Obama, Chu try to slash the multi-miracle hydrogen program once again

Technology Review: It used to be thought, five to eight years ago, that hydrogen was the great answer for the future of transportation. The mood has shifted. What have we learned from this?

Steven Chu: I think, well, among some people it hasn’t really shifted. I think there was great enthusiasm in some quarters, but I always was somewhat skeptical of it because, right now, the way we get hydrogen primarily is from reforming [natural] gas. That’s not an ideal source of hydrogen. You’re giving away some of the energy content of natural gas, which is a very valuable fuel. So that’s one problem. The other problem is, if it’s for transportation, we don’t have a good storage mechanism yet. Compressed hydrogen is the best mechanism [but it requires] a large volume. We haven’t figured out how to store it with high density. What else? The fuel cells aren’t there yet, and the distribution infrastructure isn’t there yet. So you have four things that have to happen all at once. And so it always looked like it was going to be [a technology for] the distant future. In order to get significant deployment, you need four significant technological breakthroughs. That makes it unlikely.

If you need four miracles, that’s unlikely: saints only need three miracles.

That was Energy Secretary Steven Chu nearly 2 years ago in a Technology Review interview, explaining why he didn’t think that hydrogen fuel cell vehicle research should be a priority for the DOE.

Back then he tried to sharply reduce the bloated hydrogen budget and redirect the funds toward clean energy technology development and deployment programs that could actually achieve significant benefits for the American public in the foreseeable future, something I’ve been recommending for years. (see “Chu agrees with Climate Progress and slashes hydrogen budget“).  But the Congress restored the money.

Now he’s trying again.  In a blog post Friday, “Winning the Future with a Responsible Budget,” the Nobel prize-winning physicist explains, “In the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the Department is reducing funding for the hydrogen technology program by more than 41 percent, or almost $70 million, in order to focus on technologies deployable at large scale in the near term.”  Chu said in May 2009 that the multiple technological and infrastructure challenges meant it was unlikely we would convert to hydrogen car economy in the next two decades.

For a detailed analysis of the 4 miracles needed — indeed of the challenges facing all alternative fuel vehicles — see “Hydrogen fuel cell cars are a dead end from a technological, practical, and climate perspective “” Chu & Obama are right to kill the program.”  The Nobel Laureate Burton Richter has explained in detail why “The present hydrogen fuel cells are losers… Losers. They have to go back to the R&D lab.”

One reason climate hawks should hope that he succeeds is that hydrogen cars are one of the least cost-effective strategies for reducing carbon emissions ever imagined:

In fact, Well-to-Wheels Analysis of Future Automotive Fuels and Powertrains in the European Context, a January 2004 study by the European Commission Center for Joint Research, the European Council for Automotive R&D, and an association of European oil companies, concluded that using hydrogen as a transport fuel might well increase Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions rather than reduce them (JRC, 2004). That is because many pathways for making hydrogen, such as grid electrolysis, can be quite carbon-intensive and because hydrogen fuel cells are so expensive that hydrogen internal combustion engine vehicles may be deployed instead (which is already happening in California).

Using fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen from zero-carbon sources such as renewable power or nuclear energy has a cost of avoided carbon dioxide of more than $600 a metric ton, which is more than a factor of ten higher than most other strategies being considered today.

If we lived in some imaginary post-partisan Bizarro world where we had the prospect of spending as much money on clean energy as we ought to based on the realities of climate science and peak oil, then cutting the hydrogen doesn’t wouldn’t be needed.  We’d just increase the R&D and deployment programs for energy efficiency and renewable energy and electric drive vehicles several times.

Similarly, if the anti-science, pro-pollution conservatives and their enablers hadn’t killed the climate and clean energy jobs bill, again, we would have had more than enough money to fund even the implausible clean energy strategies.

But we’ve entered a period where political and budget realities mean we have to focus resources on the clean energy technologies and low carbon strategies that deliver the biggest bang for the buck.  Hydrogen not only has massive technological problems that will require large amounts of continued R&D funding.  It has a staggering infrastructure costs that would require tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars to jumpstart a genuine hydrogen economy.

The one state in this country that was seriously contemplating even a modest infrastructure came to its senses and essentially abandoned their effort (see “California Hydrogen Highway R.I.P“).

There simply isn’t a prospect that anybody is going to fund the thousands of low-carbon hydrogen fueling stations needed to make an initial introduction of the vehicles plausible, let alone the tens of thousands of low-carbon fueling stations required to make mass entry of the vehicles viable.

As Washington Post piece, “Don’t bet on a hydrogen car anytime soon” explained, hydrogen cars are a “techno-turkey,” and the research program is “stupendously difficult and probably pointless.”

Kudos to Obama and Chu for trying again to put some rationality into the budget of the efficiency and renewable office that I once helped run — where, ironically enough, I was probably the biggest supporter of hydrogen fuel cell research and worked hard to stop the auto companies from slashing the program prematurely.   But after 15 years and some $2 billion in R&D, with remarkably little to show for it — especially in infrastructure or vehicles on the road — while other technologies, notably electric drive vehicles, have made remarkable advances, it’s time to pull the plug on hydrogen cars.

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15 Responses to Obama, Chu try to slash the multi-miracle hydrogen program once again

  1. I dunno Joe, if you want to cut costs — I can think of ways to save 3 trillion dollars.

    I would prefer to see some investment in long term fundamental sciences – like fusion energy. Of course it is a long shot, but this amounts to one tenth of quarterly profits at an energy company… oh wait, that is another idea.

    Where money is spent is less important than how much carbon is burned. First things first.

  2. Theodore says:

    Four miracles are not required. (1) fuel cells aren’t there? use internal combustion. (2) compressed hydrogen is bulky? So are back seats, which nearly everybody hauls around without a thought. The problem of bulk is purely psychological, not material. Get used to it. (3) carbon footprint is big? Build solar energy with electrolysis on a very large scale. (4) Distribution infrastructure doesn’t exist? It never will if people keep dumping on it and saying it shouldn’t be done.

  3. Scrooge says:

    I must agree it looks like a white elephant. I remember when Bush awarded something like 10 mil to GM and I was impressed. I thought it was something the oil companies would get behind it because it explodes. If this is not being pursued I believe its because no one thinks its feasible.

  4. John Ramming says:

    There is a 5th miracle that will be impossible to deliver on. The full system must be leak proof over the full live of millions of vehicles used by the general public in uncontrolled environments. Hydrogen is very hard to contain, very combustible (detonation, not explosion) over a wide range of F/A ratios. The Hindenburg and Challenger are not in the same category as detonations, F/A bombs are on the money. My home town of Lompoc Ca had a Hydrogen detonation at a business in the early 1970’s, an employee entered the shop, turned on a light switch, resulting blast destroyed the building, dismembered the empolyee as he was blown through the wall. My highschool friend’s dad had to id the head across the street. That is what we’ll be facing as a safety problem, and it alone is enough to kill public use of hydrogen for all time.

  5. ArtM72 says:

    The truth has a way of sticking around for a while. Like the corn ethanol industry (but way worse) hydrogen just too expensive and energy inefficient. Hydrogen fueled IC engines? Storage tanks in back seats? Both pretty screwey, but not compared to the huge cost of solar hydrolysis generated hydrogen. There’s some awfully early work with algae but nothing can come anywhere close to the economy of the EVs we’ll be seeing in the next few years.

    President GW Bush and his anti-science crowd in my mind made a deal with the petroleum industry when they threw the millions into hydrogen research. The payoff was to be a decade long delay in the development and construction of electrics. The smart science has known for a long time hydrogen powered cars are red herrings dragged off the path to a rational energy policy.

  6. ferro413 says:

    Theodore please reconsider.

    (2) These system run at 20,000 psi or more. Think about that. 20,000 pounds per square inch. 10 tons per square inch. Forget about the flammability (which starts at 5%) the pressure inside one of those things is frightening. Get used to it? I don’t think so.

    (3) In the real world, electrolyzers run by solar PV are notoriously inefficient and unreliable. The intermittencies in solar PV (clouds) cause fluctuation in the power input that damages the electrolyzers.

    (4) Hydrogen is the smallest possible molecule and it leaks out of everything. OUT OF EVERYTHING! I’ve worked with the stuff and I know.

    An electron economy is do-able, difficult and expensive but do-able. the hydrogen economy? No one who has taken a serious look at the numbers believes it anymore.

  7. Tim says:

    I have for many years been extremely skeptical of any kind of “hydrogen economy”. I had always assumed that hydrogen was a stalking horse for petroleum. However, I have seen Dan Nocera speak to both popular audiences and to scientific audiences and his vision of the use of hydrogen makes moot a couple of the miracles of which you speak.

    (1) Hydrogen is generated from solar energy, i.e., from water splitting. Nocera uses a continously regenerated catalysts in performing the water splitting. The catalyst regeneration reaction does consume energy, but it is a small fraction of the energy generated by the reaction it catalyzes. (There is no ‘perpetual motion’ machine scheme here; in natural photosynthesis, the oxygen-evolving complex/catalyst in photosystem II is also continuously regenerated: In other words, the heterogeneous catalyst systems he uses are not terribly stable by the standards of chemical catalysis, but they easily survive enough turnovers (i.e., conversions of H₂O to O₂ and H₂) that the energy cost of regenerating the catalyst is a small fraction of the solar energy it “fixes”.

    (2) Nocera does not speak of storing or compressing hydrogen on board vehicles. The hydrogen storage miracle is avoided. Instead, he envisions hydrogen stored in an aluminum tank to be put under one’s house, and to be converted into electricity in fuel cells for use in homes or to charge electric vehicles for that matter. So…yes, you’ll be driving electric vehicles, but the electricity is from hydrogen + oxygen that were generated from solar energy.

    (3) Nocera sees the most important niche for the technology he proposes to be the developing world. He hopes to make people capable of generating their energy locally, thereby dispensing with a need for a modern, expensive electric grid. (Think of this point as somewhat analogous to cell-phones making land line infrastructure development unnecessary.) The catalyst is relatively cheap (cobalt based now, but he’s working on a nickel substitute), the aluminum tank is not a high pressure apparatus and is therefore cheap too. Nocera claims that his system may realistically provide a household in the developing world about ~10% of the energy used by the average American family – which is more than 4-5 billion people on the planet have now.

    (4) There is a side benefit: Nocera’s system is very robust with respect to the use of dirty water sources. His catalyst system can utilize water from sewage and the fuel cell generates clean drinking water

    A diagram of the Nocera approach appears here, but this doesn’t fill in many details:

  8. J A Turner says:

    Lets see, if a hydrogen fuel cell is too expensive and carrying around hydrogen is problematic, you could substitute a natural gas fuel cell and a compressed natural gas tank–both of which are readily available. And if you didn’t like the expense of having a home compressor, the CNG tank and the fuel cell, you could just subsitute a battery. OOPS! That’s been done already. It’s called the electric car. Let’s just get on with doing EV’s and let the hydrogen fanatics work things out without wasting scarce public funds.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The hydrogen economy always seemed like a sort of deliberate cul-de-sac, put forward to waste time and money better spent on public mass transit and electric vehicles. Money and time wasted here puts back these superior developments to the benefit of the status quo, ie fossil fuels.

  10. Gord says:

    We have a Dr. Nocera lecture on our WEB site. We were impressed with his technology / approach / analysis.

    We see the role of hydrogen as providing a critical link in the usage / generation of Grid power. One of the problems when it comes to the Grid is that there are certain phase relationships between voltage and current that must proceed within tolerances for any Grid to deliver power effectively. The various machines attached to the Grid expect the Grid to deliver power at a low audio AC frequency with current and voltage within very tight phase relationships. When these tolerances are ignored all kinds of dangerous things can and will happen in short order.

    One of the biggest problems for the Grid is the problem of balancing the amount of power being generated and the power being consumed (the load). If there is an imbalance either generation must be shed or load must be shed for these phase relationships to be maintained. The modern Grid distribution system is a modern wonder of the World. It is in our opinion under appreciated.

    Since the Grid is so inelastic when it comes to imbalances between power generated and power consumed, we see the role of hydrogen as being a battery to provide the required elasticity that modern Grid systems will require. Batteries are interesting devices. They separate the generators from the loads in time because they can be either at a moments notice. When generation is in overcapacity the battery can become a load. When the load is in overcapacity the battery can become a generator.

    We don’t see hydrogen as a commodity nor as something that can be transported either in tanks or pipes like petrol or LNG. It is an ‘in situ’ battery-like technology.

  11. Prokaryotes says:

    So what’s up with Dan Nocera’s “Cell”? Joe wrote about him, Popular Science, where is are the Results?

    The ARPA-E Graduates: 6 Next-Gen Energy Startups

    Sun Catalytix was created to commercialize research from MIT Professor Dan Nocera, and the idea is to use an intermittent source of energy, such as solar power, to split water into hydrogen and oxygen via electrolysis. When the energy is needed, the hydrogen and oxygen can either be recombined to produce electricity, such as with a fuel cell, or the hydrogen can potentially be converted into a liquid fuel, like ammonia, and used to power vehicles. Sun Catalytix investor Bob Metcalfe told us last year that Sun Catalytix hadn’t yet decided whether its ultimate product will be electricity or fuel.

  12. Prokaryotes says:

    Btw from above Reuters article

    “The Department of Energy’s program to fund high-risk, early-stage, greentech projects is working, the DOE basically says in a release this week. The indicator, says the DOE, is that private investors have backed at least six companies — which were awarded a combined $23.6 million in grants from ARPA-E — with a total of $100 million. DOE Chief Steven Chu said the amount of follow-on private funding for these companies “indicates that the business community is hungry to invest in truly innovative solutions to the country’s energy challenges.””

  13. Prokaryotes says:

    To put things in prospect

    Obama’s 2012 Budget Proposal: How $3.7 Trillion is Spent
    Explore every nook and cranny of President Obama’s budget proposal.

  14. Sandy Thomas says:

    Here are the answers to Dr. CHu’s 4 miracles:
    #1 hydrogen from natural gas in less than 100% efficient..the hydrogen has less energy than the natural gas that made it. Guess what? that’s true of all fuels: crude oil contains more energy than gasoline (it takes energy to run those refineries!).
    the worst fuel of all is electricity. A coal plant may be 36% efficient in producing electricity. Should we abandon the use of electricity since it takes more energy to make it than it contains? Of course not, electricity is a clean energy carrier that provides many important functions. So too with hydrogen, another clean energy carrier. Making hydrogen from natural gas is approximately 75% efficient (higher heating value), much more efficient than making electricity from coal. And using hydrogen in a fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) is more than 2.4 times more energy efficient than burning gasoline or natural gas in an internal combustion engine. So the net efficiency of a natural gas to hydrogen pathway in a FCEV is .75 x 2.4 = 1.8 times more efficient than using natural gas in an NGV, for example.
    Miracle #2: compressed hydrogen storage is used successfully by most automobile companies in their FCEVs (GM, HOnda, Toyota, and Hyundai have all demonstrated FCEVs in the governments technical validation program that monitored 152 FCEVs over 2.8 million miles, dispensing 130,000 kg of hydrogen. A Toyota FCHV-adv (fuel cell version of their Highlander SUV) demonstrated 431 miles range on one tank of hydrogen, as monitored by DOE national Laboratory engineers, showing that on-board hydrogen storage is acceptable with today’s technology.
    #3 Fuel cells “are not there yet.” The Automobile companies do not agree, with most major OEMs promising commercial FCEVs by 2015, and the 2.8 million miles of FCEV under government measurement program indicates that this technology is ready.
    #4. the hydrogen infrastructure is not there yet. True, but either is the public charging outlets for BEVs or PHEVs that the Secretary is pushing.
    Note that the highly respected McKinsey & COmpany report on alternative vehicles in the EU concluded that it would cost five times more to install charging outlets for BEVs in the EU than to install a hydrogen infrastructure. See, for example, our summary of the McKinsey report at: (this web site includes a link to the full McKinsey & Company report.) McKinsey also concludes that hydrogen-powered FCEVs are essential in addition to HEVs, BEVs, and PHEVs to achieve their greenhouse gas reduction goals. Japan also has a robust program to deploy FCEVs.
    Why is the Obama administration so focussed on BEVs and PHEVs while the rest of the world views FCEVs as an important part of a portfolio of alternative vehicles needed to meet our energy security and environmental objectives? I agree that we must replace the internal combustion engine with electric motors on most cars to end our addiction to oil. The car companies are developing three types of electric drive vehicles: BEVs, PHEVs, and FCEVs. We need all three EV options as the McKinsey report forcefully concludes. Why is the government picking winners and losers? Why not develop all technologies and let the market decide which type of vehicle meets each market need?