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The Four Challenges

The Four Challenges

Editor's Note: This excerpt concerning "the four most fundamental technological and economic challenges" to hydrogen-fueled transportation appears in The Hydrogen Economy: Opportunities, Costs, Barriers, and R&D Needs (The National Academies Press, 2004), pages 116-117. The report is available online.

Abbreviated excerpt

  1. To develop and introduce cost-effective, durable, safe, and environmentally desirable fuel cell systems and hydrogen storage systems.

  2. To develop the infrastructure to provide hydrogen for the light-duty-vehicle user.

  3. To reduce sharply the costs of hydrogen production from renewable energy sources, over a time frame of decades.

  4. To capture and store ("sequester") the carbon dioxide by-product of hydrogen production from coal.

Full excerpt

Research and Development Priorities
There are major hurdles on the path to achieving the vision of the hydrogen economy; the path will not be simple or straightforward. Many of the committee's observations generalize across the entire hydrogen economy: the hydrogen system must be cost-competitive, it must be safe and appealing to the consumer, and it would preferably offer advantages from the perspective of energy security and CO2 emissions. Specifically for the transportation sector, dramatic progress in the development of fuel cells, storage devices, and distribution systems is especially critical. Widespread success is not certain.

The committee believes that for hydrogen-fueled transportation, the four most fundamental technological and economic challenges are these:

  1. To develop and introduce cost-effective, durable, safe, and environmentally desirable fuel cell systems and hydrogen storage systems. Current fuel cell lifetimes are much too short and fuel cell costs are at least an order of magnitude too high. An on-board vehicular hydrogen storage system that has an energy density approaching that of gasoline systems has not been developed. Thus, the resulting range of vehicles with existing hydrogen storage systems is much too short.

  2. To develop the infrastructure to provide hydrogen for the light-duty-vehicle user. Hydrogen is currently produced in large quantities at reasonable costs for industrial purposes. The committee's analysis indicates that at a future, mature stage of development, hydrogen (H2) can be produced and used in fuel cell vehicles at reasonable cost. The challenge with today's industrial hydrogen as well as tomorrow's hydrogen is the high cost of distributing H2 to dispersed locations. This challenge is especially severe during the early years of transition, when demand is even more dispersed. The costs of a mature hydrogen pipeline system would be spread over many users, as the natural gas system is today. But the transition is difficult to imagine in detail. It requires many technological innovations related to the development of small-scale production units. Also, nontechnical factors such as financing, siting, security, environmental impact, and the perceived safety of hydrogen pipelines and dispensing systems will play a significant role. All of these hurdles must be overcome before there can be widespread hydrogen use. An initial stage during which hydrogen is produced at small scale near the small user seems likely. In this case, production costs for small production units must be sharply reduced, which may be possible with extended research.

  3. To reduce sharply the costs of hydrogen production from renewable energy sources, over a time frame of decades. Tremendous progress has been made in reducing the cost of making electricity from renewable energy sources. But making hydrogen from renewable energy through the intermediate step of making electricity, a premium energy source, requires further breakthroughs in order to be competitive. Basically, these technology pathways for hydrogen production make electricity, which is converted to hydrogen, which is later converted by a fuel cell back to electricity. These steps add costs and energy losses that are particularly significant when the hydrogen competes as a commodity transportation fuel—leading the committee to believe that most current approaches—except possibly that of wind energy—need to be redirected. The committee believes that the required cost reductions can be achieved only by targeted fundamental and exploratory research on hydrogen production by photobiological, photochemical, and thin-film solar processes.

  4. To capture and store ("sequester") the carbon dioxide by-product of hydrogen production from coal. Coal is a massive domestic U.S. energy resource that has the potential for producing cost-competitive hydrogen. However, coal processing generates large amounts of CO2. In order to reduce CO2 emissions from coal processing in a carbon-constrained future, massive amounts of CO2 would have to be captured and safely and reliably sequestered for hundreds of years. Key to the commercialization of a large-scale, coal-based hydrogen production option (and also for natural-gas-based options) is achieving broad public acceptance, along with additional technical development, for CO2 sequestration.

For a viable hydrogen transportation system to emerge, all four of these challenges must be addressed.


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