While much research has been done on Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs), it’ll be 2010 at the earliest before researchers can gauge hydrogen’s prospects as a mass market fuel to supplement or replace gasoline.
For five years, the Dept. of Energy (DOE) has been setting technical goals and conducting hydrogen R&D. Several are now within reach. Also, the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Lab. (ORNL) released a comprehensive study in March that simulates three robust market scenarios for FVCs and the accompanying production and refueling infrastructure.
The three scenarios in the report titled “Transition to Hydrogen FCVs & the Potential Hydrogen Energy Infrastructure Requirements” assume that DOE’s Hydrogen Fuel Initiative technology goals are met and that has yet to occur. However, none at this point are considered beyond reach.
“We’ve made tremendous progress and we see pathways to overcome the remaining challenges,” says Program Manager JoAnn Milliken. “But if the perfect battery is developed and we can use renewable electricity, then that’s just as viable if not more so than hydrogen.”
The de facto race between hydrogen and the battery of the future shows how unpredictable non-fossil fuel options are at this stage. No one can say with certainly if they will co-exist or that one will prevail. The best answer from the experts and stakeholders is there will be a mix of options when the oil begins to dry up.
Asked which fossil fuel alternative has the best prospects, GM CEO and Chairman Rick Wagoner says the automaker is placing multiple bets.
“I wish I knew. If I had our experts in each field, they could each define how their field is going to win. That’s why we are investing across different technologies from batteries to hybrids to fuel cells,” he says. “We’re going to work across the full spectrum of fuels. We’re going to be in period to sort down to see if there will be one solution.”
Meanwhile, the DOE will conduct research to eventually weed out the losers so the winners can emerge. The effort started with President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address in which he pledged $1.2 billion for hydrogen research over five years. For FY 2008, the DOE operated with a $281 million a chunk of which goes to finding refueling infrastructure projects. For example, DOE kicked in $44 million for the five-year FCV and refueling program with GM and Shell. It has made an investment in a similar program with Hyundai and Chevron.
Money also goes to universities and laboratories for hydrogen R&D and goal setting. DOE has broken up the technical concerns into storage and fuel cells as well safety, codes and standards and technology validation. Here’s a sampling of its goals:
-- Reduce the cost of hydrogen to $2-$3 GGE (untaxed) at the pump. A GGE or gallon of gas equivalent roughly equals the energy a kilogram of hydrogen. Given that FCVs today get about double the mileage on a kilogram of hydrogen over a gallon of gas, the price for hydrogen could theoretically could be more than $8 per kilogram and still compete with gasoline.
-- Reduce the cost of transport from central and semi-central production facilities to under 90 cents per GGE. Longer term, distributed production using electrolysers at the point of delivery could reduce delivery costs further.
-- By 2010, develop a Proton Membrane Exchange fuel cell system that lasts for 40,000 hours and achieves 40 percent electrical efficiency. Currently, platinum membrane cells are very expensive, costing $95 per kW versus $30 per kW produced for an internal combustion engine.
-- By 2015, have a complete set of safety codes and standards to support FVC commercialization.
-- By 2010, launch a comprehensive and coordinated public education campaign about the hydrogen economy and fuel cell technology. Early adopters and eventually consumers won’t automatically buy into hydrogen unless they understand it.
Besides setting these and myriad other technical, educational and economic goals, ORNL as part of DOE, was charged by the National Academy of Sciences as specified in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 with simulating market scenarios looking at the period 2012-25 (see chart).
“Our program is predominantly R&D. We don’t formulate policy, but we certainly provide advice or recommendations. And we do analysis to the effect of certain policy measures on market penetration,” says Milliken.
To that end, David Greene, a Corporate Fellow at ORNL and nearly 300 officials from key hydrogen stakeholders convened in workshops to come up with the report. “We’ve mainly brought together all the pieces and integrated them in a market simulation which is fairly rigorous. The realism depends on premises,” he says. “Our premises would be the technology goals are met on time.”
The report concluded that targeted deployment in such receptive areas as Los Angeles and New York could grow the FVC market by 50 percent in 20 years and 90 percent by 2050. Without generous government help to catalyze the market, the investment burden on auto markers and energy companies would too great for a hydrogen market to develop. As a result, hybrids would dominate the market.
The report hypothesizes that government assistance could range from a tax credit of 30-50 cents for every kilogram produced; $300,000-$1.3 million in per hydrogen station built; 50 percent back to consumer of the incremental cost between the FCV and its next closest competitor; and other FVC tax credits, proposes the report. Overall subsidization would cost between $10-$45 billion during the 13-year period with peak annual spending topping out at $6 billion. After 2025, the industry, assuming one of the scenarios became reality, would be self-sustaining.
“The scenarios don’t get going until 2012. It’s a question of optimism, really. If you look back at how far fuel cells have come, you’d say ‘wow.’ Then you look forward and realize we have a long way to go,” says Greene. For example, the goals for onboard hydrogen storage still falls short on the space they require, the amount of hydrogen that can be held and the cost to make the tanks.
“High pressure tanks fall short on the amount of hydrogen they can hold. If you go with 10,000 PSI, the tank has to be made of carbon fiber (which raises costs issues … most today in FCVs are 3500 or 7000 PSI),” he says. Liquid hydrogen comes the closest on cost and is a little bit short on energy density. It would be fine if they could solve other problems like boil off and using the best Thermos bottle you could find.”
Until such problems are resolved, neither auto makers nor energy companies should commit to commercialization. At the same time, he said government could be doing more to move the process along. “You do not start this transition until you have your achievements in the lab. We were not even thinking we’d get there before 2010,” he says.
Another comprehensive report advocating for hydrogen is the Hydrogen Fueling Infrastructure Assessment co-authored by Shell Hydrogen and General Motors. The report, whose two authors are among hydrogen’s most active champions, concludes:
-- Long term, consumers will likely not pay more for hydrogen per mile than they do today.
-- Geographical and coordinated roll-out of the refueling infrastructure will sustain it during the initial period of low volume sales.
-- “Strong” government leadership, incentives and a clear strategy are imperative.
For all the questions and challenges facing hydrogen, it does have some unabashed cheerleaders. James Provenzano, co-author of the book “The Hydrogen Age” and presidient of Clean Air Now, is one of them. While scientists and engineers focus economics and overcoming technical issues, he takes the position that hydrogen is already a slam dunk. .
“The gold standard is renewable hydrogen in system with fuel cells and an electric drive. That’s a 100 percent pollution free scenario (well to wheel). Hydrogen is the energy carrier. Batteries are not going to be able power a ship or a big rig. Hydrogen can. And it allows us many different feed stocks: Wind, solar wave, water, biomass, algae, geothermal … and (even) tidal.”
View more photos in our hydrogen gallery!