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US Congress revives hydrogen vehicle research

House vote is set to put programme back on the road.

A prototype hydrogen-fueled vehicle from Honda. Credit: HONDA

US funding for hydrogen-fuelled transportation research got a boost on 17 July as the House of Representatives voted to restore $85 million to the research budget. The administration of President Barack Obama had proposed cutting the funds altogether.

In May, energy secretary Steven Chu sparked an uproar when he proposed slashing current spending on research into hydrogen-based energy technology by 60%, from $168 million this fiscal year to $68 million in 2010, and cutting funding entirely for work on hydrogen vehicles. Former president George W. Bush made hydrogen transportation a cornerstone of his energy research strategy, but Chu said biofuels and batteries offer a better short-term pathway to reducing oil use and greenhouse-gas emissions.

Advocates both among scientists and on Capitol Hill have rushed to defend the hydrogen programme in recent weeks. It seems to have worked: the House included a total of $153 million for hydrogen-energy research in its version of the 2010 energy and water spending bill.

In the Senate, appropriators have provided $190 million for hydrogen research — a 13% increase over the base budget for 2009 — although the full Senate has yet to take up the legislation. A final bill is unlikely to come for another few months, but some level of funding for hydrogen vehicle research is likely to survive.

Also last week, a National Research Council (NRC) panel weighed in on the debate with a preliminary report on the FreedomCAR and Fuel Partnership, a research consortium involving industry and government. The NRC committee endorsed the general thrust of the transportation research agenda of the Department of Energy (DOE) but said it is concerned about efforts to scale back work on hydrogen-fuelled transport. Citing the long-term potential of hydrogen fuel cells, the panel said it is not yet clear which vehicle technologies will prevail in the market.

"There was no disagreement on the DOE's approach to put more emphasis on nearer-term technologies, but we felt that the long-term, high-risk, high-payoff activities should not be abandoned, in particular those related to hydrogen fuel cells," says Vernon Roan, a retired professor from the University of Florida in Gainsville who chaired the panel.

Pat Davis, who manages the DOE's Vehicle Technologies Program in Washington DC, says the department requested the report to update its vehicle research plans. He called the report "highly favourable" in general, but acknowledged that the administration has a different view of hydrogen research.

Hydrogen fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity, producing only water vapour in the process, and they have already powered prototype vehicles. Fuel cells are expensive, however, as would be the infrastructure required to support large numbers of hydrogen-powered vehicles on the roads. And although renewable energy sources could be used to produce hydrogen, at present it is generally made from natural gas in a process that also produces greenhouse gases.

Nonetheless, hydrogen's advocates say they are making progress on all these fronts, in part thanks to support from within the DOE itself. Byron McCormick, who headed the fuel-cell programme at General Motors until he retired in January, was a member of the DOE's own technical advisory committee on hydrogen fuel cells. He resigned this spring, however, frustrated because Chu had not reached out to the committee before proposing to slash hydrogen research funding.

"I decided that I had better things to do with my time than communicate with somebody who didn't seem too interested," McCormick says. He points to ongoing research programmes in Europe and Japan and says he found it particularly "disconcerting" that the Obama administration would make such an assessment, despite its emphasis on clean energy. "It strikes me as rather bizarre that the United States would be the only country backing away from such initiatives," he says.

Patrick Serfass, a spokesman for the National Hydrogen Association in Washington DC, says the DOE's proposal to slash hydrogen research surprised both businesspeople and researchers. Hundreds of pilot fuel-cell vehicles are already on the roads, and major car-makers are preparing to roll out hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles by the middle of the next decade, he says.

"This decision was not really made with a lot of outside opinion or outside input from the industry," Serfass says.

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Tollefson, J. US Congress revives hydrogen vehicle research. Nature 460, 442–443 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/460442b

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