The Hydrogen Car: Not Dead Yet?

Now that President Obama has wiped out federal research grants for fuel cell vehicles in his 2010 proposed budget in favor of batteries and biofuels, the hydrogen car appears to be on its deathbed.

Still, Honda, Toyota and even beleaguered GM all say they will keep developing the technology. That's their rhetoric, anyway.

We made "a significant commitment to fuel cells and we're going to pursue it," said Honda, Japan's second-largest carmaker. The company has the world's only serious hydrogen car, the FCX Clarity (pictured here). Just last month, it was named the World Green Car of 2009 by the New York Auto Show. The recognition was music to the hydrogen industry's ears.

But Obama's budget bombshell changes everything.

It means the hydrogen car business could not only lose vital research dollars but the immeasurable public relations value of U.S. government support. And automakers – even Honda – may be forced to kill their programs.

Specifically, the proposed U.S. budget would cut out more than $100 million for hydrogen cars, leaving only $68 million for more general fuel cell research. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, explained: 

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

(Find his presentation on the energy portion of the budget here.)

Hard to argue with logic. The vaunted "hydrogen highway" has so far been a road to nowhere. Here are some fundamental obstacles the industry hasn't been able to effectively overcome, despite billions in R&D spending:

  • producing the hydrogen to power the cars.
  • transporting hydrogen across a whole nation.
  • establishing an infrastructure of hydrogen filling stations.
  • reducing production costs of production to anywhere near affordable.

 

Honda has said the FCX Clarity costs a few hundred thousand dollars to produce – each. The company's hope was that mass production would shrink costs to $100,000. That's the goal? Not exactly marketable. 

Of course, electric cars, an Obama clean tech favorite, aren't cost competitive either. Next-gen lithium ion car batteries are still wildly expensive and too undeveloped. But battery technology has at least two giant legs up over hydrogen: It's relatively simple in its operation and the refueling infrastructure – an outlet – exists in every home. A breakthrough beckons.

The promise is there. 

Naturally, the U.S. Fuel Cell Council and National Hydrogen Association are up in arms over Obama's decision to throw in the hydrogen towel. From their joint press statement:

"Fuel-cell vehicles are not a science experiment. These are real vehicles with real marketability and real benefits. Hundreds of fuel-cell vehicles have collectively logged millions of miles."

They're not alone in their opposition. David Friedman, research director for the clean vehicle program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the Wall Street Journal that the government must place bets on all of the clean car contenders, hydrogen included.

"We keep jumping from silver bullet to silver bullet. It takes longer than that to revolutionize the auto industry."

Keith Johnson at Environmental Capital echoed this sentiment: "Why is the government picking winners, anyway?"

And more specifically, why is the government picking biofuels over hydrogen, asked Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California. He told Bloomberg that hydrogen fueling infrastructure could be created in 10 to 15 years at less cost than the "$6 billion to $10 billion" the U.S. provides annually in subsidies for corn ethanol.

Still, the "Hydrogen, R.I.P" meme is taking hold, and quickly. Do a google news search and you'll see it for yourself all over the Web: Hydrogen is over. 

But is it really? Truth is, it will take time to fully understand the impact of this move. For now, the budget recommendation still has to be approved by Congress. And don't forget: The electric car was killed once, too, before rising up and taking revenge.

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