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R.I.P. hydrogen economy? Obama cuts hydrogen car funding

In the newly released budget, the U.S. Department of Energy cuts $100 million from the hydrogen fuel cell program in fiscal year 2010 and transforms its name to "fuel cell technologies." Hydrogen, of course, is just the fuel of a fuel cell—a device that recombines hydrogen and oxygen to produce water and electrical current. Still, the name change distances the Obama administration from the "hydrogen economy" goals of their predecessors.

"We asked ourselves, 'Is it likely in the next 10 or 15, 20 years that we will convert to a hydrogen car economy?' The answer, we felt, was 'No,'" said energy secretary Steven Chu in a briefing on the budget for reporters yesterday, citing the need for better fuel cells and a near complete lack of infrastructure.

The 2010 budget now gives some $68 million for ongoing fuel cell research, primarily focused on the devices serving in buildings and other applications, rather than cars, compared to $168 million for the hydrogen program in 2009.

The cut is fine with fuel cell component-maker BASF, which opened a new facility to manufacture membranes for high-temperature fuel cells in Somerset, N.J. this Wednesday—the 72nd anniversary of the Hindenburg disaster. The company is doing enough business in such fuel cells for backup electricity, for example, that it makes sense, according to spokesman Daniel Pepitone.

Many skyscrapers—and even homes—have such fuel cells today, but the prototype cars on the road—ranging from GM's fuel cell Chevy Equinox to BMW's hydrogen-burning 7 Series sedan—have proved too expensive so far to fulfill the Bush administration's dreams of a hydrogen car economy. Of course, the Bush administration also cancelled one of the centerpieces of said hydrogen economy—the FutureGen power plant that would have generated hydrogen (as well as eliminating carbon dioxide emissions)—with what turned out to be some bad math back in February 2008. Chu also said he would resuscitate that effort—for the CO2 component.

And despite more than 120 hydrogen stations nationwide—including those along a much-vaunted "Hydrogen Highway" in California—the filling stations, hydrogen-makers and other infrastructure to support such vehicles has been few and far between.

Image: The membrane electrode units pictured here are where the chemical reactions that produce energy from hydrogen take place. Courtesy of BASF

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