The Ergosphere
Thursday, May 14, 2009
 

Stick a fork in Freedom Car... it's done

Roughly 100 days into the Obama administration, Steven Chu has announced that the hydrogen fuel cell will not be a practical power source for cars in the next 10-20 years and does not merit the emphasis placed on it.  Funds for vehicle development have accordingly been cut off.

That didn't take long.  (Pity Europe was 3 years ahead of us, but better late than never.)

Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles always had a long list of barriers to widespread use:

  1. Hydrogen itself is easiest to make from fossil fuels; renewable hydrogen is a much tougher problem.
  2. There is nothing like a national network to distribute hydrogen, unlike electricity and natural gas.  This would have to be built from scratch, or hydrogen made from something else near the point of use.  If hydrogen is made from something else, there is no "hydrogen economy".
  3. Hydrogen is very difficult to store; the target for hydrogen storage systems is just 7% by weight.
  4. Low-temperature fuel cells, such as Proton-Exchange Membrane (PEM) cells, are expensive to manufacture, touchy about operating conditions and rather short-lived regardless.

It might be reasonable to expect one of these problems to fall to an intensive R&D program in a reasonable period.  But four of them?  When two of them are completely intractable matters of physics or infrastructure?  Freedom Car was a boondoggle from day one, never intended to get anywhere.

Unfortunately, Detroit appears to have gone into the crapper with it.  We have lost 8 years, during which peak oil has come and gone.  Had we stayed the course, we would have had PNGV vehicles on sale 2-3 years ago.  A robust American program to produce cars that achieved 70+ MPG would have enjoyed huge popularity as fuel headed for $5/gallon, and the parts business (especially batteries) would have perhaps kept the Chinese company BYD out of auto manufacturing.

What to do now?  I still think independent investigations and trials on charges up to and including high treason are appropriate on this matter (and others).  But scrapping our gas-guzzlers and converting the plants which made them to HEV, PHEV and EV production and other manufacturing (such as wind turbines) should top the list of initiatives to start immediately.

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