Fuel-cell research is worth risk -- National Academies report

A government-industry collaborative research program on advanced automotive technologies should continue to work on fuel cells and other far-off technologies, in addition to more immediately promising transportation options such as electric vehicles and biofuels, according to a review by the National Academies.

The FreedomCAR (Cooperative Automotive Research) and Fuel Partnership -- which includes the Energy Department, major automakers, five major oil and gas companies and two electric utilities -- performs a range of research and development on vehicle technologies.

Created in 2002 by the George W. Bush administration, the program initially focused primarily on fuel-cell systems that would use hydrogen to store energy. But in 2009, the Obama administration proposed zeroing out funding for the related DOE program -- a cut that Congress reversed through appropriations -- and pushed the FreedomCAR and Fuel Partnership to look at other emerging vehicle technologies.

An assessment published today by the academies' National Research Council repeated a message it sent a year ago in response to that change: Hydrogen and fuel-cell research is an appropriate task for the public-private research effort.

"Although it's important to work on near-term technologies, it's equally important for the partnership to perform the type of high-risk research in areas such as hydrogen that would not otherwise be taken on by the private sector, especially as the economy is still recovering," said Vernon Roan, who led the review and was director of the Center of Advanced Studies in Engineering at the University of Florida before his retirement.

The partnership has identified three primary pathways that the auto industry could follow in its technological development. Combustion engines could be improved and paired with biofuels; plug-in vehicles and battery-powered electric cars could shift part of the nation's transportation energy to the electric grid; or hydrogen could become a major transportation fuel through the adoption of fuel-cell vehicle technologies.

The new program evaluation says that in light of those options, "long-term, high-risk, high-payoff" research and development on fuel cells and hydrogen are an appropriate area for government support that might not be carried out otherwise.

The review recommends balancing that out with intensified research to improve high-energy batteries, both for plug-in and battery electric vehicles.

The review recommended closer work on a number of technical challenges related to advanced vehicles. Some of those include developing an approach to assess the safety of lithium-ion battery packs, researching battery recycling, renewing the program's focus on developing on-car hydrogen storage systems, and expanding assessments and comparisons of all the fuel-use scenarios envisioned by the program.

Click here to read the program assessment.

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