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

natural gas fire

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.