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New Science Needed to Achieve Hydrogen Economy, says APS Panel Report

Significant scientific breakthroughs are needed for President Bush's $1.2 billion Hydrogen Initiative to succeed, according to a recent report by the APS Panel on Public Affairs (POPA).

The Hydrogen Initiative, which Bush announced in his 2003 State of the Union Address, envisions competitive use of hydrogen in commercial transportation by 2020, reducing the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

The POPA report, released March 1, concludes that more basic scientific research is needed to reach that goal.

The report points out that there is no currently available means of efficiently, cleanly, and economically producing hydrogen. Current methods of hydrogen production are four times more expensive than gasoline. Also, a new material is needed to construct a hydrogen fuel tank that meets consumer benchmarks. "The most promising hydrogen engine technologies require factors of 10 to 100 improvements in cost or performance in order to be competitive."

Simple incremental advances cannot close these performance gaps, states the report. "The only possibility for narrowing the gap significantly is a program of high-risk/high-payoff basic science that is coupled to applied programs. The objective must not be evolutionary advances but revolutionary breakthroughs in understanding." To achieve these breakthroughs, more basic research is required. The Hydrogen Initiative places too much emphasis on demonstrations and not enough on basic science, says the POPA report.

The report notes that the nation's basic science agencies—the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy's Office of Science—did not receive support from the hydrogen initiative for FY'04. The FY'05 budget request does include $29 million for basic research in the Office of Science. The report calls this an improvement, but says it "still does not reflect adequate appreciation that the large performance gaps can only be reduced by major scientific breakthroughs."

In addition to a greater emphasis on basic research, the report calls for increased focus on "bridge technologies" such as hybrid gas/electric vehicles that can reduce pollution and dependence on foreign oil while competitive hydrogen vehicles are still being developed. "Bridge technologies would serve as a sensible hedge to the possibility that the 2020 goal may slip. "

This is not the first study to highlight the gap between current hydrogen technology and the goals of the Hydrogen Initiative. A report from the DOE Basic Energy Sciences Workshop released in 2003 also concluded that significant advances in basic science are needed (See APS News, November 2003). In February a National Research Council report made similar points, concluding that the development of hydrogen-powered cars would probably take longer than previously estimated.

In developing the POPA report, the authors reviewed analysis presented in the DOE and NRC reports and other sources.

The report does not imply that hydrogen engines will not work. With significant advances, the report states, "hydrogen has the potential to be economically produced in the future from renewable sources. If major scientific challenges to storage and use can be overcome, hydrogen fuel also has the potential for addressing the Administration's goal of enhancing energy security by reducing dependence on imported oil. Further, depending on the manner in which the hydrogen fuel is produced, hydrogen fuel can significantly reduce atmospheric release of carbon dioxide."

The full report is available at http://www.aps.org/policy/reports/popa-reports/index.cfm

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette