The DOE has announced a public-private program called H2USA aimed at getting government researchers to work with automakers to bring cheap hydrogen to the masses. Image: Flickr/Zero Emission Resource Organisation
In its push for putting zero-emission cars on the road, the Department of Energy is launching new programs to study the infrastructure needed to run vehicles on hydrogen.
"Recently, there's a renewed focus on getting these technologies out on the road and into the hands of consumers," said Daniel Dedrick, hydrogen and fuel cell program manager at Sandia National Laboratories.
Last week, Sandia signed a five-year memorandum of understanding with private research firm SRI International to collaborate on testing alternative fuels like natural gas and hydrogen in vehicles, breaking ground on a new testing facility called the Center for Infrastructure Research and Innovation (CIRI).
Two weeks earlier, DOE announced a public-private program called H2USA aimed at getting government researchers to work with automakers to bring cheap hydrogen to the masses.
Though battery-electric cars have lately driven fuel cells out of the spotlight, some technical advances in these systems have drawn more attention from manufactures like Ford and General Motors. "We've reduced the costs of fuel cells by more than 80 percent in the past decade," said Sunita Satyapal, director of the fuel cell technologies office in the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office at DOE.
Much of the cost savings came from using less platinum, a precious metal catalyst that helps pull electrons off hydrogen gas to generate an electric current. Current fuel cell designs use one-fifth of the platinum needed in their predecessors.
How do you deliver hydrogen?
On the fuel side, the boom in cheap natural gas has lowered the cost of hydrogen. Methane, the major component of natural gas, can form hydrogen via a process called steam reforming. "With natural gas, hydrogen can be competitive with gasoline," Satyapal said.
Vehicles running on hydrogen have also proved durable, with DOE's test fleet logging 3.5 million miles on the road, collecting performance data to refine future designs.
That leaves infrastructure as the missing link. Unlike with an electric car, most people won't fill their fuel-cell-powered cars in their garages, and corner gas stations aren't likely to add hydrogen pumps anytime soon.
"Refueling stations are more costly to build and operate than you would like," Dedrick said. "A lot of the challenge has to do with the uncertainty in the performance of these systems."
With gasoline, engineers have more than a century of experience extracting, refining, transporting and burning it. Hydrogen is still largely uncharted territory, and without a body of knowledge to draw on, engineers often end up over-designing fuel stations with stronger storage tanks and faster pumps than they would actually need, Dedrick explained.
"It ends up adding costs to the deployed infrastructure," he said.
Getting competitive with gasoline
The CIRI facility, in California's Livermore Valley, aims to resolve these issues. Intended as a collaboration facility, CIRI will provide a suite of tools to researchers and automakers, including a hydrogen fueling station.
The site also hosts other clean energy laboratories, and Dedrick expects to create a miniature fuel cell ecosystem, studying questions from how to generate hydrogen from renewable energy to how to integrate fueling stations into the electric grid.
The goal is to bring down the price of individual fueling stations rather than counting on economies of scale to incrementally drive down costs. By partnering with private companies, DOE hopes to speed up the process of getting research and development out into the real world. "I think in general, this is exactly the type of activity that lends itself to a public-private partnership," Satyapal said.