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Transportation Government Power United States News

Funding For Automotive Fuel Cells Cut 293

rgarbacz writes "The US will stop funding research on automotive fuel cells and redirect the work towards stationary plants, because of slow progress on the research. Developing those cells and coming up with a way to transport the hydrogen is a big challenge, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in releasing energy-related details of the administration's budget for the year beginning Oct. 1. Dr. Chu said the government preferred to focus on projects that would bear fruit more quickly. The industry and the National Hydrogen Association criticized the decision and declared their intention to fight for funding. Dr. Chu also announced that funding for a coal gasification pilot project, cut by the Bush administration, will be reinstated. The Obama administration will also drop spending for research on the exploration of oil and gas deposits because the industry itself has ample resources for that, Dr. Chu said."
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Funding For Automotive Fuel Cells Cut

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 12, 2009 @06:48PM (#27929687)

    I mean... you stick them in the ground, and they stay there. It's really pretty consistent. If your tree walks away, it's probably not a tree. I don't know how much funding this needs, but if it is more than $0, it's too much.

  • csh (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Rei ( 128717 ) on Tuesday May 12, 2009 @06:52PM (#27929737) Homepage

    % If I had a ( for every dollar wasted on fuel cells, what would I have?

  • by caladine ( 1290184 ) on Tuesday May 12, 2009 @06:59PM (#27929841)

    I thought the real problem was creating the hydrogen in the first place. Not to mention the problem of compressing it to a point that it had a reasonable amount of energy per unit of volume.

    Correct me if I'm wrong here, but I was under the impression that current methods of producing hydrogen for fuel cells was only slightly more intelligent than producing ethanol from corn.

    • Correct me if I'm wrong here, but I was under the impression that current methods of producing hydrogen for fuel cells was only slightly more intelligent than producing ethanol from corn.

      Uh, what? A fish without a bicycle? Look, ethanol from corn is stupid because it's not very energy positive and people eat corn, and corn depletes the soil unless you grow it in a guild with squash and beans, or at least rotate your crops. We don't even use crop rotation any more in big agribusiness; it's basically hydroponics in a soil medium. The corn is fertilized with, guess what, oil. Meanwhile, hydrogen is stupid because it's difficult to store and transport and you have to use [comparatively] exotic alloys with it because of problems with hydrogen embrittlement... oh, and fuel cells are energy-intensive and toxic to make, and they wear out and have to be replenished like everything else. However, we currently have a lot of power going to waste at night and we could be making hydrogen with it. If we're currently wasting it, and we start using it for Hydrogen, then even if it's only 40% efficient we're still vastly better off than we are today.

      However, a better plan than either would be to grow craploads of algae in the desert, and use our extra power to run arc lamps to provide light at night to extend the photoperiod and thus speed up the growth cycle. The emissions from the power plants can be piped through algae beds and up to 80% of the CO2 captured for reuse. The algae can be used to make biodiesel and butanol, both of which can be burned in current vehicles, transported in the current trucks, and stored and pumped with the existing tanks and pumps.

      • by Bruce Perens ( 3872 ) * <> on Tuesday May 12, 2009 @11:03PM (#27932715) Homepage Journal

        row craploads of algae in the desert, and use our extra power to run arc lamps to provide light at night to extend the photoperiod and thus speed up the growth cycle.

        Instead of doing this, why don't we grow rats, and have cats eat them. Then we harvest some of the cats, and kill the others to feed to the rats.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by drinkypoo ( 153816 )

          The problem with hydrogen isn't that it's not a valid way to store energy, but that we'd have to change too much to make use of it. Biofuels from algae are not only a proven technology, but are entirely compatible with current petrofuels which we need to replace. Manipulation of the photoperiod is a commonly used strategy in commercial agriculture. The electricity I propose to use is currently going to waste and it's not clear what will be done with it; so far the best proposal has been to make hydrogen, wh

    • Hydrogen is generally cracked from natural gas. This is much more intelligent than using the natural gas to produce ammonium nitrate to feed crops that will, when digested by yeast to produce ethanol, yield a little less energy than was contained in the natural gas to begin with. (albeit in a form that is much, much tastier.)

    • by Nyeerrmm ( 940927 ) on Tuesday May 12, 2009 @07:47PM (#27930469)

      As far as I know, hydrogen fuel was always really an energy storage medium rather than a fuel in and of itself. While it may be the most common element in the universe, free H2 isn't especially abundant on Earth. If you could store it well, it would allow electric vehicles to have the same convenience as petroleum-powered vehicles.

      The biggest problems with pure electric cars are that the range is limited and that you can't refill it in a matter of minutes. A pure battery-EV doesn't really allow any kind of long-distance road trip. This is the appeal of plug-in hybrids, it gives you range and easy refilling capability while potentially allowing zero-emissions driving during normal city driving/commuting. Although a hydrogen energy storage system would require new infrastructure, it would serve as a great long-term solution that fits with most peoples lifestyles.

      As with any kind of EV, the 'green-ness' depends on the original source of the power. Even from fossil fuels it would probably be slightly better, since large fixed plants are more efficient and cleaner, but definitely better with wind/solar/nuclear/geothermal/whatever.

      Note though, that the requirement for all of this is efficient, easy and safe storage, which has been going nowhere with plenty of funding. I think biofuels from non-food crops on non-food-producing land (i.e. not corn ethanol) are a more feasible long term solution, either with or without plug-in hybrid vehicles.

      • by zogger ( 617870 ) *

        Another poster pointed it out up above a little in the thread. It's called a generator trailer for long trips. Short trips (we'll call it 100 miles or less) are now adequately covered with existing battery tech, thousands of home built EV rides have proven this. And AC Propulsion had an interesting variation on the genny trailer, it attached in two points and then made an inline rigid "modular hybrid" that was easy to drive with and didn't have any of the "backing up" problems that some people might have wi

    • I read an interesting writeup in a magazine that showed hydrogen production, storage, and distribution actually had a larger carbon footprint than petroleum based fuels. I unfortunately can't cite a source.

      Another interesting statistic was that fueling all of the cars currently on the road in the US would require covering everything but the state of Florida in corn crops.

      Ethanol fueled vehicles don't exactly work when you need to drive through the corn.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by slashtivus ( 1162793 )
      It gets worse. Fuel cells use exotic metals (platinum namely).

      That may be fine for a few experimental operations, but what happens when we try to put those in *millions* of vehicles? The price would quickly be impractical / unaffordable.

      Yes, you would eventually get to a sustainable level for recycling, but platinum would take a very very long time to get to that level, platinum is just plain rare.
  • On a qualitative argument they were a middle ground between current gas engines and electric engines. Slightly more energy efficient and less emissions but still holding a (more) explosive and volatile fuel on board. Electrical systems offer more benefits (they in general are more energy efficient) and have less logistical hurdles. There seemed like there was little reason to go the way of hydrogen. Basically they were an alternative, and thus received some initial funding. It just wasn't a very good altern
    • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Tuesday May 12, 2009 @07:09PM (#27929959) Homepage

      Not more efficient. 1/4 to 1/2 as efficient, between the electrolysis and the fuel cell itself. Li-ion batteries are nearly lossless, chargers are usually around 92-93% efficient, and the grid is 92.8% efficient.

      Hydrogen fuel cells were researched, despite its huge cost, durability, and efficiency problems, because at the time it did so much better than EVs in terms of range and charge time. But the fill time on FCVs has been going *up* as their range has increased, and the range hasn't gone up nearly as much as EVs have -- the best FCVs being passed out to limited numbers of people on a rental basis (because they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each) have worse range than the Tesla Model S or the T-Zero.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by CubicleView ( 910143 )
        From most of the articles I'm seeing, there doesn't appear to be any serious replacement for platinum in fuel cells. That's reason enough to rule them out for mainstream use.
  • When Bush/Cheney took office in Feb 2001, it was only a month or so before they created the hydrogen program and then axed the hybrid vehicle program.

    I guess since both Obama and McCain were involved in all the hydrogen hype there wasn't anyone cracking jokes about hydrogen like there was Bush putting down hybrids in the campaigning upto the 2000 election*.

    Still good to see this finally happening. I wonder if the Governator is still backing that Hydrogen Super Highway to the tune of $200 million out in Cal

    • Have you noticed that they're just rearranging deck chairs? Hybrids are a boondoggle because they take more energy to make yet get worse mileage than small turbo diesels. The infrastructure for hydrogen doesn't exist and making the stuff is currently highly inefficient. And "Clean Coal"? What the fuck is that? You know, those who think that global warming is a scare tactic of the nineties should realize that some visionary climatologists were talking about this stuff back in the sixties, before it ever came

      • Well, the US has finally, just in last couple years, mandated low sulphur diesel as well. So finally we are making some progress on diesel. However, that doesn't mean hybrids are a boondoggle, since a small diesel engine alone doesn't provide regenerative braking or quick acceleration, and aren't that efficient outside a range of RPMs. But why more hybrid cars don't use diesel powerplants instead of gasoline, I don't know.

        Anyways, most mileage could be handled by electric-only cars, which would save a

  • It's about time (Score:3, Interesting)

    by joe_n_bloe ( 244407 ) on Tuesday May 12, 2009 @07:01PM (#27929873) Homepage

    It's about time this was submarined. I don't know what kind of craziness has led to the obsession with fuel cells. Not only is there no hydrogen distribution infrastructure of any kind, but fuel cells still haven't gotten out of the spaceship era.

    We'll be driving cars on Mr. Fusion power before we drive them on fuel cells, unless someone gets fuel cells that use something other than hydrogen working in a way that's suitable for automotive use.

    • by jfengel ( 409917 )

      I don't know what kind of craziness has led to the obsession with fuel cells.

      If I were paranoid, I'd wonder if maybe the oil-baron President deliberately chose a technology that sounded good but would in fact go nowhere, thus ensuring an extra decade or so for oil company profits.

      I'm not paranoid, and I think the oil companies could have made equal profits by backing the right horse.

      But maybe I'm just a little paranoid, because I can't shake the feeling that they should have known hydrogen made no economic sense.

    • It's about time this was submarined. I don't know what kind of craziness has led to the obsession with fuel cells. Not only is there no hydrogen distribution infrastructure of any kind, but fuel cells still haven't gotten out of the spaceship era.

      Look around. We distribute liquid fuels all over the place today.

      Hydrogen cells make a lot more sense than batteries do for cars, because they can be refueled instantly instead of having a delay.

      And as for "spaceship stage", I guess you think the highways of today

      • Look around. We distribute liquid fuels all over the place today.

        Do you really think that we'd be distributing liquid hydrogen? To cars? It's both expensive and dangerous (you have to let some evaporate, so any enclosed space could develop an explosive hydrogen oxygen mixture).

  • Good riddance (Score:3, Interesting)

    by sirwired ( 27582 ) on Tuesday May 12, 2009 @07:02PM (#27929893)

    Hydrogen-powered cells for autos are a pointless waste of time with out a LOT of pre-requisite technologies. Generating the Hydrogen is an energy-wasting PITA or involves oil. Storing it in a form that even comes close to the energy density of gasoline is extremely difficult. Compressing the Hydrogen is energy-intensive. (CNG gets a LOT more energy out of the same volume of compressed gas at an identical pressure, so NG actually makes sense to compress.)

    There are a LOT of things we can do to reduce pollution before we have so much spare electricity lying around that we can crack and store Hydrogen in amounts large enough to feasibly power a car.


  • "The Obama administration will also drop spending for research on the exploration of oil and gas deposits because the industry itself has ample resources for that"

    • by rackserverdeals ( 1503561 ) on Tuesday May 12, 2009 @07:16PM (#27930055) Homepage Journal

      That makes sense. The oil industry is already established and making tons in profits. They should be able to fund their own development.

      Emerging technologies on the other hand sometimes need a boost.

      • You goddamn communist! You America Hater! Those who support and subsidize oil companies are PATRIOTS! They are True Americans, not like you latte-sipping bisexual socialist hippies! They're... they're...

        You will undoubtedly hear the rest of it on your favorite pro-establishment news source. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, you can try to figure out why gasoline prices have risen nearly 10% this month, in spite of the deepest worldwide recession in two generations and in the presence of a petroleum glut.

        • by Nethead ( 1563 )

          Uh, that storm in... no.. not that. Uh, the spring shutdown of the.. no? Ok, to mix metaphors: sticking their toe in the water to see how far they can throw us?

          • Assuming you are not being facetious, nothing has occurred in the past 6 to 9 months to justify the increase. Oil industry PR folks point to this or that minor and often intentional glitch to justify disproportional price increases with only a rough coincidence in time. They do it because they can, and nobody with any authority over them tells them otherwise.

            If you can demonstrate otherwise, by all means enlighten us.

            • by Nethead ( 1563 )

              No, I agree with you. I think it's _only_ about 10% because they are testing the waters with the new admin. If the new admin doesn't bark then expect the "summer driving season" (WTF is that anyway?) to see a nice 30-70% bump because uh, "Cavitations in the pipe-line are delaying shipments" or something.

              • Well, part of the "summer driving season" prices are due to increased demand from more individuals and families taking long car trips on vacations (basic econ: fixed supply + increase in demand => higher prices). Another big difference in costs is that they tend to use different formulations and additives in the summer []. Note that the change-over starts happening in May [] which just might explain the recent price increase you've been seeing. See if your location corresponds to the areas covered by the regul

    • Why so much subsidies around solar and other renewable technologies then - the same theory applies. It's mainly the energy industry doing the research, they have a lot of funds to apply to it.

      • It isn't "the energy industry." Specific companies fund research, and the funds available have to do with expected profits. Oil companies have a vastly larger predictable income with a short lead time or low risk from research bench to market compared to nascent technologies like wind or solar. The time to subsidize oil exploration ended generations ago. Not the same case for technologies that are 1) just starting to ramp up, and 2) have a small market penetration and cash flow.
      • because he and his type find it politically expedient to vilify the oil industry.

        Doing so to the solar industry, regardless of how true, has no political mileage.

        Remember, Obama has advisers whose entire job is to determine how to release information and in what form. They recently released information that their studies shows the public in general cannot wrap its mind around the three trillion dollar budget but has an easier time understanding sixteen billion in savings. In other words, they are playing

  • Good (Score:5, Insightful)

    by geekoid ( 135745 ) <`dadinportland' `at' `'> on Tuesday May 12, 2009 @07:10PM (#27929973) Homepage Journal

    Hydrogen doesn't have the density we need and it's difficult to move.
    Batteries. Focus on batteries, industrial solar thermal, and Nuclear.

    That can solve are energy needs.

  • Hydrogen "economy" (Score:4, Interesting)

    by sjames ( 1099 ) on Tuesday May 12, 2009 @07:12PM (#27930007) Homepage Journal

    The hydrogen economy is a bit screwy anyway. While we already know very well how to run a car on methane, how to distribute and store methane (most homes get it through a pipeline already), and even how to retrofit existing cars for methane, AND how to synthesize methane given a good energy source, we've been throwing money down a hole for the "hydrogen economy".

    That is, for a fuel we don't know how to store without it escaping and making the tank brittle in the process, that has additional hazards because it burns invisibly. Meanwhile, we're trying to come up with fuel cells to use it. It's a perfect recipe for looking like you care but delaying an actual solution for as long as possible.

  • Another part of being green is fixing all the screwed up horrible polluting technology that isn't likely to go away for decades and decades!

    Inventing new "green" stuff is nice, but sometimes fixing the old extremely common stuff makes a bigger difference!

    More efficient cars, and less polluting coal plants? Sign me up!

  • Well, there goes another beloved pipe-dream from 2008.

    [pulls out beloved pipedream list from pocket, crosses something off with a small, chewed-up #2 pencil, and returns the wrinkled scrap of paper to pocket]

  • Honda and Mazda had done research in using hydrogen to replace gasoline in a more or less normal internal combustion engine . While straight forward, producing and storing the hydrogen is incredibly wasteful of energy... as well as the problems of having a 15000 psi storage tank in an accident.

    BMW took the cake, though, with their hydrogen powered 7 series. It maintained its fuel in liquid form... that involves maintaining the tank at -252.87 degrees C or -423.17 degrees F. Real energy efficient, I'm sur

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Rei ( 128717 )

      Little known fact about liquid hydrogen: as per a NASA hydrogen safety guideline document I was reading a while back, air accidentally ingested with the hydrogen during the liquefaction process makes a solid explosive with the explosive power of TNT.

    • You said:
      Real energy efficient, I'm sure.

      Immediately after you said:

      Supposedly, the insulation on the tank was such that an ice cube placed inside would take 16 years to melt when the tank was maintained at room temperature

      So what's so funny? It seems like in fact yes, it's damn energy efficient.

  • by LifesABeach ( 234436 ) on Tuesday May 12, 2009 @07:22PM (#27930131) Homepage

    I question Chu's objective logic.

    The U.S. sits between 2 of the largest sources of Hydrogen on this planet. Dangerous to ship? How about shipping it as Water? Then at the "Filling Station" Use Solar, and or Wind Electricity to separate the Hydrogen out. This is already being done in Norway [].

    • Okay, you've now generated a bazillion liters of H2 at the gas station next door. How do you plan to haul it around in your car?


      • How do you plan to haul it around in your car?

        It seems like a few [] car [] companies have already answered that.

        Gee dude, the Norway link was right in the main post you replied to... perhaps you should have read a little further before you fired off a response. If Obama says Hydrogen is evil, it must be evil I supposed even if there are working solutions today... Better to run off chasing the new shiny thing!

        • But I notice that neither of those are cars that are in wide release or with the actual purchase price available (I'm sure the $600/month lease isn't break-even, its still an R&D project).

          While it's certainly possible to store hydrogen, its certainly not cheap. I remember for a project I was involved in a couple of years ago, a DOT approved storage vessel that really would have been too small for a production vehicle was ~$10k. Surely this could be brought down some, but I can't see any way it could b

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by ppanon ( 16583 )

            Maybe I'm wrong, I don't think this will completely kill fuel-cell research, if car companies are still interested they'll keep going on it. However shifting funding to something showing more signs of progress sounds like a responsible use of our tax dollars. And I'm not an Obama-ite, I just happen to think this particular decision is correct.

            Yep. Obama's Energy Secretary pick, Steven Chu, is a Nobel prizewinner. While I think picking Geithner was a mistake because he was too beholden to a failed financial

    • The U.S. sits between 2 of the largest sources of Hydrogen on this planet. Dangerous to ship? How about shipping it as Water? Then at the "Filling Station" Use Solar, and or Wind Electricity to separate the Hydrogen out. This is already being done in Norway.

      The problem is ENERGY EFFICIENCY, not SAFETY. There is no science or technology that suggests that a H2 fuel cell is going to be nearly as efficient in a car as, say, an internal combustion engine. The only advantage of the fuel cell is that you can obtain the H2 from many sources. In contrast, the current fleet is powered by oil/fossil fuels alone.

      Not surprisingly, there are other energy storage technologies, such as batteries, which can be more efficient and lower cost than a fuel cell.

      Fuel cells are a

      • I thought about that, Bolivia [] has One answer. But unless there is a Major deposit of Lithium that no one has discovered, or the rest of the Lith' is easy to get to, then all the D.O.E. has done is trade one monopoly for another. Oil, and Lithium are by nature, not renewable. Generating electricity from combining Hydrogen, and Oxygen is renewable. The energy sources to separate Hydrogen is the Sun, and Wind. Converting cars to run on natural gas from gasoline is fairly straightforward, going from Natural

  • If a Bushie did this, I think I'd be all like "grarwbrblarblab rl! I can't believe glrbalrbalg, stupid politicians grblbr ... oil asgerbglajbaeog" But somehow, the fact the Dr. Chu is saying makes me feel OK with it. Definitely hypocritical of me, but I feel I'd rather have the wrong decision made for the right reasons than the right decision made for the wrong ones. Maybe because the wrong reasons always screws things up in the end.
  • by BlueParrot ( 965239 ) on Tuesday May 12, 2009 @10:44PM (#27932575)

    Hydrogen for cars mainly looked promising because the alternative non-carbon fuel was batteries, which ten years ago were nowhere close to the required performance. Then the explosion in mobile consumer electronics like laptops and cellphones brought a lot of battery research which resulted in high energy density Li-ion batteries and more recently fast-charging batteries that can be charged in a matter of minutes rather than hours. Basically developments in battery technology during the last decade has pretty much made hydrogen for automotive purposes obsolete before it was ready. There are still some issues with batteries ( mainly their high price compared to present petroleum prices) but the more recent battery generations are up to the job, and if you look at stuff that is at the engineering stage and will likely be commercialized in the near future, hydrogen seems to be a solution looking for a problem. In my opinion that application will likely be aviation where liquid hydrogen can offer an unbeatable energy/weight ratio ( in fact the highest possible of all chemical fuels ). Of course at the moment liquid hydrogen is far too expensive to produce in a CO2 neutral manner as compared to jet fuel, but that may change as Oil reserves dwindle.

  • by golodh ( 893453 ) on Wednesday May 13, 2009 @02:46AM (#27934187)
    I consider this an unusually thoughtful and perceptive move on part of the Government.

    Fuel cells for cars are interesting, but hydrogen is over-hyped. Vehicles powered by batteries or capacitors are also emission-free (looking at the vehicle) and viable and promising. At least for distances less then 30 miles (which so happens to constitute more than 95% of all trips). So it's not a critical technology but it's a "nice to have" technology. Besides, like Chu says, hydrogen powered cars are looking at a long list of pesky and fairly fundamental problems which will take time to solve.

    I applaud the decision to set up 8 smaller research establishments for 5 years instead of "one big one". Less photo opportunities perhaps, but (taking into account that they will work with local research centers and with industry) more chance of someone having a bright idea. And long enough to make it attractive for someone considering what field to specialize in to choose energy research.

    I also like the decision to let the government stop looking for oil and gas. We have private industries that are quite adept at doing that, and (as Chu says) they have plenty of money to fund exploration. So pouring government funding into it is a dead waste. It's nice to be able to pick up the tab for costly and risky research for your oil-industry buddies, but that doesn't help the public.

    I think this shows what can happen when you put an actual scientist in charge of research. And yes, Chu's freedom of action is severely limited by previous commitments, including the one to do research and produce material for nuclear weapons.

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