US says hydrogen fuel cell cars highly unlikely

12 September 2008 19:14  [Source: ICIS news]

WASHINGTON (ICIS news)--Prospects for successful commercialization of hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles (FCV) appear remote and face significant cost, structural and environmental challenges, the US Energy Department said on Friday.


In a study prepared for Congress, the department all but dismissed hydrogen fuel cells as a viable vehicle transportation power source, saying FCVs face significant technical, infrastructure and market challenges and would require massive capital investments to overcome those and even environmental obstacles.


The analysis noted that hydrogen is an energy carrier, like electricity, not an energy source and with current technology must be produced using hydrocarbon fuels.


“The main sources of hydrogen currently are hydrocarbon feedstocks, such as natural gas, coal and petroleum, all of which also produce CO2 [carbon dioxide],” the report noted. 


“Thus, in order for a hydrogen economy to produce overall CO2 emissions reductions, any hydrogen production process must mitigate CO2 emissions through carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) or similar technology,” which has yet to be proven viable.


“Although future breakthroughs in other hydrogen production technologies, such as nuclear thermochemical processes, could substantially lower life-cycle emissions, they still need considerable research and development (R&D) before widespread adoption,” the study said.


The department said that even if zero-emissions hydrogen production could be achieved, “substantially more hydrogen production capacity would have to be developed” at centralised locations across the US.  But that raises another problem.


“Although a centralized distribution system is likely to provide the most economical means of production, such an infrastructure will have to overcome significant cost and structural challenges to become economically viable,” the study said.


In addition, weight limitations for fuel cell vehicles mean that “efficient hydrogen storage is among the most challenging issues facing the hydrogen economy”.


“Hydrogen storage costs for [onboard vehicle] fuel cells must fall to about $2 per kilowatt hour from the current estimate of about $8 per kilowatt hour for a system with a pressure of 5,000 pounds per square inch.”


“Perhaps the biggest impediments to a hydrogen economy require resolution of technical, economic and safety challenges related to the FCVs themselves,” the department said.


“The cost of the fuel cells must fall to $30 per kilowatt compared with current cost estimates of $3,000 to $5,000 per kilowatt for production in small numbers,” the report notes, adding: “Accomplishing a reduction in fuel cell costs to $30 per kilowatt … would represent technological learning and progress at rates that would be unprecedented for consumer durables.”


The complete DOE study, “The Impact of Increased Use of Hydrogen on Petroleum Consumption and Carbon Dioxide Emissions,” is available on the department’s Web site.


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By: Joe Kamalick
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