High Hopes for Hydrogen

Fuel Cells and the Future of Energy

It's a gas: a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle at a fueling station in California, June 2014. Alex Gallardo / Reuters

The appeal of hydrogen fuel cells has long been obvious. Because these devices use electrochemical reactions to generate electricity from hydrogen, emitting only heat and water in the process, they offer a particularly green source of power, especially for vehicles. What has not been so obvious, however, is how to make hydrogen fuel cells practical. In 2009, Steven Chu, then the U.S. secretary of energy, told an interviewer that in order for hydrogen fuel-cell transportation to work, “four miracles” needed to happen. First, scientists had to find an efficient and low-cost way to produce hydrogen. Second, they had to develop a safe, high-density method of storing hydrogen in automobiles. Third, an infrastructure for distributing hydrogen had to be built so that fuel-cell vehicles would have ample refueling options. Fourth, researchers had to improve the capacity of the fuel-cell systems themselves, which were not as durable, powerful, and low cost as the internal combustion engine. Chu concluded that achieving all four big breakthroughs would be unlikely. “Saints only need three miracles,” he added.

Accordingly, the U.S. Department of Energy dramatically cut funding for fuel cells, reducing its support for various programs to nearly a third of previous levels. For the rest of Chu’s tenure, the department awarded nearly no new grants to develop the technology at universities, national labs, or private companies. Although the department’s total expenditures on fuel cells and hydrogen had always amounted to a small fraction of overall global investment in the sector, the change in posture sent a deeply pessimistic signal worldwide.

Immediately after Chu’s comments made the rounds, the hydrogen community issued a defense, contending that major progress had been made. But the damage was done. The press picked up on the Obama administration’s snub, and positive articles about hydrogen fuel cells virtually disappeared. Universities stopped hiring faculty in an area perceived to be dying, top students fled to other subjects, and programs at national labs were forced to reconfigure their efforts.

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