Hydrogen Car Back From the Impound: Congress Restores Funding

By Eliza Strickland | July 22, 2009 1:58 pm

hydrogen fuelJust two months ago, we reported that the federal government’s hydrogen car program was going down like the Hindenburg, as the Department of Energy announced that it would slash research funding. At the time, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that after years of research, hydrogen-fueled cars were still years away from commercial viability. “We asked ourselves, ‘Is it likely in the next 10 or 15, 20 years that we will convert to a hydrogen car economy?’ The answer, we felt, was ‘no,'” Chu said in May [CNET].

But the program has proven harder to take down than the flammable zeppelin: Both houses of Congress seem inclined to restore funding. The House of Representatives voted on an energy package on Friday that includes $153 million for hydrogen and fuel cell research, and the parallel bill that will go before the Senate currently includes $190 million for the program.

The Department of Energy’s decision to cut funding had distressed car companies working on hydrogen car prototypes, and also discomfited California legislators, who had been expecting further federal help for a state-wide hydrogen initiative. Now the lobbying of those interest groups appears to have paid off. “We’re encouraged,” said Patrick Serfass, a spokesman for the National Hydrogen Association. “Congress has shown that it is very well educated about these technologies. It sees the benefits of hydrogen and fuel cells, and understands we need to pursue a portfolio of technologies, not just one or two. Frankly, it’s too early to choose” [The New York Times, blog].

Related Content:
80beats: Hydrogen Car Goes Down Like the Hindenburg: DoE Kills the Program
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DISCOVER: Under the Hood of the First Real Fuel-Cell Car
DISCOVER: Future Tech test drives three hydrogen cars
DISCOVER: Lovin’ Hydrogen describes Amory Lovins’s vision of a hydrogen-powered future

Image: flickr / ideowl

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • http://clubneko.net robot makes music

    Electric vehicles are ready to go.

    Yet we’re wasting all our money on something that may never help us.

    Not only that, but you need electricity to split hydrogen from fresh water – a resource we are quickly running out of – so why go through all that trouble when you can just put the electricity directly into a car and make it go that way?

    Instead, we’re converting the electricity (at a loss) to hydrogen (which is still dangerous, explosion wise – no, the Hindenburg didn’t light up from the hydrogen, it was the magnesium – but the hydrogen wasn’t compressed, either – compressed hydrogen won’t make anything buoyant) to reconvert to electricity (at a loss) to run the car.

    The only thing hydrogen will do is ensure there is a transportation and control structure involved with the distribution chain – the more middlemen, the more beaks get wet, the more tax gets applied, the more the rich benefit.

  • jjpro

    Hey “Robot”, please get your facts correct before you blog. Hydrogen fuel-cell cars ARE electric. The automobile manufacturers will tell you that more work needs to be done for pure-battery electric vehicle to become viable in the marketplace. Hydrogen energy systems use LESS water than current fossil-fuel systems running our powerplants. Hydrogen is relatively safer than gasoline, and it could be argued, safer than LI-Ion batteries. Hydrogen systems are just as efficient as pure-electrical-battery systems. And, hydrogen can be made right at your home and with many feedstocks, ensuring our energy independence and security, and decreasing any stronghold over its distribution.

    Why do you think hydrogen is the fuel of choice for NASA? And, Discovery, hydrogen did not cause the Hindenburg disaster; I refer you to Dr. Addison Bain’s (former NASA engineer) research on the matter.

    Congress is right to restore funding. Hydrogen should get much more money, not less.

  • wjv

    robot makes music @1: I second your sentiment. You’re absolutely right.

    @jjpro: I am very skeptical that the hydrogen scheme is just as efficient as the conventional electrical car scheme. If you could refer me to some sort of reference for that claim, that’d be great. Cuz just thinking about it, I wouldn’t come to that conclusion. Consider the energy end-game where we get something like 90% or so of our energy from wind, solar, geothermal, hydro. Battery/Capacitor electric cars would recharge from the grid supposedly so they’re only energy losses come from electrical transmission loss (depends on distance but something like 15% I think is typical) and then the electric motor loss which is very small ~5%.I could even throw in battery idling discharge of 10% say. Compared to hydrogen which requires the same transmission loss, and the electrolysis, which if I remember correctly is 75% efficient on a good day. and then a hydrogen fuel cell is 70% efficient for best models. Also, I’m not sure if people quantify the amount of hydrogen lost from diffusion out of the storage tank but I bet it’s at least as much as the battery idling discharge. (Hydrogen is hard to contain, being so small)

    So it seems the electric battery car has a pretty major efficiency advantage in this comparison. I’m I overlooking something, jjpro, or did you?

    I guess we will see (and i think you can be fairly confident) that an economic scheme involving hydrogen as a fuel will never be able to compete with a smaller transmission loss scheme like electric cars (with batteries/capacitors). Especially if the news about EEStor’s ultra-capacitors is even half true.

  • wjv

    sorry double post edit

  • Art

    @jjpro

    Where in the article did the author give the cause of the Hindenburg? I saw the simile but it doesn’t imply the author is ignorant as to the cause of the Hindenburg disaster.
    I guess you should be the one writing for a magazine, but you’re tragically stuck commenting on other people’s work and being snarky about it at the same time. I would venture to guess that Eliza Strickland knows as much or more about hydrogen as you. You also felt the need to tell robot to get his facts straight, only to fill your quip with “something like”, “~”, “if I remember correctly” and “I’m not sure”. Remarkable!
    Thanks for not going through the trouble of substantiating your claims with some facts instead of fuzzy statistics. Really informative.

  • Chemgirl

    Have you noticed how strongly the hydrogen car debate affects people? My husband and me have actually stopped discussing it, since we’re of different sides on that debate. Peace.

  • darth malicus

    robot makes music is right, it takes a substantial amount of energy to separate hydrogen from water, more so than you can get out of the hydrogen itself, making a need for hydrogen refueling stations, also, hydrogen seeps through porous metals at a very high rate, if you fueled up your car with hydrogen you probably will have a week to use it before it is all gone, same with refueling stations and the infrastructure they will all have leaks it would take trillions of dollars to implement the infrastructure and take more electricity than we use now to create the hydrogen when you add it all up, it adds to a loss a tough pill to swallow i know, and environmentalists need to put a stop to coal and fossil fuel burning power plants and switching to nuclear before we even think about using hydrogen. and another thing, automobiles are tough environments for any kind of system, and the slightest malfunction or leak can be very catastrophic with hydrogen in the mix, and i understand that a lot of people are excited about hydrogen, in fact I suggested it myself when I was a kid, its energy potential is the highest of any of the common elements on the planet, but putting it to practical application has been a tough and arduous journey to say the least, I’m not knocking it at all but we are waaaay to far away from using it in our daily lives yet, a more practical solution right now, that can help EVERYBODY not just those with deep pockets is alternative fuels, Exxon Mobil is helping with one of the most promising solutions I’ve seen, (to bad people weren’t smart enough to help the scientist that thought this up before these guys did now oil companies wont be going out of business) using algae “farms” to suck out the carbon dioxide, and turn it back into fuel again, it would be akin to using solar energy but at a higher efficiency rating than solar panels could ever get plus it uses the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere so we are not re introducing anything in our environment just recycling
    oh and jjpro….. YOU need to get your facts straight before you blog dude, or you just look like a jack @ss opening your comment with what you said

  • wjv

    @Art: I’m not sure who you’re responding to, it seems at first like you’re talking to jjpro, but then careen into a tirade against my fuzzy statistics. And you seem to misrepresent what Robot said, and what I said to robot…

    I openly admit my figures are fuzzy and I tried to make that clear before I laid them out. It was meant as a back of the envelope type of calculation.

    My point was this: even with rough efficiency figures, cumulative energy loss compared between electric cars and hydrogen fuel cell cars leaves the electric car way ahead.

    Going back to sum up the figures I had before yields overall 27% energy loss with the electric car, while the hydrogen car has a cumulative 60% energy loss from electricity to fuel.(And that’s ignoring any hydrogen diffusing out of the storage tank).
    Again allow me to emphasize that this is a casual calculation from rough figures, but even still the disparity between the two figures gives you reason to pause.

    My main reason for bringing this up was jjpro’s unsubstantiated claim quoted below:
    “Hydrogen systems are just as efficient as pure-electrical-battery systems.” -jjpro

    I asked him for a reference to prove this statement or how he logically arrived at that conclusion, and tried to justify why I was skeptical about it in the first place with a quick calculation. I was just trying to make a suitable post for a forum, I wasn’t trying to get an A on a research paper, here, Art.

  • nerfer

    Don’t forget that fuel cell stacks cost well over $100K last I heard (they don’t give out the figures very often). A battery-electric system is a tenth of that. We still have work to do to offer everything people want with a BEV, but they’re way ahead in affordability.

    Still, a BEV with 150 mile range is more than adequate for most everything but long vacations (rent a hybrid and still be money ahead). We will need options, and perhaps some minor funding for hydrogen will work, but don’t slow down technology we need now and can put into the market within 5 years (hopefully including cellulosic ethanol and natural gas vehicles).

    But my next purchase will be a velomobile, for the ultimate in sustainable transportation.

  • Acteon

    Who says hydrogen can only be obtained via the electrolysis of water ? Hydrogen can be obtained via sulphur-deprived algae:

    http://www.green-trust.org/2000/algaehydrogen.htm

    Algae can be grown using sea-water or sewer sludge on land that is not used for food production.

    Algae can also be used to produce biodiesel, biobutanol and biogasoline
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algae_fuel

    Also on the producing hydrogen:
    In the early days of hydrogen balloons hydrogen was obtained by combining iron and sulphuric acid.

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