What Changed DOE Secretary Steven Chu's Mind About Hydrogen Fuel Cells



Natural gas now being retrieved from shale provides an enormous source of hydrogen.

He'll never use the word "fracking," but thanks to that new drilling technique, the U.S. Secretary of Energy now admits he's changed his mind about hydrogen fuel cells. That's because the abundance of natural gas now being retrieved from shale also provides an enormous source of hydrogen that, when coupled with new reforming technology, produces energy with a low carbon footprint.

When Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, was named Secretary of the Department of Energy in the Obama Administration, he quickly redirected much of the Department's automotive research efforts into battery electric vehicles. So much so that proponents of hydrogen fuel cells complained loudly that the Secretary was starving their research efforts.

Automakers will no doubt welcome the Secretary's change of heart. General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Daimler, BMW and Hyundai, not only have decades-long development efforts in this area, they claim they can have fuel cell cars showroom ready by 2015.

This is not to say Secretary Chu is giving up on battery development. He's not. Indeed, he expects big strides in battery development in the next decade. But it seems possible the Administration is looking to fuel cells as a "Plan B" in case BEV sales don't meet expectations. That would be an astute move.


John McElroyJohn McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit" and daily web video "Autoline Daily". Every month he brings his unique insights as a Detroit insider to Autoblog readers.


EVs aren't selling in the volumes that automakers need to break-even.

So far electric car sales are running well below the levels that, just a few years ago, proponents believed would materialize. This is true in the biggest global markets including the United States, Europe, Japan and China. Despite big percentage gains in sales compared to last year, they are not selling in the volumes that automakers need to earn a return on the billions they've invested in this technology. They're not even close to break-even.

And it's about to get worse. Under government mandates, more automakers are introducing more EV models and increasing manufacturing capacity. A moribund segment is about to get saturated.

Secretary Chu doesn't see it this way. "Well first, I don't agree with that," he says in an interview. "If you look at the business models of the companies, there was a slight lag in the Chevy Volt. But the Chevy Volt is selling very well."

The DOE has a cost target for batteries of $125 per kilowatt. Currently the cost is in the $500 to $600 range.

He believes that improvements in batteries will make electric cars more viable in the future. "The level of systems measurement, having nano-micro things inside the battery, and having a microprocessor whip through and test all the modules, is not there yet. But it's a very real possibility," he says. "And when you have that you can charge faster. Before a cell wears out you can swap one out and put in another, so the cost of the warranty becomes much less."

The DOE has a cost target for batteries of $125 per kilowatt. Currently the cost is in the $500 to $600 range. At a recent DOE conference titled "EV Everywhere" in Dearborn, Michigan, participants from major automakers expressed skepticism they could achieve that cost target in the next decade.

Even Secretary Chu recognizes it won't be easy. "The challenge is: can you get there by 2022?" he asks. "We will need improved battery system technology, so we can use more of the full capacity of the battery."

And so his epiphany on fuel cells is well timed. "I was not that high on hydrogen fuel cells," he admits, "but several things changed my mind. The most important thing that changed my mind is that we have now natural gas in abundance."

Hydrogen is a good insurance policy just in case the BEV segment falls flat on its face.

It's not just the abundance of natural gas now available in the United States that awakened the Secretary to the possibilities, it's how hydrogen can be extracted from natural gas that fascinates him.

"We have an emerging technology where you take natural gas and you burn it in a partial oxygen atmosphere, generate the electricity, capture a lot of the heat energy, and you also get hydrogen and carbon monoxide," he explains. "You take the carbon monoxide (and) pass it over in a steam process called a shift process. You get a stream of hydrogen, you get a pure stream of carbon monoxide and you get electricity. That will change things."

He notes that the carbon monoxide can then be used for "enhanced oil recovery," or in other words, it can be for hydraulic fracturing. Despite the fact that many environmentalists despise anything to do with fracking, this newfound interest in fuel cells keeps the Administration on track with its goal of adopting green-energy transportation. Besides, as green-car mandates go, it's a good insurance policy just in case the BEV segment falls flat on its face.

"The economics are looking good," the Secretary says about hydrogen-from-natural gas, "the carbon footprint looks much better."


John McElroyJohn McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit" and daily web video "Autoline Daily". Every month he brings his unique insights as a Detroit insider to Autoblog readers.



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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 36 Comments
      axiomatik
      • 2 Years Ago
      ugh. I am so sick of these conversations. Everyone is stuck in the petroleum mindset, where one fuel powers everything that moves. There is no reason why that has to be the case in the future. Cheap oil has made it ubiquitous as a fuel source. With increasing cost will come diversification. Why is everyone looking for a all-or-nothing solution? This is what I envision for the future. Electric cars (with batteries) make up a portion of the new car market, let's say 25%. BEVs won't be the solution for every vehicle, but a sizable portion of the population will find that it meets their needs. Maybe some portion of the new car market will be fuel-cell. Of course, there is a huge hurdle in that there is no refueling infrastructure. A portion of the car market will still be gas-driven. Having a large percentage of cars running on a non-petroleum fuel source will help lower oil prices. A sizable portion of the gas-driven vehicles may be hybrids or plug-in hybrids. Long-haul vehicles will continue to run diesel, or possibly run on LNG, since we have a glut of it now. The point is, there are many different possible solutions, and they can all work together in the future to fill different niches.
      mustang_sallad
      • 2 Years Ago
      did you seriously just say "hydrogen cars are just around the corner"?
      • 2 Years Ago
      [blocked]
        Letstakeawalk
        • 2 Years Ago
        Jay Leno loves his Volt, but he said, "I believe the hybrid is the way to go. The fully electric, to me, is not... [It is]...too limited at this point, and even though, you know, I find I can either take my wife to the Hospital, or I can go to the mall. You can't do both, in the same day." Sure, the BEV will have a place in the near future market. However, most automakers agree that the role of a BEV is as a short-range commuter. This allows a small battery, which minimizes the weight and the amount of time needed to recharge that battery. For longer distances, and larger vehicles, PHEVs will be a better solution, and ultimately, those PHEVs will have hydrogen fuel cells as range extenders.
          Val
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Letstakeawalk
          Jay Leno also said that he barely uses any gas, and gas is getting stale in his tank. Yes, if you have only 40 miles range, maybe you can only go to one or the other. Bur when you have 100, or 200 miles range, you can go to both. As much as I like Jay Leno's garage, the guy is a petrolhead through and through, you cannot expect him to imagine a life without gas. Besides, EVs have been on the market for 2 years, and people already start saying they will never work, because they are not seeing improvements? There wasn't much improvement in the first few years of the gas cars either, and it took a long time to make them work. VW is yet to introduce the electric golf, and Bosch and Samsung have a joint venture for automotive batteries, which no cars currently use. If those two giants are yet to get involved, you can imagine where price and performance will go from here. Also Continental AG is betting huge on lithium batteries.
      carguy1701
      • 2 Years Ago
      Battery electric vehicles will only gain mainstream acceptance when they have comparable range to a gasoline vehicle AND relatively quick charging times. However, I do not see that happening until long after everyone who comments on this site has passed on (our children might live to see them, assuming we do not blow ourselves up in the interim).
        alexlivefree
        • 2 Years Ago
        @carguy1701
        Apparently you do not read much about the advancements of this technology. Under 15 minute charge times will happen within our lifetime, and maybe within a decade.
        • 2 Years Ago
        @carguy1701
        [blocked]
      Ger
      • 2 Years Ago
      How about converting water to hydrogen on the fly while driving? Has anyone thought of that?!!! Its great to the that the f**king government want to still support oil companies even when theres other ways to get the same product. Im sorry but im not gonna drive a car with a hydrogen tank on it. Its a bomb waiting to go off. Thats why we convert water. Fracking is killing people and the environment and is being done by greedy gas companies and politicians. They can all go to hell.
      Lachmund
      • 2 Years Ago
      hydrogen fuel cells are the ONLY real alternative and the way to go...they combine the pros of electric (efficiency, longliveability, much torque) and gas (refuelability) powered cars. anyone denying that is clearly dellusional imho.
        otiswild
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Lachmund
        Hydrocarbon fuels are superior as far as energy density and fill rate go. Hydrocarbon-capable solid oxide fuel cells are a better fit for our existing infrastructure. H2 is merely an energy storage medium, and hydrocarbons store hydrogen more efficiently and densely. And any process that generates H2 could/should be used to create hydrocarbons from recycling atmospheric CO2.
      j K
      • 2 Years Ago
      Fracking is not a drilling technique, it's a stimulation/completion technique. Horizontal drilling is the new technology that has led to the great oil and gas boom this country is currently seeing. Hydrogen or CNG/LNG vehicles are the future. We have trillions, yes with a T, of cubic feet of natural gas in this country which is currently being over produced and kept at rock bottom prices. The vast amount of this clean burning natural resource is the answer. Couple that with a hybrid design and you have a 0 emissions vehicle that can actually make a road trip and be a primary vehicle for all americans. Best of all this will support the economy because we have such an abundant supply of nat gas in this country. I don't know if you've noticed, but all the regions with oil and gas plays at the moment, are booming in one of the worst economies in decades. This is all because the new horizontal drilling methods coupled with half century old fracking techniques.
      GasMan
      • 2 Years Ago
      Why would you turn the natural gas into hydrogen when you can make cars that burn natural gas?
        Dave
        • 2 Years Ago
        @GasMan
        Eventually, we will run out of natural gas. Hydrogen, OTOH, can be produced in abundance by high temperature steam electrolysis or by the SI process using next generation nuclear plants.
          Dave
          • 2 Years Ago
          @Dave
          "Both of which are accomplished at a net energy loss." Actually, STEAM electrolysis and the SI process both produce hydrogen more efficiently than a nuclear plant produces electridity. Do not confuse this with cold electrolysis - BIG DIFFERENCE.
        rlog100
        • 2 Years Ago
        @GasMan
        Depends on what happens to the Carbon when its removed. And the main stumbling block to electric vehicles is the storage of electricity. Hydrogen Fuel cells could theoretically encourage the development of electric cars so when miracle battery material X is discovered, fully developed electric vehicles are waiting.
        BryanGx
        • 2 Years Ago
        @GasMan
        Tank size, maybe. To get decent range in a natural gas powered car, the tank size needs to be huge. Like the natural gas busses with the big camel humps on top. The tank is almost as big as the cabin of the bus itself. Hydrogen packs more energy per unit of volume, so the tank size for a fuel cell vehicle would theoretically only be a fraction of the size of a natural gas vehicle.
          Letstakeawalk
          • 2 Years Ago
          @BryanGx
          A tank holding 6g compressed hydrogen can provide enough fuel to power a Toyota FCHV-adv for more than 400 miles, while maintaining the same internal space for passengers and cargo as a normal Highlander. http://www.nrel.gov/hydrogen/pdfs/toyota_fchv-adv_range_verification.pdf Compressed hydrogen tanks put a lot of energy in very little space, making them ideal for passenger vehicles.
          Smartalox
          • 2 Years Ago
          @BryanGx
          Actually, with liquefied natural gas storage, the range on natural gas vehicles is greatly enhanced. UPS operates a fleet of LNG powered transports on its LA to Las Vegas to Salt Lake City route. The re filling station is in Vegas. The advantage of fuel cell cars over hydrogen combustion cars is that fuel cells are much more efficient, develop more torque at low rpms, and with hybridization, can re-capture a portion of energy lost to braking without requiring the inclusion of a second powertrain. H2 ICE cars performance benefits from large displacement engines, which reduce fuel economy.
          BipDBo
          • 2 Years Ago
          @BryanGx
          Tanks need to be even bigger when using hydrogen.
          Val
          • 2 Years Ago
          @BryanGx
          Honda has a civic model that run on naturl gas, the GX NGV. It has a range of 200 miles. I don't know where is the tank, if it replaces the gasoline tank, there won't be any visible difference. If they keep the gasoline tank and have a separate pressure tank in the trunk, that would eat into luggage space, but not by much.
          Mulad
          • 2 Years Ago
          @BryanGx
          No.
          Letstakeawalk
          • 2 Years Ago
          @BryanGx
          That should read "A tank holding *6kg* compressed hydrogen can provide enough fuel to power a Toyota FCHV-adv for more than 400 miles" One omitted character, but a serious difference!
          Letstakeawalk
          • 2 Years Ago
          @BryanGx
          Axiomatic I am well aware of the info in the link I provided. I stand by my assertion that hydrogen tank size is a very minor packaging issue. "In terms of vehicle packaging, Toyota did not sacrifice any cargo or passenger space in the Highlander‐based FCHV‐adv. They used a vehicle glider from a standard Highlander (before the current model body change) and did not alter the interior volume or floor height. The floor/deck height in the FCHV‐adv is the same as the stock Highlander gasoline vehicle. The standard Highlander’s cargo space floor is higher in the rear than the passenger compartment to accommodate the spare tire, 3rd row seat, and gas tank. In the case of the FCHV, this area accommodates the high‐voltage battery and hydrogen tanks. The only packaging compromise appears to be sacrificing the spare tire, which normally sits in that volume." http://www.moteurnature.com/zvisu/2010/91/toyota-fchv-adv.jpg
      • 2 Years Ago
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      Jeff
      • 2 Years Ago
      I did a little research and came up with two links that I thought were impressive and wanted to share... "New fuel cell sewage gas station in Orange County, Ca may be world's first" http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news/local/orange_county&id=8310315 Photo's: World's largest fuel cell park open for business http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/intelligent-energy/photos-worlds-largest-fuel-cell-park-is-open-for-business/10391
      • 2 Years Ago
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