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Hydrogen fuel: backseat to electric vehicles?

Obama Administration programs push electric vehicles (EVs), although the jury is out on consumer uptake. It's worth asking: what happened to hydrogen-powered cars, purportedly the cleanest possible alternative?
Not only is the idea still around, major car makers say they are almost ready to introduce such vehicles. Toyota reportedly expects to have its hydrogen-powered vehicle on the road by 2015; price tag: $50,000. Daimler, Ford and Hyundai have made similar comments.
Global demand for oil is expected to rise in the next two decades, while "peak oil" projections remind us that oil is a finite, fossil fuel with adverse environmental consequences—two drivers  behind initiatives to develop alternatives.

Hydrogen is abundant, renewable and non-polluting. The trick to its economic use is several-fold. To name two: an efficient method of extracting it from water, where it resides most abundantly; and an infrastructure that can deliver it for, say, transportation purposes.

To be useful in energy applications such as fuel cells, for instance, a pure hydrogen source is required. If the "hydrogen economy" is to become a reality, then cheaper and more efficient methods of stripping the hydrogen from water must be developed. Today's technologies—which include electrolysis—tend to be costly and inefficient. However, work at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) shows promise in achieving cost targets.

To catch up on current work on hydrogen as a fuel and converting wind energy to hydrogen, see NREL's website on the topic and my colleague, Intelligent Utility Daily Editor Phil Carson's recent column on the wind-to-hydrogen work at NREL. And according to NREL, hydrogen has nearly three times the energy content of gasoline, which compensates for efficiency losses.

Hydrogen has other advantages. When used in a fuel cell, hydrogen produces electricity and its only byproduct is water vapor. With current technology, hydrogen-fueled vehicles have more than twice the range of current EV technology, powered by electro-chemical batteries.

"People understand the appeal," says Susan Hock, director of electric and hydrogen technology systems for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in a previous conversation with this reporter at her Golden, Co. office. "We could wean ourselves from fossil fuels and become more energy independent to power cars and homes—and the only emission would be distilled water. But you have to produce, distribute and store hydrogen."

One major drawback: the energy used to create pure hydrogen, store it and transport it may outweigh its benefits. For now.

According to Hock, those hurdles will be overcome and EVs will bridge the gap to hydrogen-powered transportation and other applications.

Right now, however, electric vehicles are being pushed by the Obama Administration, which has allocated $11 billion to the research and development of EVs while challenging Americans to put 1 million such cars on the road by 2015. The current administration's budget would cut funds next year for work on hydrogen cars by $70 million.

Back in 2003, however, President George W. Bush announced a $1.2 billion hydrogen fuel initiative. This was reversed by President Obama in 2009.

What is the most advantageous policy and budgetary approach to EVs and hydrogen fuel cells to accomplish the goal of energy independence and, thus, security for the United States?


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