Obama to Cut Funding for Hydrogen Fuel Cell Research


Photo credit: steevithak via Flickr/CC BY-SA

The Obama administration is getting down to the business of showing the public that it's serious about cutting the federal budget, and even Energy Secretary Stephen Chu is getting in on the action. He's trying to divert some of the funding currently going to hydrogen fuel cell research to other more immediately viable clean tech departments. While in the short term, this might be for the better -- we need to concentrate as much effort on improving the most viable renewable energy sources as possible -- it nonetheless marks a depressing trend, one that epitomizes the severe short-term thinking that defines our politics. After all, hydrogen cells remain intriguing, despite the fact that, as physicist Joe Romm of Climate Progress notes, it would take four near-miracles to make the technology viable as a transportation fuel anytime soon.

Here's Romm:

In a blog post Friday, "Winning the Future with a Responsible Budget," the Nobel prize-winning physicist [Steven Chu] 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 a hydrogen car economy in the next two decades.
Basically, the problems are, as outlined by Chu in Technology Review,
1) "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 ...
2) "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 ...
3) "The fuel cells aren't there yet, and
4) "The distribution infrastructure isn't there yet."

So. Hydrogen-powered transit is a long shot. And that's the reason that Chu, Obama, and Romm are seeking to cut funding to research it -- electric cars and solar power technologies are improving quickly right now. We can deploy these soon. But I still think it's too bad that the president feels the need to gut research for a technology that could -- if in the long-term -- produce a fuel whose only byproduct is water (and a wee bit of nitrogen oxide). When taking a long view of the nation's potential energy mix, it's not hard to see why having a clean alternative to electricity would be a major benefit as EVs begin to dominate the roads in the wake of oil's decline. In the rush to provide enough clean energy capacity for EVs (or other, even more sustainable forms of transit like rail), hydro could be a major boon.

In other words, it's something we should be working on, even if the emphasis is given over to more immediate renewables -- instead of slashing the hydrogen budget, why don't we, say, slash oil subsidies, a giveaway that props a fuel source that's going to become obsolete before long? Generally speaking, we need the public sector to support such long-term research; as no commercial company will do it seriously or with the necessary backing (sorry Ford and GM, your fuel cell divisions may be well-intentioned, but they're publicity projects first and foremost). More long-view projects, like hydrogen fuel cell research, with such enormous potential benefits should be embraced -- not cut.

More on Hydrogen Fuels
Electric Cars vs. Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars
Hydrogen Storage for Fuel Cells: Carbon Nanotubes

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