Funding for hydrogen cars fizzles

In his 2003 State of the Union address, President George Bush spoke of his commitment to hydrogen fuel cells as the obvious and inevitable replacement for oil.

In his 2003 State of the Union address, President George Bush spoke of his commitment to hydrogen fuel cells as the obvious and inevitable replacement for oil.

"With a new national commitment," he said, "our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom, so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free."

Assuming you'll still be able to get a drivers' license at age 16, that would suggest Bush thought hydrogen fuel cells would begin powering our cars by 2019. He spearheaded about $1.2 billion in proposals for hydrogen research, which would be funded over a period of years. Even so, Bush's critics complained the funding was inadequate.

Certainly it was more adequate than what we have now. President Barack Obama, as part of sweeping budget cuts, has whacked the lion's share of Bush's proposed funding. Obama will trim the $169 million per year in funding of fuel-cell and hydrogen research down to $68.2 million, which -- on paper, at least -- will save about $100 million.

Perhaps even more important than the $100 million in savings -- a comparatively insignificant amount given the total federal budget -- the cut sends a message, loud and clear: This administration doesn't believe in the future of fuel cells for transportation. The research money left will be dedicated to "fixed" hydrogen-fuel-cell research, essentially small power plants that would produce household current.


Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, likely the man most responsible for axing the funding, thinks hydrogen is just too far from being viable as a fuel for cars and trucks. Said department spokesman Tom Welch: "The probability of deploying hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles in the next 10 to 20 years is low."

Those in support of hydrogen fuel cells argue the probability just got lower. An executive with one auto manufacturer who declined to be identified because the federal government "is still the hand that feeds us" suggested Obama's fuel-cell-funding cutback "could be viewed as shortsighted." The lion's share of research expense has been funded by manufacturers, but with even usually flush companies such Toyota and Honda reporting losses, it's hard to blame them for cutting back on research that could take decades to justify.

So if it makes sense for private companies to trim spending on hydrogen fuel cells, doesn't it make sense for a similarly struggling public government to cut back? Unfortunately, it does. When gasoline was $4 a gallon, it seemed more appealing. At just more than $2 a gallon, far less so. That's arguably shortsighted, too -- does anyone really think we'll never see $4-a-gallon gas again someday? -- but right now, it seems logical.

How do hydrogen fuel cells work?

To oversimplify, a fuel cell converts the chemicals hydrogen and oxygen into water, and in the process it produces electricity. In an automotive application, the power from the fuel cell runs an electric motor, so in essence, you are driving an electric car that makes its own power.

No one is suggesting it doesn't work: Most every major manufacturer has experimental hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles on the road. Honda is the most visible: The company is in the process of delivering 200 FCX Clarity fuel-cell-powered cars to customers in Southern California, clustered around three Honda dealers and near hydrogen refueling stations.

Other manufacturers have been showing fuel-cell-powered show cars for years. Among them was the promising Chrysler ecoVoyager concept vehicle, which debuted at the 2008 North American International Auto Show as sort of the minivan of the future.

The ecoVoyager would be powered by an electric motor, with power primarily supplied by a lithium-ion battery pack capable of satisfying a consumer's typical daily commute of less than 40 miles. The ecoVoyager would have a small hydrogen fuel cell to extend the vehicle range for occasional long trips.


What's the big challenge?

Foremost is establishing a network of hydrogen refueling stations comparable to our current gas stations. And someone would have to produce and transport the hydrogen to those stations. Hydrogen must be stored on a vehicle under extreme pressure, at least 10,000 pounds per square inch, raising safety concerns. And most hydrogen fuel cells use platinum as an integral part of the process, and platinum is expensive.

Supporters argue there are ways around many of the perceived problems but, frankly, no one is listening to them. In this recession, so many of us are worried about what will happen in the next week, not the next decade.

Too bad, sure, but it's the reality.

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