Highway to Hydrogen: A long and winding road

Following the National Academy of Sciences criticism of the Bush administration’s plans for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles last week, taxpayers are left wondering how realistic is the vision for a hydrogen economy, what kinds of approaches are scientists and engineers taking and just what are the technical hurdles involved.

Seattle, Washington – February 26, 2004 [SolarAccess.com] “Given that there will be a transition plan, the goals outlined and funded by the Department of Energy are aggressive, but not unrealistically so,” said Moe Khaleel, of DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Khaleel spoke at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Seattle, Saturday Feb. 14, and co-organized the symposium titled “Future Vision for Hydrogen Production.” With the administration’s new budget request of $318 million for both fuel cells and hydrogen research and development in 2005, symposium speakers talked about the challenges involved. “Along with fuel cell manufacturing costs, infrastructure development and safety issues, the biggest hurdles facing mainstream hydrogen usage are how do we produce and store it efficiently,” said co-organizer, Suresh Baskaran of PNNL. Transportation accounts for two-thirds of U.S. oil consumption and associated air pollution, while fuel cells that run on hydrogen are virtually free of emissions. Hydrogen can be a very clean energy carrier, depending on how you produce it. “The good thing about hydrogen is that it can be made from a variety of domestic sources,” said Dave King of PNNL. Right now, the most cost effective way is using natural gas or coal, which produces a lot of carbon dioxide that would have to be sequestered. However, King notes that new research is focused on ways to cost-effectively produce hydrogen from renewable resources such as biomass, water and solar energy employing advanced photoelectrochemical and thermochemical techniques. “We’re in the research and technology development phase right now, with the fully developed market and infrastructure phase of the hydrogen economy occurring sometime between 2025 and 2040,” said John Petrovic, of DOE’s hydrogen storage team. Hydrogen vehicles must be able to compete with gasoline prices and travel as far as gas-powered engines. The symposium focused on new materials that may be developed for on-board hydrogen storage. “DOE will soon announce three centers of excellence for hydrogen storage R&D- focused on metal hydrides, chemical hydrogen and carbon storage materials,” said Petrovic. The centers and other projects addressing new hydrogen storage materials, which are slated to begin operation in October, will receive a total of $150 million in funding over the next five years, if Congress appropriates the funds requested by DOE. PNNL is a DOE Office of Science research center that advances the fundamental understanding of complex systems and provides science-based solutions in national security, energy, chemistry, the biological sciences and environmental quality. Battelle, based in Columbus, Ohio, has operated PNNL for DOE since 1965.
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