The Fuel of the Future: Another Bites the Dust

Hydrogen power: Does Honda see something the United States doesn't?

Hydrogen power: Does Honda see something the United States doesn't?

Someday, we’ll have a new addiction.

The gasoline era will have come and gone, oil cartels will have made their money, and exhaust fumes will have made their mark on Earth.

Today we’re lucky enough to have front-row seats watching the race to see which fuel source will replace fossil fuels. It’s a race including electricity, ethanol, bio-diesel, natural gas, solar energy, wind, hydrogen, and a host of other technologies that may not have even been invented yet.

Electricity is the current front runner, and hydrogen has high hopes of gaining some ground, especially since Honda is a high-profile sponsor with their FCX Clarity. Those hopes took a fiery crash, though, as U.S. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu announced a budget that slashes spending on hydrogen research by 59 percent, or about $100 million. 

Chu said:

We asked ourselves, ‘Is it likely in the next 10 or 15, 20 years that we will convert to a hydrogen car economy?’ The answer, we felt, was ‘no.’

The biggest problem is the lack of an infrastructure to refuel hydrogen cars.

That’s a valid point, but does the U.S. government think they know how the future will play out better than Honda, who has one heck of a reputation for leading the way in automotive innovation? Well… maybe.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology could fail simply because producing hydrogen isn’t a very economically efficient process. And who wants to buy a hydrogen car when there’s nowhere to fill it up? Who wants to build a hydrogen filling station when there are no customers? 

Of course, the other possible outcome is that Honda is right and will somehow create technology that could make hydrogen fuel cells the perfect replacement for fossil fuels.

If that’s the case, the U.S. just gave up their stake in creating a clean new fuel source and gave future car buyers a powerful reason to buy from foreign car makers.

Did the U.S. make the right choice in cutting funding for hydrogen research?

-tgriffith

5 Comments

  1. If biofuels are done right, they can be a good complementary technology, especially for hybrids. Cellulosic ethanol has a lot of promise. Unfortunately, ethanol made from feed biomass such as corn is NOT a good solution. We’ve already seen the run up in food prices caused by traditional ethanol production, which has only been viable because of massive government subsidies. Also, when you consider the entire energy footprint of ethanol production from feed biomass, it is a net loser. (Takes more energy to produce than it provides.) All this experimentation and experience is important though, because I think we will eventually end up with a biofuel industry that produces ethanol, methanol and diesel oil from cheap and renewable resources with a substantial net energy gain in the production process.

  2. I think hydrogen could be the fuel source of choice in 150 years or so… but if we’re thinking 10-15 years ahead electricity is the way to go. Or ultra efficient gas/diesel engines.

  3. I completely agree with you Randy.

    Hydrogen seems to large of a jump right now. Pure electrics comprised of efficient and low cost batteries are the way to go.

  4. New technology rarely makes great leaps. Rather, it starts slow and builds incrementally. In many ways, hydrogen fuel for vehicles is simply too advanced for practical use on a large scale. At present we can use hydrogen in modified IC engines, or in fuel cells. Fuel cells have a way to go to get costs under control because a fuel cell car combines a number of expensive features– an exotic storage system for the hydrogen itself, an electric drive train and the fuel cell. That probably means that a fuel cell vehicle can NEVER compete on a cost basis with a full electric vehicle because the combined costs of the fuel cell, hydrogen storage and battery system are much higher than the battery/drive train costs of the conventional electric vehicle. And considering the cost of generating the hydrogen fuel versus electricity from our national electric grid, you’re also pitting large scale electric generation against small scale hydrogen fuel production. I’m betting a study would show that it takes as much or more electricity to generate hydrogen for a conventional or fuel cell car as it does to simply drive the car (including battery energy losses) in the first place.

    Once large scale solar or geothermal electric generation is a done deal, using excess capacity to produce hydrogen might be very practical, but until then, conventional pure electrics seem to be the best bet. They should be cheaper than hybrids (no motor to charge the batteries) and much cheaper than hydrogen vehicles. (No fuel storage system, IC motor or fuel cell.) The decision to cut research funding is a very good one, provided we use those dollars where it will really count– in advanced battery research. A high tech, high capacity battery that can be produced at low cost is the key to both electric and hybrid electric vehicles of the future.

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