Still a Long Road to a Hydrogen Economy, Witnesses Say

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Publication date: 
8 August 2005

Progress toward a hydrogen economy and the challenges ahead were the focus of three hearings in July. The Energy and Research Subcommittees of the House Science Committee held a joint hearing on July 20, while the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Energy and Resources and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy reviewed the subject on July 27. A five-year, $1.2 billion Hydrogen Fuel Initiative was announced by President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address, but numerous witnesses cautioned that the president's vision of a hydrogen economy is far in the future, and that significant basic research is needed to overcome a number of potential technological "showstoppers."

Subcommittee members at the July 20 hearing recognized that, as Energy Subcommittee Ranking Member Michael Honda (D-CA) stated, "hydrogen is not an energy source; it is an energy carrier," and more energy is required to produce hydrogen than can be retrieved from it. Depending on how it is produced, hydrogen fuel has the potential to eliminate both U.S. dependence on foreign oil or gas and greenhouse gas emissions. Members expressed disappointment, however, with estimates of the time it would take to achieve a hydrogen economy, and pressed for faster progress.

"Fundamental science doesn't happen overnight," responded Douglas Faulkner, DOE's Acting Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. John Heywood, Director of MIT's Sloan Automotive Laboratory, commented that achieving a hydrogen economy would take "longer than most people are willing to acknowledge," and estimated that it would be 40-50 years until hydrogen as a fuel would "have a noticeable impact." Therefore, he said, the federal government in the meantime should also be supporting near-term incremental changes and other alternative paths to a fossil fuel-free, greenhouse gas emission-free energy future. Echoed by other witnesses, George Crabtree, Director of Argonne National Laboratory's Materials Science Division, declared that "the enormous appeal of matched by an equally enormous set of critical scientific and engineering challenges."

Faulkner testified that, based on the recommendations of two 2004 reports by the National Academy of Sciences and the American Physical Society (see, the federal hydrogen initiative has been refocused in the past year to direct more funding toward exploratory basic research. DOE's Office of Science, he reported, recently awarded a total of $64 million over three years to 70 new projects that would address fundamental science issues relating to hydrogen production, delivery, storage and use.

Several of the Members have had opportunities to drive hydrogen fuel cell cars, and wanted to know how close such technologies were to large-scale utilization. Crabtree stated that neither of the current hydrogen storage techniques - compressed gas and cryogenic liquid - would enable the driving distances expected by the public. The best answer, he said, was solid hydrogen. David Bodde, Director of Innovation and Public Policy at Clemson University's International Center for Automotive Research, identified finding more effective means of storing hydrogen on vehicles as "the most important long-term research challenge," and said failure to do so "comes as near to being a complete showstopper for a hydrogen economy as anything I can think of."

A hydrogen economy "has the potential for being the next giant leap for mankind," Research Subcommittee Chair Bob Inglis (R-SC) said. But when he suggested an Apollo-type commitment, Crabtree and Mark Chernoby, DaimlerChrysler's Vice President for Advanced Vehicle Engineering, pointed out that it was unlike the Apollo program because it involved various players, including government and industry, could not be driven by top-down decisions, and required acceptance by the marketplace. Most of the witnesses stated that, in addition to supporting basic research, the government had a role in providing incentives to push and pull new technologies into the marketplace. Several agreed with Chernoby when he said he did not think that "three-dollar-a-gallon gas is gonna do it." Bodde pleaded for "consistency" as the "chief ingredient of any effective federal policy." Heywood warned that the success of hydrogen as a fuel was "not guaranteed," and called for investing in alternatives such as electric vehicles and biomass fuels with "the same sense of urgency" as the hydrogen initiative.

Regarding the use of biomass as a fuel, particularly corn kernels, cobs and other agricultural waste, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) raised concerns about the effects on maintaining soil health; Heywood agreed on the "need to understand better" the long-term environmental impacts. Several of the witnesses suggested nuclear and renewable energy to produce hydrogen. Crabtree said that the use of renewable energy for splitting water to produce hydrogen was "the most appealing," but Heywood, in his prepared testimony, said that "electrolysis of water with renewable electricity from solar or wind does not appear a plausible way to produce hydrogen."

Asked what role universities could play, Crabtree said universities and national laboratories were the best place for "the enormous amount of basic research" that is needed, and Bodde praised universities as "people factories" and innovation centers. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) commented that unless more U.S. students choose science and engineering careers, she worried that "we may not have a farm team" of physicists, chemists and engineers for the nation. Bodde said American universities have become "a multinational enterprise" and said "we should look again" at national security policies that might be driving away "people we'd like to keep in this country."

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