European Affairs

We Want Hydrogen-Powered Cars on the Road by 2020     Print Email
JoAnn Milliken

JoAnn MillikenOne of the centerpieces of the second Bush administration's energy policy will be the long term hydrogen fuel initiative, aimed at reducing dependence on petroleum products, that the President launched in his State of the Union address in January 2003. The Department of Energy is responsible for implementing the President's initiative, but there are a number of other federal agencies engaged in hydrogen and fuel cell research and development. In announcing the initiative, President Bush added three new elements to existing research: he called for the development of a national refueling network for fuel cell vehicles; he significantly increased funding to accelerate the development of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies; and he gave the program a timeline by saying that a child born today would drive a hydrogen-powered vehicle. As Americans begin driving around the age of 16, these vehicles would have to be available by 2020. That is an ambitious schedule, but we are working toward it.

In support of the initiative, the Administration is increasing its budget request for hydrogen and fuel cell research and development to about $227 million for 2005. That is considerable higher than the $160 million appropriated for fiscal year 2004 (against an administration request of $180 million), which was in turn significantly larger than in 2003. In addition to research and development of fuel cell and renewable hydrogen technologies, different branches of the Department of Energy are focusing on coal-based and nuclear-based hydrogen production and basic science. We also work with the Department of Transportation on safety, codes and standards. The Department is also developing technologies based on wind, geothermal, solar and biomass energy sources, and improving the energy efficiency of buildings and industrial processes.

Any plan to reduce dependence on petroleum in the United States, however, means focusing on the transportation sector, which accounts for over two-thirds of U.S. oil consumption. The gap between domestic oil production and consumption is continuing to grow, primarily because of increased use of light duty vehicles ø cars, sports utility vehicles (SUVs) and light trucks. That is why we are targeting the light duty vehicle sector in our hydrogen and fuel cell activities.

We can have an impact by improving fuel economy. We can decrease the amount of oil used in the transportation sector by regulation or by developing hybrid vehicles. While such methods will somewhat reduce oil dependence in the near term, however, they will not solve the long-term problem. The gap between oil production and consumption will continue to grow because the amount of vehicles and the number of vehicle miles traveled will continue to increase. To achieve a long-term solution we need a substitute for petroleum.

Forecasts show that greater use of hybrid vehicles could reduce oil consumption from around 2025, but that after 2040 oil use would start to rise again. At least in the transportation sector, we can get down to zero oil consumption in the long-term only by using hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. So we are developing hybrid vehicle technologies for the near term, and hydrogen for the long term.

Hydrogen is not only the key to a secure energy future; it also has other advantages. It has obvious environmental benefits in terms of reducing pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions. Hydrogen also has economic benefits because it can be made from a number of domestic sources in the United States.We shall be replacing dependence on one source of fuel with opportunities for other feedstocks. And while it takes energy to make hydrogen from these feedstocks, the efficiency of the fuel cell more than compensates for the initial energy outlay. This is obviously not going to happen overnight. It will take years to build a refueling infrastructure. And although a child who is almost two years old now may drive a fuel cell vehicle in 2020, we shall not complete the transition to a hydrogen economy for another couple of decades after that.

We are still in the research, development and demonstration phase. We hope to develop the technologies that will enable industry to make a decision to sell vehicles powered by these new technologies in 2015. But that will depend on getting the money we need and on meeting certain targets, which are based on current fuel costs and vehicle performance. A number of those elements could change.

We face difficult technical challenges, of which the most significant is finding ways for vehicles to store enough hydrogen to give them sufficient range. Current storage technologies do not allow vehicles to achieve their normal ranges within the weight and volume constraints of the vehicle. Today's most advanced technology is compressed hydrogen storage, but the tanks take up a lot of space and the range is limited. In the United States, the average range of vehicles is 370 miles, and we are setting a conservative target of 300 miles. And by 2015 or 2020 hydrogen vehicles will be competing with hybrids with significantly more range.

While compressed hydrogen tanks will be important for developing fuel cell vehicles in the early stages, we are focusing on developing new materials that can store hydrogen reversibly with high capacities. In hydrogen production and fuel cells, on the other hand, the main challenge is to reduce costs. Our target for hydrogen production is $1.50 to $2 per kilogram - the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline, in terms of energy content - untaxed and delivered to the station. That would be similar to the cost of gasoline today. If the price of gasoline continues to rise, those targets may change.

The cost target for fuel cells is under $50 per kilowatt, which would make them competitive with the internal combustion engine. We are also looking at safety, codes and standards and other challenges. As for the delivery of hydrogen to refueling stations, it will take time to create a centralized production system.

So during the transition period, our aim is to produce distributed hydrogen by steam-reforming of natural gas at existing gasoline stations, and by smallscale electrolyzers. Education is also important because the public thinks hydrogen is an unsafe fuel.We also need to teach people about the benefits of hydrogen and why this revolutionary change is important. We have made a lot of progress over the past couple of years. In terms of hydrogen storage, we need to improve capacity by a factor of about three. The current cost of producing hydrogen from natural gas is about $5 per kilogram, so we need to reduce that by a factor of two to three as well. We need to get fuel cell costs down by a factor of six or seven. But it is here that we have made the most progress. The steep fall in the cost of fuel cells over the past ten to 15 years is really what spurred the hydrogen initiative and prompted this accelerated activity.

Our long-term aim is the development of techniques to produce hydrogen from renewable resources and from coal with carbon sequestration. This will require a partnership with the industries involved.We have been working with the auto companies for about 15 years, and the President's initiative helped us to bring the energy companies on board, too. We need their cooperation to address the fueling infrastructure, and we are collaborating with them very closely to help guide the necessary research and development.

We believe we have a balanced program, and that all aspects of research and development are necessary to make this happen. For hydrogen storage, for example, basic research is very important because we really need a breakthrough in materials. The same applies to the long term-production of hydrogen by photo-biological and photo-electrochemical systems. We also need basic research to find out how to reduce the cost of fuel cells, either by using platinum better or by de-veloping a non-precious metal catalyst. But applied research and technology development are also important to meet the milestones, deliverables, and technical targets that will enable industry to make a positive commercialization decision in 2015. We also believe that practical tests are critical to identify problems that we might have missed in the laboratory.We are just starting a program of "learning demonstrations, in which we shall look at fuel cell vehicles and fueling stations in different conditions, for example hot and cold weather. The Freedom Car Partnership, which began a year before the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative, is addressing the vehicle technology side.

Our research, development and demonstration plans are developed in cooperation with all those who have expertise in the technologies and a stake in the program. We are working with the industries involved, universities and national and federal laboratories. And in November 2003, the Secretary of Energy launched the International Partnership for the Hydrogen Economy, through which we want to include our international partners in this endeavor.


JoAnn Milliken is the Chief Engineer in the Office of Hydrogen, Fuel Cells & Infrastructure Technologies at the U.S. Department of Energy, where she oversees research, development, and demonstration activities in fuel cells, and in hydrogen production, delivery, and storage technologies. Before joining DOE in 1994, she was a Research Chemist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and a Program Manager at the Office of Naval Research.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number V, Issue number III in the Fall of 2004.