DOE Continues Hydrogen Focus and Spending

The U.S. Department of Energy rolled out a large new round of funding dollars and a research “roadmap” aimed at identifying and overcoming the technical and manufacturing challenges associated with the further development of commercially available hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. This also, however, continues a policy goal that many critics say faces insurmountable challenges and comes at the expense of research and support of renewable energy technologies.

The Bush Administration-backed DOE emphasis on hydrogen energy has been a contentious issue in the renewable energy community because it has been the major Federal focal point under the umbrella of alternative energy technologies. Of particular concern is that the DOE has put relatively little emphasis on generating the hydrogen in a clean, zero-emissions manner. Currently most hydrogen is manufactured through a process of steam-reforming natural gas, already itself a pricey commodity. The few DOE-sponsored efforts to move away from that have been with so-called “clean coal” technologies and even a new fleet of nuclear reactors. Also, in a climate of increasing budget pressure at the Federal level, funding for renewable energy technologies like solar, wind and hydropower have been cut back considerably to make room for hydrogen energy research. The funding in this latest announcement totals $119 million. Of this, $100 million will be allocated over four years for research projects seeking to improve fuel cell membranes, water transport within the stack, advanced cathode catalysts and supports, cell hardware, innovative fuel cell concepts, and effects of impurities on fuel cell performance and durability. In addition, the DOE announced the selection of 12 competitively awarded, cost-shared projects that will receive $19 million in federal funding over five years for polymer membrane research. To identify the research and development (R&D) challenges that must be further addressed, the DOE also unveiled its Roadmap on Manufacturing R&D for the Hydrogen Economy. The 80-page document addresses challenges to manufacturing, storage and production of fuel cell technologies and proposes R&D solutions to overcome such challenges, focusing primarily on near commercial technologies. The plan, according to the DOE, is based on the results of a July 2005 hydrogen workshop made up of hydrogen and fuel cell experts from industry, universities, and national laboratories. Many serious challenges do persist toward a successful “hydrogen economy,” and the DOE’s press release is one of the first public acknowledgments of those challenges. “While hydrogen fuel cell technology has the potential to dramatically reduce vehicle emissions as well as America’s dependence on foreign oil, barriers to commercialization continue to exist,” says the DOE press release. “Namely, hydrogen fuel cell technologies are significantly more expensive than traditional combustion engines and face challenges in energy storage and durability. Both the Roadmap and $119 million in funding announced today seek to address these challenges over the next ten years with the goal of making vehicles powered by hydrogen available in showrooms by 2020.”
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