Thursday, July 2, 2015

Where the hydrogen fuel cell car came from -- and is it gone forever?

You may recall the Clinton-Gore Partnership for a Next Generation Vehicle, and the belief that hydrogen fuel cell cars are our best hope for a sustainable future.  Some folks in Congress have ideas for how to get that back on track. I recently wrote to one of them, on the real story of where that idea came from... and on what hopes we now have. Slightly sanitized:

I apologize for not reaching out to you more, for a quiet private discussion of what we really know on the issue of hydrogen fuel cells. I have lived the issue for more than 30 years, and have a voluminous electronic library on that subject, with many documents that never made it to publication.

When I was lead analyst for transportation at EIA, basically no one had ever heard of PEM fuel cells. There was a review report on fuel cells funded by Jordy's group at DOE basic energy sciences; the chapter on PEM, by Appleby, emphasized several basic show-stoppers that would have to be answered by breakthroughs to make them potentially useful. As the money for PEM fuel cells expanded, Appleby became more active on them, but I still remember his relatively late talk at National Hydrogen Association (which he pioneered behind the scenes) arguing that a different type of fuel cell, the alkaline fuel cell, which virtually got lost in the big government funding efforts, had far more hope to be useful.

I was one of the three people who actually led the way in bringing PEM fuels out of obscurity, when they were a small program in obscurity at Los Alamos, into the national limelight. I was an incredible learning experience for me at the front lines of this to see how legitimate good intentions, harnessed to a huge national interest, can get modified by today's big donor and stakeholder system, in a way that gets negative value for money, defeats the original objectives, and can even become obsolete due to new opportunities elsewhere. 

Ironically, I learned of the small Los Alamos effort from the "first new conference on return to the Moon," about 1980. The folks who designed the Apollo moon buggy had a section on new small and efficient steam reformer for methanol they had developed, and on how it opens up the door to using methanol as a carrier of hydrogen for PEM fuel cell cars on earth. That was basically part of a $1 million per year earmark program out of another part of DOE, closer to Phil Patterson, who was then a friend in the DOE EERE section.

After I learned more, I wrote a paper for the SAE session led by Barry McNutt (of the DOE policy office), which was important in stimulating initial interest in many quarters, as well as intense opposition form a certain oil company consulting operation. The three people who lifted this idea out of its initial obscurity were me, Al Sobey (Then Division Director for Advanced Products at GM), and Father George of Georgetown, who got an earmark for a PEM fuel cell bus. The initial paper was enough to arouse the interest of Bob Williams, for example (who cited it for a long time, acknowledging what got his group started), but also was the platform for my later efforts involving GM, the Reagan/Bush White Houses, and then later some friends in Tennessee who contacted Gore's group and played a crucial role in the PNGV initiative (for which I was one of the speakers at the White House inaugural event).

The Ballard company of Canada plays a crucial role in most stories of how PEM fuel cells could become useful in cars, but Ballard himself was deeply disappointed when the politrics under Gore started pulling things off track, away from reality and away from economic sense.

One of the biggest problems was the political pressure to shift away from methanol as a hydrogen carrier to hydrogen or natural gas, under very heavy political and ideological pressure, which Gore caved into. the fuel problem was an inconvenient truth of the first magnitude.

Back when LANL proposed a true steam reformer, with only 15 percent energy loss from methanol to hydrogen on board a car, that was one thing. But when the natural gas lobby sold him on the idea that "a reformer isn't really a reformer, that's just a semantic problem we will will be happy to correct for you", and then Gore touted a natural gas combustion-to-hydrogen system with 40 percent losses as the great scientific breakthrough of the century,  the doom of PNGV became inevitable. (Though I ran the small NSF branch of the PNGV initiative, under very different terms, through SBIR,  far more successful for far less money.)  Would it really be a great breakthrough for energy efficiency and sustainability to just add 40% to the energy losses in vehicles? What's next? An even greater breakthrough which triples energy losses, enriching favored stakeholders?

But wouldn't it be just great if prominent experts hired by those stakeholders told you not to worry your pretty little head about such technicalities, just trust THEM? (And enrich them.)

Hydrogen was another phenomenon. I have to admit that I was blind-sided by the political success (for many years) of the hydrogen PEM car movement. That's because working at EIA I had access on data on the cost of making fuels (hydrogen is always MADE on earth), and couldn't imagine people fighting to pay ten times as much per btu or per mile. If you start from coal or natural gas or biomass, it's crystal clear that you get a lot more methanol, more cheaply, with less environmental degradation, than taking it by way of hydrogen. I have seen the demos of those bright creative ideas for converting wind energy to hydrogen, and from there back to electricity... losing half the energy in the process, when a simple battery costing less loses only about 10%. What's the environmental imperative to waste energy?   

Of course, methanol has a chicken and egg challenge, but hydrogen has far worse, so what could possess people to support hydrogen?

Many folks I know came around to the belief that the oil industry decided to support the hydrogen+PEM mantra, because it was a good way to get troublemakers sent off to hydrogen monasteries where it would always be "tomorrow" and "demos" but never get in the way of the real world of hard core gasoline. Many chief economists of oil companies said that methanol would be a better way, but the PR people and the international political operations people are far more visible in Washington than the real economists. It may not be a coincidence that the DC folk decided that the Exxon Reston people should be shipped away to a place less visible in this area. (Some were my friends back in EIA days, though I left DOE for good in 1989.)

Romm of the DOE hydrogen effort did a great job in exposing something that really cried out to be exposed. 

There was one other serious problem with PEM fuel cells. I get part of the blame myself for not catching it earlier. I was really new to government back when this started. I read the LANL reports, and noticed a problem with hydrogen peroxide formation. "Don't worry," said the guy from LANL, "That's a pretty straightforward technical problem, and we think we have ways we can solve it, if we are funded to do so." Best information available to me now says they still haven't solved it. There is a kind of "abstract true efficiency" of maybe 60% for these fuel cells, versus a "present whole systems efficiency of 35%." 

That 35% is what you should actually compare to the Atkins engine in the Prius, or the Volt equivalent -- just over 30%. The PEM offers maybe 4 points more efficiency... but only versus pure hydrogen; all hydrogen carrying systems ever developed would have losses large enough to make PEM fuel cell cars WORSE than existing PHEVs like Volt and Prius, even just considering efficiency from gas station to wheels. (Sobey's current wells to wheels calculations show PEM cars as far worse.")

Note what I am saying here: existing cheaper hybrid cars give more miles per BTU of fuel from the gas station, for a wide variety of cheaper fuels at the gas station.

What of CO2? Carbon neutral biofuels (such as algae fuel) do just as well as hydrogen based systems by that criterion as well.

We have enough really pressing challenges already to shift the cars to viable sustainable technology, without wasting scarce money and energy on things which would make the problems worse!

At NSF, I did my best to be "above the fray" on these issues, subject to not totally throwing money away. So the last thing I did with fuel cells was fund a project at Penn State, under Sen and Irquidi-MacDonald demonstrating a path to creating a carbon-tolerant ALKALINE fuel cell, with REAL efficiency of 60%. (Their final report is posted at If that works, then, combined with the LANL steam reformer, it really could get almost double the miles per gallon of methanol as a Prius operating on liquid fuel. If anyone in Congressa wants to do something with fuel cells in transportation with a real chance of being useful someday,  THAT would be the best starting point. Risky, hard but possible.

By the way, as I walked out of the White House grounds for the PNGV inauguration, Henry Kelley gave me a quiet "word to the wise" or "sad feedback". Roughly, "You have to understand that our goal is to sell this program. Talking about the unmet technical challenges is not part of that. We need supporters here, for this program." At NSF, we did fund work aimed at unsolved technical problems here, but in all fairness the fundamental problems in batteries (which we also funded) turned out to be more tractable, at least in the political environment. 

Later, when I informed a colleague at NSF of the (limited by encouraging) success at Penn State, he replied, "But you don't understand. The money of for PEM fuel cells. That's been decided at higher levels. I can't do alkalines just because they WORK." Unfortunately, technical mismanagement by micromanagement became much worse than that after that, and that guy retired in response.

Sadly, the best technical option to do what PEM was supposed to do, but better, is a kind of advanced Stirling engine, which Sobey is very much on top of, even though he retired from GM. He has asked me to visit Michigan, Kettering, at their expense, to discuss it. 

There is a clear path to 50-55 percent efficiency, but combined with incredible fuel flexibility and immediate manufacturability in existing underutilized engine factories. But the inventor is very deeply pissed off at the immoral things DOE tried to do to him earlier (trying to steal his technology and give it to big stakeholders who didn't understand it) that it will be hard to actually get it. The technical reality is very clear, and his past inventions and patent prove that to my satisfaction and to that of Sobey, but making up for past DOE arrogance may or may not be an unsurmountable problem.

It's a v ery good thing that Secretary Paul Chu cancelled the big hydrogen initiative, as it was, under Obama.

Anyway, I am sorry this is so long.

I would be happy to come visit any time, and listen quietly to your questions. I have fond memories of that coffee place I went to every day, along the corridor from Dirksen to Hart at ground level, back when I worked for Specter's office.

Perrsonally, I am much more worried about climate change than anyone else you have met (and I know that is a strong statement), but I don't see hydrogen PEM as a way to address the urgency and size of the problem. 

Best regards,



Additional comment: in September 2007, I worked with MIT to organize a workshop on a new approach to accelerating development of new batteries, using new methods which might have had a chance to revisit some of the key technical issues of PEM fuel cells with more hope of success.  But when it came time in 2009 to actually implement a new battery initiative... a certainly friendly guy from DOE helped out in a pinch, and moved things in a radically different direction, not unlike what infuriated Johansson.   He also made sure that DOE treated the inventor of the first rechargeable lithium-air battery (which passed cycling tests at Argonne for more than 100 cycles, with a clear path to do more) was treated the same way that Johansson was. (For more on that battery, see


Another additional comment: news from Greece is very worrisome, and logically connected to the concerns above.  Six days ago, I posted a comment on this to the Energy Consensus group which addresses issues of energy security in the US, above all:

Will we be able to develop any of the technologies we need soon enough, completely enough, to prevent the nasty kind of supercrash that folks like Forrester envisioned years ago -- complicated by nuclear and environmental things which would turn it into an extinction event?

I try hard not to be pessimistic, but our chances of survival will be a lot less if we don't face up to how tough the situation really is. And it mostly seems to keep getting worse; it still reminds me of a science fiction novel, The City at the End of Time, by Bear, in which one rampart falls after another, but by bit. Events in the Middle East are part of it, but certainly not the whole main event in themselves.

One piece of bad news --  it does not look as if China will be pointing the way to transportation energy security after all. Yes, the BYD Qin and its siblings has real potential to make huge inroads versus GM and Ford, through another :sudden tipping point in the market, but even so it will take a long time before PHEVs take up half of the new car market in the US, and twenty years more before the auto fleet turns over. A few little things will be happening in the world before then...

But in China: Methanol Policy Forum 2014 has an update which is much less encouraging than the talks in the previous forum were.

In the previous forum, it was noted that new cars can have GEM60 flexibility at VERY little cost -- only the choice of hoses and gaskets, not other changes in engines or even controls.  If an entire NATION could get 60% of its liquid fuels from corrosive sources (flexibly), the immediate benefits to energy security would be huge. Brazil shifted from circa 1/4 GE fuel flexibility to circa 3/4 in just a year or tw0, showing how quick and easy and painless the transition can be, if there is a decision to do it. Plainly, there was not such a resolve in China. The new administration under Xi Jinping (with NDRC guidance) has also cut back on China's version of renewable fuel standards and incenives for electrification.

Why? That's hard to know. The previous number two guy, Li, was a great supporter of... his own name... and maybe it is as simple as loss of a champion, for electricity. But what of coal and methanol? Don't they have some clout in China?

What of the military in China? Clancy's novel Threat Vector has major limitations, but I hope some of those people are smart enough to read it. I assume they note the point that China's biggest vulnerability in a conflict with the US is the ease of anyone cutting off the straits of Malacca and blocking the oil which China is hopelessly dependent on still. Don't they appreciate the externalities here, just for their national security? Or are they weaker in China than we imagine?

But a lot may be simply mindset. The presentation for China was very positive in its rhetoric (as is habitual in government propaganda worldwide). They say they are expanding many-fold the early successful test demos using methanol fuel.  But when you start with just a few thousand vehicle,s it takes a lot more than a couple of doublings to amount to anything. It reminds me of the ways in which the Electrification Coalition plans for us to spend billions in nice politically correct demo projects in urban areas, making lots of connections with local pols, and how they even fooled Fred Smith into supporting their ambitions...  when Brazil showed how the real auto industry could move a whole lot faster without any of the waste, the barnacles, of such politicized approaches. So maybe the mindset in China favors such approaches, and maybe the Chinese military does never understand that they could actually move as fats as Brazil on GEM60 flexibility if they simply chose to.  Some people call the OPen Fuel Standard bills which came to our Congress a "socialist style mandate" but they are no more socialist than standards for digital TV; they would allow a vast market-based approach, to move us ahead by decades in any area where we desperately need to buy more time... and so market-based that China does not seem to see what a great option it would be even for them. Natoinwide GEM60 flexibility would be a huge boon to folks ready to sell a broad range of alternate fuels, on a competitive market-based basis.

In the face of governments screwing up all over the world, I certainly have remembered the "good parts" of Atlas Shrugged, which suggests a different pathway to trying to save something. Saving a small economy in the Rockies really wouldn't save even that valley from the H2S pollution coming our way, but at least SOME of the critical new technology might come on line... the sooner the better.

I was very amused a couple of years ago to see how the positive parts of Atlas Shrugged might possible be as realistic concretely as the bad real parts about the agents of ruthless corporate welfare in Washington. More precisely -- a new engine developed in part as a spinoff of a guy who was former division director for advanced products at GM, which could be used in time to fund more radical technologies 'way beyond the government's appetite for risk. It's a real-life story, and I have given lots of slides on the main high-level details. But at the end of the day -- the most crucial player, a guy named Lennart Johansson, reminds me of the stories I have heard about Albert Einstein; folks I have met who knew Einstein well say he was of course as brilliant and unique as we imagine, but also downright autistic. It's something about dominance of the right side of the brain  giving great powers of visualization and science, but absolute insanity in human relations. I am convinced he could demonstrate a manufacturable 50-to-55 percent efficient Stirling engine in less than three years, as he claims,  and I know the basics of how he would do it (lots of due diligence), but it seems unlikely that he would accept anything less than a total gift of $10 million in exchange for almost nothing. Properly led, the technology could make him a billionaire (which he could be well on track to being by now, based on deals he was offered) -- but I guess I can console myself with the thought that his personality is ever so similar to that of the Koch brother's father, and maybe it's just as well that we don't double that particular empire. Also, while this engine would allow us to cut in half the cost of electricity form large solar farms, it might also delay the ultimate dominance of electrification, by providing a high efficiency alternative, similar in a way to diesel but with much less environmental issues and absolute fuel flexibility.  

So what has been lost?

The news this week is not so encouraging for the world economy. Many say that the predicted crash of banks in Greece may only be a few days away now. So many people fantasize that this is only about Greece or only about the euro, but employment in Spain is already a nonsustainable sitruation, France is hurting, and the real issue is continent-wide aggregate demand and depression. 

 **IF** a new Stirling engine had allowed solar electricity from large solar farms at an unsubsized cot of 10 cents per kwh or less, and if there had then been more reason to push the options decsribed in,, then the risk of depression in the EU wuld be far less, euro or no euro (though it's a lot easier to save with a euro in place). So many self-proclaimed grand statesmen of the economy fail to understand how huge an impact could come form more profitable investment in just one sector, energy. If feed-in tariffs at 15 cents per kwh (and higher tariffs abolished) kicked in AND if the new 10 cents or less technology became available, the private sector could move very quickly to invest many billions, and create the jobs which are urgently needed in southern Europe WITHOUT sending more money to governments like that of Greece. But alas... because of one autistic old guy... and the pride of the world in not accommodating him... well, it doesn't look good in the near-term for the EU economy either.

Or for China. The new measures announced there sound a lot like trying to imitate what the Fed did for the US over the past few years. Maybe their failure to move efficiently on fuel flexibility is due to the old syndrome of having too much faith in folks slavishly following what they learned in schools in the US, without as much creativity as the stated policy calls for.

And then here... some on the right are saying our economic problems are all due to the failures of the fed.  But the Fed has been clear for a long time that they have only limited ability to prevent depression when fiscal policy itself is screwed up. As sequestration starts to loom very large... and none of the really plausible, sustainable paths to prevent it seem politically feasible (closing those nonproductive tax loopholes most coveted by vested interests, or deeper cuts in cost per value in medical expenses)... of course we should not assume the fed can save us. Maybe vast new private energy investments beyond the existing limited fracking kinds of stuff could so it... again like but only if we develop the requisite technology, which also does not seem in the cards. Even improving the technology per dollar ratio for agencies like NASA seems to be anathema to very powerful vested interests, and if we don't make massive changes in such areas soon..

Well, who knows?

Though some hope still exists, and I try to follow up on some of them... the most optimistic movie I have seen this year was Interstellar...

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