’t think they’re truly here yet, as schemes for quick charging can reduce a battery’s longevity considerably — or it means that the battery has much lower energy density than non-fast-charging types. It’s going to take a while to develop fast-chargers that have high energy density + low cost + long durability. Slow-charging batteries will meet those three requirements much sooner.

  25. Mark Shapiro says:

    I’ll repeat my question for all:

    What is the best way to get electricity to the vehicle while it’s moving?

    Earl Killian’s reply that grid to battery is efficient clearly holds, but only while the vehicle is parked at a charging station.

    Electricity is a clean, efficient, simple, and inexpensive way to propel a vehicle. Batteries, HEVs, PHEVs, and especially fuel cells are complex and/or expensive.

    So how do you best bet electricity to the wheels? Can you make electricity available at the right of way?

  26. Mark Shapiro says:

    By the way –

    The ideal that I am looking for is that electricity would be available continuously, or in short bursts, for example at intersections or interchanges.

    If this is even possible, it would require huge infrastructure investment, but battery production also requires investment.

    One possible system would be buses that recharge briefly at every bus stop. With fixed routes, the infrastructure need is known and limited. The charging mechanism needs to be fast, safe, and reliable, but that is true for all energy transfer.

    My apologies if this is too preposterous.

  27. Martin says:

    Mark, now that you mention the idea, I DO recall seeing a blurb in New Scientist about using induction plates embedded in the road to recharge vehicles. The context was very specific (and the one you mentioned): city buses with recharging at bus stops. I’m skeptical about the efficiency of such a system, especially for the more general automotive population.

    On the other hand, people have also experimented with generating electricity using the piezoelectric effect as cars drive over plates embedded in the road. So, at intersections, cars driving over piezoelectric plates going one direction generate electricity which charges cars going the other direction but stopped at the lights and sitting over induction plates.

    As you mentioned, putting together the infrastructure could be prohibitive, but if it’s a closed system, as opposed to feeding off mains, it would be interesting to see what that does to the cast/benefit analysis.


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    In the good old days, we tried very hard to get 50-50 cost share. Now, at a time when the nation and the world has simply run out of time for pursuing high-in-the-sky projects, if you can’t get the private sector to cough up half of the project cost, that is a pretty good sign that you are not pursuing a technology that is going to make much of a contribution for decades to come.

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