May 8, 2009

US Fuel Cell Research For Cars To Be Suspended

The U.S. energy secretary said on Thursday that cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells will not be practical over the next 10 to 20 years, and the government will cut off funds for the vehicles' development, The New York Times reported.

Such vehicles were once hailed by former President George W. Bush as a pollution-free solution for reducing the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

But Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced during energy-related details of the administration's budget for the year that developing those cells and coming up with a way to transport the hydrogen is a big challenge.

The government would prefer to focus on projects that would bear fruit more quickly, Dr. Chu said.

However, he stated that the Energy Department will continue to pay for research into stationary fuel cells, which Chu believes could be used like batteries on the power grid and do not require compact storage of hydrogen.

The energy secretary also announced the future establishment of eight "energy innovation hubs," small centers for basic research referred to as "Bell Lablettes."

Chu said they would be financed for five years at a time to lure more scientists into the energy area.

Dr. Chu, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in physics, said at a news conference that the Obama Administration was very devoted to delivering solutions, but it will require some basic science.

A previous Bush administration decision against restoring funds for FutureGen, a program to build a power plant prototype, will also likely be reversed, he added.

Such a plant would turn coal into gas and separate out the carbon dioxide"”a major contributor to the greenhouse gases that cause global warming"”and pump it underground. Then it would burn the nearly pollution-free hydrogen.

The former Bush administration had decided that an international partnership for construction of the site in Mattoon, Ill. would be too expensive and that the money should be spread among more projects.

Dr. Chu said the White House would also drop spending for research on the exploration of oil and gas deposits, as the industry itself has ample resources to conduct its own inquiries.

Steve Isakowitz, the department's chief financial officer, said that while the budget request for the Energy Department is $26.4 billion"”an increase of less than 1 percent"”actual spending would be far higher since some projects will be financed by the economic stimulus package.

Robert Alvarez, a former Energy Department official, pointed out that the budget still includes $6.4 billion for nuclear weapons and $4.4 billion for naval reactors, nuclear nonproliferation activity and safe storage of surplus plutonium.

"Weapons still make up the largest single expenditure," Alvarez said.

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