In S.C., high-tech bet on hydrogen-powered cars may be move in wrong direction

The Obama administration's plan to cut research dollars for hydrogen-powered cars is not good news for South Carolina and its capital city Columbia, which just last month opened two hydrogen fueling stations and unveiled the state's "hydrogen freeway."

Taxpayers have pumped $40.7 million in the Midlands region of the state alone into building a new high-tech economy based, in large part, on hydrogen and fuel-cell research, primarily at the University of South Carolina.

A spokesman for South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford said Friday the Obama administration cutbacks show hydrogen proponents in the state Legislature might be backing the wrong technology in the effort to build a high-tech economy.

Federal officials favor hybrid electric plug-ins cars -- not fuel-cell-powered vehicles -- to help ease the country's dependence on oil.

"Government should not try to pick the industry of the future," Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said. "We shouldn't be in the business of picking horses in this race."

But local officials say most of their efforts -- and those of USC -- have been on stationary applications for the pollution-free technology, such as generators, and might not feel the pinch of the cutbacks.

U.S. Steven Chu told reporters Thursday the president will recommend that federal dollars be drastically cut for hydrogen transportation research because the infrastructure -- fueling stations and hydrogen production and transport systems -- is too costly and would take too long to develop -- up to 20 years.

Chu said the Energy Department will back other fuel-efficient, nonpolluting cars, such as , in an effort to more quickly stem the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

The Energy Department funded $160 million in hydrogen transportation research this year. Next year, under President Barack Obama's proposal, that funding could drop as low as $60 million, said Shannon Baxter-Clemmons, executive director of the S.C. Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Alliance.

"This is a strange turn of events," Baxter-Clemmons said. "We are very close to the tipping point (making fuel-cell applications, including cars, commercially viable). To stop that now is a waste of taxpayer dollars."

The one bright spot in the news is that Chu told reporters the Energy Department should continue research into stationary fuel cells for applications like batteries or backup power sources.

Columbia Mayor Bob Coble said those stationary uses -- such as fuel-cell backup power batteries at Fort Jackson and the fuel cell-powered scoreboard at USC's new baseball stadium -- "are where our efforts and research have focused. That's where the short-term economic development is."

The mayor added: "I would agree with them that hydrogen cars are not a short-term solution (to the nation's dependence on oil). But we should go to Washington and make the case that not funding the long-term solution is short-sighted."

USC officials said it was unclear Friday how grants for research would be affected -- which grants would be considered research for cars and which would be for other purposes.

USC recently announced a $12.5 million grant from the Energy Department for hydrogen research, the largest research grant in school history. That grant was for stationary applications, school officials said.

The news also could affect Columbia's and the state's emergence as a hydrogen research and development hub.

Last month, Columbia hosted the National Hydrogen Association Conference & Expo, drawing about 700 attendees from around the world and 2,500 members of the public -- most of those to view and ride in hydrogen-powered cars.

As part of the event, Aiken County and Columbia also announced the opening of two hydrogen fueling stations, and S.C. Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, proclaimed the opening of the S.C. Freeway.


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Hydrogen-fueled cars stuck at the gate

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May 10, 2009
Good grief. Yet another example of top-down government from Obama the all-knowing Oracle.

May 10, 2009
Very good move. It's much better to focus on hybrid electric plugins. These cars could gradually evolve into full electric battery cars with a gradual increase in power grid capacity.

May 10, 2009
Another example of government medling and its unintended consequences. Build them up, then pull the rug out from under them.

On the other hand, I have always thought that hydrogen power was the wrong way to go. Instead of improving on existing battery technology, let's create a brand new storage medium for the electricity we produce AND a new technology to then turn the hydrogen back into electricity. It just sounds so impractical.

May 10, 2009
I think it was a good decision. As far as your comments about Obama. The news has gotten retarded and sensational. Not to mention completely biased in one direction or the other. We could have the best president in office but you would not know it.

Remember that you have to somehow make the Hydrogen.
Why are people stuck on combustion? Tons of wasted energy in that method. Too many moving parts. Cars burning fuel just sitting at a red light. Freakin stupid.

You can generate electricity any number of ways.

May 10, 2009
Velanarris, you make some good points, but I am confused about one thing: from where do you get the power to make the hydrogen? It seems to me you still have to produce the electrical power.

The major benefit seems to be that, once you make the hydrogen, you would have a fuel that would be ready to go and transportable, much like gasoline.

Personally, I don't give a darn what they use. I am not supporting either hydrogen or plug-in hybrid technology. Gasoline is so easy that nothing competes right now. The market will decide what eventually replaces gasoline.

I just think that, if I was looking to invest in one or the other, I'd go with an electric car that could run off any power source: gasoline powered generator, battery, hydrogen fuel cell, nuclear battery (just kidding), it really doesn't matter.

May 10, 2009
Velanarris: As Fazer has said, Hydrogen Fuel Cell cars are essentially electric cars with the added steps of hydrogen production and transportation inbetween creating the electricity at a power plant and actually using it to move a car.

Electric cars go like this:
Power Plant ==> Grid ==> Car ==> Convert to mechanical energy

Hydrogen cars go like this:
Power Plant ==> Grid ==> Hydrogen generation/filling station ==> Covert electricity to hydrogen ==> Car ==> Covert hydrogen to chemical energy ==> covert chemical energy to mechanical energy

As you can see there are MANY inefficiencies when using hydrogen as a fuel source for a car, unfortunately.

But this doesn't mean that there are no good uses for hydrogen in our economy.

Hydrogen wouldn't make a good transportable fuel, but it could well make a good battery technology in the form of self contained fuel cells. Pour electricity in, and you get hydrogen and oxygen (charging the cell). Combine the hydrogen and oxygen, and you get electricity to run your car.

*That* might well turn out to be a good use of hydrogen as an energy storage system, but fuel? No.

May 10, 2009
I should have added: each additional step in the fuel cycle has inherent inefficiencies. Let's state, just for the sake of argument, that each step is 95% efficient (ahahahahahah, yeah, right).

If you have a 4 step cycle, then you have (0.95 * 0.95 * 0.95 * 0.95) = 0.95^4 = 81.5% efficiency.

If you have a 10 step fuel cycle, then you have 0.95^10 = 59.9% efficiency.

As you can see, with each added step, efficiency drops like crazy. And that's with *95 freaking percent efficiency in each step. That's insanely high, and not achievable in practice. For instance, a power plant is typically about 35%-40% efficient, depending on the exact design. An internal combustion engine, which a hydrogen engine is, is normally less than 20% efficient. Stick numbers between 20% and 50% in for each step, and see how low your total efficiency goes for a hydrogen engine. Insanely low total efficiency.

So the fewer steps the better (a step would be something like transportation of fuel, conversion of fuel, usage of fuel, or generation of electricity, or anything like that).

May 11, 2009

Not any more dangerous than a truck hauling gasoline or natural gas...and the fact that hydrogen is lighter than air would mean that explosions due to leaks would be less dramatic since most of the gas would already have dissipated...I would think.

May 11, 2009
Have none of you seen the pumpable hydrogen cars out in california? They run all the electrolyzers with solar, wind, etc. Electrolyzers do not require grid attachment.

Where I live in the north east part of the US, you could run electrolyzers powered by solar, wind, etc... for about 5 minutes. On a nice day. Maybe that might work in SoCal during the day, but it won't work in most other area. Grid dependency is a pre-req unless you want people waiting in line while their tanks slooooowly fill up on less than optimally sunny/windy days.

May 11, 2009
That's irrelevant anyway. Any process which is used to gather energy for a hydrogen vehicle can also be used to gather energy for an electric vehicle. With fewer steps, and with less complexity.

May 11, 2009
DGBEACH: Liquid hydrogen is significantly more dangerous than gasoline. Contrary to popular belief, gasoline is actually very stable at standard environmental temperatures (-40C to 40C). It's the *vapours* that come off the gas that are volatile. And that doesn't happen when the gas is in a tank. It doesn't even happen (much) when you punch a hole in a gas tank. That's why cars don't explode (like they do in movies) every time there is an accident on the road.

But that's not really important, since no one in their right mind is suggesting that we use liquid hydrogen in its natural state as a fuel. All the serious conceptualizations that I've seen have had the hydrogen safely stored in a way that would (nearly) preclude the possibility of an explosion.

May 11, 2009
DozerIam.. I know you are a pessimist as you stated elsewhere in pysorg, but I do believe MealerAMC has the answer for non fossil fuel power and non EV grid dependency. Give me a shot and ease back on the other potential solutions.

This isn't about the Al Gore BS, but instead, a kick to the groin for terrorists who are funded with Saudi Oil profits.

JL Mealer

May 11, 2009
Velanarris, I looked up Electrolyzer and found an article from 2006 about the technology being developed by GE. It does sound very interesting. Obviously, you are right about the fact that charging up batteries for cars is very time consuming.

I had a lot going on this evening and have not had time to look into this more. When I did a search for hydrogen cars and electrolyzers I got a bunch of hocus pocus DIY crap. Could you post a link to a good article about the cars in Cali you mentioned?

In the GE article, it stated that a large electrolyzer could produce an amount of hydrogen equivalent to a gallon of gas in an hour. I realize that it was still in developement at the time of the article, but that doesn't sound very impressive.


May 11, 2009
Thanks. The car is pretty cool. I had to look through a bunch of links before I got the details on the fueling stations. It sounds like they are powering the electrolysis off the grid, by buying 'green' electricity, so yeah, it is technically being generated by alternative methods.

I still have doubts, but I'll look into it more when I have time. I'll give you this: It could be one possible answer to the problem of storing the intermittent power generated by wind and solar.

Now, for me, its off to bed, legions of fuel cells dance in my head.

May 12, 2009
Well, there you go, we need more test markets for this kind of stuff. I wish the feds would stay out of it completely, let each state pick what they want to test out, if they choose to do anything at all. If California shows us all that Hydrogen works, great.

May 13, 2009
When I advocated hybrids, I meant that hybrids can smooth out the evolution to ALL-electric. For good hydrogen fuel cell cars and the infrastructure to take to the road will probably take a few years. The same for electric cars. The only problem with electric is as you say charging time. But if you've been reading PhysOrg you might have seen articles on lithium ion batteries charging in 5 minutes, or ultra-capacitors that can charge under a minute.

May 13, 2009
But if you've been reading PhysOrg you might have seen articles on lithium ion batteries charging in 5 minutes, or ultra-capacitors that can charge under a minute.
And you've also read about the inability of the grid to charge such batteries as none of us are running switchgears in our houses.

And you've read about how the faster you charge a battery, the more you shorten its usable life.

May 13, 2009
But if you've been reading PhysOrg you might have seen articles on lithium ion batteries charging in 5 minutes, or ultra-capacitors that can charge under a minute.
And you've also read about the inability of the grid to charge such batteries as none of us are running switchgears in our houses.

I do, no wait, I don't live here, just feels like it some days.

May 13, 2009
But if you've been reading PhysOrg you might have seen articles on lithium ion batteries charging in 5 minutes, or ultra-capacitors that can charge under a minute.
And you've also read about the inability of the grid to charge such batteries as none of us are running switchgears in our houses.

It's much easier to slowly upgrade the electrical grid than build a whole H2 infrastructure. And of course you haven't really addressed the whole issue of the horrible inefficiencies of H2 compared to direct electric batteries.

May 13, 2009
BTW Velanarris, your electrolizer also utilizes the grid to split water into H2 and O2, so it suffers the same problems, just more focused on refueling or home stations.

May 17, 2009
It seems that we like to pick one or the other...but is it impossible to have all slices and eat them all at the same time? :)

Why not:
(Power Source) ---> Car

Power source:
Electricity (solar or batteries)
heat (to reconvert to mech energy)

Have breaks that regen electricty.
Have wind used for breaking as well.
Solar panels that is either built into the car, or flexible cover for when the car is parked outside (as option).

Suppose all of the above would bump the cost of cars up.

Hydrogen fuel cells are nice because they can be replenished with out worries of memory effect.

Though in all sources, heat is generated, which is wasted energy.

hybrids aren't bad, various combo's can be made.
Though fossil fuel/electric doesn't liberate us from fuel dependence.

Oil barons and it's respective lobbyists would not like it. Especially when they invested millions into oil platforms/oil refineries. They know their days are numbered...but they will do anything and everything to slow change to increase profit.

May 17, 2009
We have problems either way. With Lithium we have problem of a limited resource - one that will probably run out before the oil.

If we can use hydrogen fuel cells we can last longer and that would be better. Using hydrogen direct to burn as a fuel is inefficient but has quicker turn over time for fueling stations.

Although converting fueling stations into battery swap stations would eliminate the recharging of batteries and also eliminates the problem of limited lifespan of batteries. To my mind the biggest problem with battery powered cars is not the time it takes to refuel which is not a small problem but the lifespan of the battery itself.

So by renting the batteries and not owning them and by changing them often we push the battery lifespan problem into an ongoing cost rather than a terminal end cost after less than ten years of life.

I want to own and run my car for 20 years not just 5 years. But we will have to move on from lithium batteries anyway. Sure they cost a lot now when there is not that huge number of them in the market just imagine how much they will cost when there is 100 million cars out there with enormous lithium Ion Batteries in them. The world output of Lithium might be sitting out there in every ones car.

May 17, 2009
No matter what is used to propel your vehicle, ownership of that vehicle will entail up-front cost. Whether it be electrolyzers, multiple battery packs, solar panels, wind turbines, micro hydro-turbines, etc.,there will always be a cost to the vehicle owner for not being reliant on Big Oil.
The most important thing here is that WE take back control of the decision-making as to what kinds of vehicles are being manufactured. Big Oil has had way too much to say in the matter. Step one is to kick the financial legs out from under them. The ONLY way to do that is to take your OWN hard-earned dollars and to invest them into your OWN micro-infrastructure (above-mentioned refueling/recharging equipment). Let's face it, our reliance on Big Oil is our own lazy is the pollution and subsequent damage to the planet that OUR vehicles have caused.

Additionally, battery-swapping stations will never work. The people want to be LESS reliant on outside power sources, not more. Imagine driving into a gas station to have your near-empty gas tank changed for a full one...they didn't do it that way because it made more sense to fill them externally. Now multiply the weight of that gas tank by, let's say, 100. And it gets changed several times a week, because the batteries have been kept smaller by the service-providers to "minimize the wear-and-tear on the batteries and their high-capacity connectors". IT IS NOT THE RIGHT WAY TO DO IT!
Hydrogen is Big Oil's only way to stay in our lives-they already have most of the infrastructure.
I have always been a proponent of hydrogen and electricity as sources of energy for vehicles, but I must be able to maintain control over how much it costs me to "refuel"...we have a great chance here shift things in our favors, let us not SCREW IT UP AGAIN!

May 17, 2009
Hydrogen- no particulate matter emissions

Wrong. Hydrogen gas will be produced from natural gas and coal through gasification.

refuelable within minutes utilizing current pump infrastructure

Wrong. There is no current hydrogen infrastructure.

comparable performance, weight, manufacture process, and repair.

All nonsense. Hydrogen offers energy density barely better than a pure electric vehicle when you consider the poor efficiency of the fuel cell and the massive weight of the hydrogen tank. Fuel cells rivaling an ICE cost on the order of $500 000 and last nowhere near as long as an ICE. From the electric drive to the fuel cell and compressed hydrogen tank, manufacturing and repair is nothing like an ICE.

Hybrid/plug in - reduced particulate emissions if you ignore the power infrastructure

If you ignore the power infrastructure you'll at least be consistent.

Hydrogen - expense, water based economy

Hydrogen gas is produced exclusively from gasification of natural gas and coal and that's the way it will remain. Chemical fuels don't have to go via electricity and back to hydrogen. This puts a tremendous gearing against using emissions free sources of electricity like nuclear to run vehicles and in favour of coal and gas. In addition, large electrolyzers are costly where as gasification is simple and cheap.

When you only get 30-40% of the embodied energy back out of the fuel cell it's no more emissions free than an electric car powered entirely by coal plants.

May 17, 2009
How come so little mention is made of hydrogen on demand generators? It solves the hydrogen distribution problem along with the onboard storage issue.Existing petrol stations could be distribution points. As well,the production of hydrogen at point of use is from solar reduced Zinc oxide,which can be recycled endlessly.

May 18, 2009
Because hydrogen generators currently use rare resources to operate. You trade a politically unstable, polluting, difficult to extract resource (heavy crude oil (since the whole issue is that light crude is running out)) for a politically unstable, rare, difficult to extract resource.

Platinum electrolysis is the most viable type of non-fossilfuel hydrogen production. Do you REALLY want to have to buy megatonnes of platinum? Do you know that not only is platinum very rare (hence its cost), but that 90% of the world's platinum supply is located in a single African country? Do you REALLY want the entire world economy to be dependant on one politically unstable country?

At least with oil the US can buy most of it's supply from Canada and Mexico. Only a tiny portion of the US oil supply comes from the middle east.

It is currently easier, cheaper, and more politically viable to produce Hydrogen via natural gas or coal. That won't change for a long time unless an incredible breakthrough is made (which it could be, but if you want an example of people sitting around waiting for an incredible breakthrough instead of slowly chipping away at the problem by doing basic research like they should have been doing, just look at Fusion Power).

May 19, 2009
Errrrm? Since when is Palladium used in batteries? It's used in a good number of hydrogen fuel cell designs, but I don't recall ever seeing a palladium battery. Not in the past 100 years, anyway.

Lith-ion batteries may not be the best technology possible (although recent advances have improved them significantly, and the next generation of batteries that will be coming out soon is substantially better in every way than current lith-ion batteries are), but they're a damned sight further along than safe, reliable, cheap, secure, hydrogen fuel cell technology is.

May 19, 2009
I think that they'll use gold, just like everyone else. It is cheap (relatively speaking of course), common, has great conductivity (it is NOT superconductive:P), and doesn't rust. Platinum is indeed used in catalytic converters, but the amounts are truly tiny.

But more to the point, if the platinum for catalytic converters supply dried up, would every car on the planet just halt? Would the production of fuel for those cars just stop? No. One little non-crucial part would need a minor redesign. That's it. Same with battery tech. It isn't dependant on a single compound or element in the way viable hydrogen fuel cell tech is (the current oil economy is the same way. That's why it's bad. CO2 be damned, it is the political instability of oil that will do it in, not the pollution).

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