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Revolutionary Breakthroughs Needed for Hydrogen Economy

By Susan Ginsberg

A report indentifying the basic research necessary to make possible a competitive hydrogen economy was released by the Department of Energy's Office of Science in late August. "Basic Research Needs for the Hydrogen Economy" summarizes the findings of a Basic Energy Sciences "Workshop on Hydrogen Production, Storage and Use" convened in May with the express purpose of identifying the research advances necessary to enable cost-efficient use of hydrogen as a fuel. The workshop was chaired by Mildred Dresselhaus of MIT, a former Director of the Office of Science, and a former President of the American Physical Society.

The report identifies six cross-cutting areas as critical research directions, including catalysis; nanostructured materials; membranes and separations; characterization and measurement techniques; theory, modeling and simulation; and safety and environmental issues. The report also names biological and bio-inspired science as promising approaches for progress. Simple incremental advances in the present state of the art are not enough to bridge the gap between what is now known about hydrogen production, storage and use, and what is required by a hydrogen economy; therefore, says the report, "the objective of [a research program] must not be evolutionary advances but revolutionary breakthroughs."

"There's a huge gap between where we are now and where we need to be in terms of the knowledge base for the hydrogen economy," says Dresselhaus. "Some very radical ideas are needed to advance the field, and that points to basic research."

These breakthroughs can only come with cross-pollination between research fields, believes George Crabtree of Argonne National Laboratory, Associate Chair of the BES Workshop. "A lot of people are doing work that might be relevant to hydrogen research but is not labeled that way. We're trying to bring all these people together, and we want to make the basic energy research community aware of the opportunities in hydrogen research."

Progress can't be made just by established professionals in established fields, either, continues Crabtree. "The research tools are there and those tools weren't there ten years ago, but there is a critical need to bring more students into the fields related to hydrogen research, such as chemistry, physics, electro-chemistry, nanoscience, and other cross-cutting research areas. These are real growth-potential fields."

The BES Workshop included 120 participants from academia, industry and the national laboratories, as well as from the Offices of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Fossil Energy and Nuclear Energy (DOE). The full 175-page report, including 65 pages outlining high-priority research directions, can be found at www.sc.doe.gov/bes/hydrogen.pdf.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette