National Research Council Renews Support for Hydrogen Vehicle Research

The public-private partnership to develop vehicles that require less petroleum-based fuel and emit fewer greenhouse gases should continue to include fuel cells and other hydrogen technologies in its research and development portfolio, says a new report by the National Research Council. 

Although the partnership’s recent shift of focus toward technologies that could be ready for use in the nearer term–such as advanced combustion engines and plug-in electric vehicles–is warranted, R&D on hydrogen and fuel cells is also needed given the high costs and challenges that many of the technologies must overcome before widespread use.

The FreedomCAR (Cooperative Automotive Research) and Fuel Partnership is a research collaboration among the U.S. Department of Energy, the United States Council for Automotive Research–whose members are the Detroit automakers–five major energy companies, and two electric utility companies.  The partnership seeks to advance the technologies essential for components and infrastructure for a full range of affordable, clean, energy efficient cars and light trucks.

Until recently, the program primarily focused on developing technologies that would allow U.S. automakers to make production and marketing decisions by 2015 on hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles. These vehicles have the potential to be much more energy-efficient than conventional gasoline-powered vehicles, produce no harmful tailpipe emissions, and significantly reduce petroleum use. In 2009, the partnership changed direction and stepped up efforts to advance, in the shorter term, technologies for reducing petroleum use in combustion engines, including those using biofuels, as well as batteries that could be used in plug-in hybrid-electric or all electric vehicles.

"The FreedomCAR and Fuel Partnership has made significant progress in all of the technologies it is developing, including hydrogen-based technologies," said committee chair Vernon P. Roan, retired director of the Center of Advanced Studies in Engineering and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, University of Florida, Gainesville. "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."

The report, the third in a series of reviews on the FreedomCAR program, reiterates the findings of a letter report issued by the committee last year. At that time, the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2009 budget request to Congress essentially eliminated the hydrogen and automotive fuel-cell portions of the program in favor of developing nearer-term technologies. Congress has since reinstated most of that funding. The new report calls for the partnership’s sustained support of a balanced portfolio of nearer-term and longer-term options, including research on fuel cells and hydrogen technologies. This research could provide sufficient information for the auto industry to make decisions about the marketability of hydrogen-powered vehicles by 2015.

The partnership should also intensify long-term, high-risk research to improve materials and systems for high-energy batteries, both for plug-in and battery electric vehicles, the report says. This research has taken on a new importance in response to the Obama administration’s goal of putting 1 million plug-in hybrid electric vehicles on the road by 2015. The partnership’s budget for battery technologies has increased, with about 75% directed to near- and mid-term development. Although the fleet of commercial hybrid vehicles has grown dramatically and the commercial launch of plug-in hybrids is imminent, long-term, high risk research is still needed for these cars to meet the performance and cost goals set out by the partnership, the report says.


The report provides guidance for advancing research and development in several areas. Advancing combustion engines is "clearly important," the report says, since they will be dominant in the marketplace for many years or even decades. The partnership, which is focusing on developing technologies that can reduce fuel consumption, should also work with government researchers outside of the program who are studying biofuels.  In addition, assessment of energy sources and distribution methods should be expanded beyond hydrogen to include biofuels for advanced combustion engines and electricity generation and distribution requirements for plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles.

For battery or plug-in electric vehicles, lithium-ion battery technologies show promise for achieving performance requirements at lower costs than other battery systems, the report says. The partnership should investigate a standardized approach to evaluating the safety of these battery packs during vehicle operation as well as during charging, and initiate a research program for recycling of advanced batteries.

Fuel cells–along with the hydrogen they consume–have been a long-term focus of the partnership. However, despite significant progress in improving performance and decreasing costs, no single fuel-cell technology has been able to meet the partnership’s performance and cost goals, the report says. DOE should assess the progress of current fuel-cell technology pathways and ensure that there is adequate support for alternative pathways.

The ability to store hydrogen is one of the most critical components for enabling fuel-cell-powered vehicles. The partnership should ensure that hydrogen storage research continues to be funded, the report says. A goal of the program is developing a vehicle that can travel more than 300 miles between refuelings while meeting other requirements for vehicle cost, weight, packaging, and performance. More storage capability should be a primary focus of research; current high-pressure storage tanks work for some applications but do not meet program goals. Efficient, low-cost ways of producing, delivering, storing, and dispensing hydrogen will also be needed.

In addition, the materials team of the partnership should determine the most cost-effective way to cut the weight of hybrid and fuel-cell vehicles up to 50%, which is critical for reaching FreedomCAR goals for energy consumption and emissions.

The study was sponsored by U.S. Department of Energy. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.

Copies of Review of the "Research Program of the Freedomcar and Fuel Partnership, Third Report" at the link below.

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Comments on “National Research Council Renews Support for Hydrogen Vehicle Research”

  1. Greg Blencoe

    I believe hydrogen fuel cell vehicles do indeed have a very bright future.

    And I highly recommend checking out this article:

    “7 reasons to love Toyota hydrogen fuel cell vehicles”

    Here are 7 reasons to love Toyota hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (which the company started developing in-house back in 1992 when I was a senior in high school):

    1. 431-mile real-world driving range with Toyota FCHV-adv (mid-size SUV) hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (See the following YouTube video)

    2. 68.3 real-world miles per kilogram fuel economy with Toyota FCHV-adv (See the following YouTube video)

    3. Ability to operate in temperatures as low as minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 37 degrees Celsius)

    4. Irv Miller, TMS group vice president, environmental and public affairs, made the following comment on August 6th:

    “In 2015, our plan is to bring to market a reliable and durable fuel cell vehicle with exceptional fuel economy and zero emissions, at an affordable price.”

    5. Masatami Takimoto, a Toyota executive vice president and board member, made the following comment about hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in January 2009 at the North American International Auto Show:

    “By 2015, we will have a full-fledged commercialization effort.”

    6. The Toyota FCHV-adv (Highlander) hydrogen fuel cell vehicle has the same trunk and passenger space as the gasoline-powered version.

    Click on the following link to see a picture of the trunk in the Toyota FCHV-adv hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.

    7. Here is a comment made by Justin Ward, advanced powertrain program manager-Toyota Technical Center, in a Ward’s Automotive article (subscription required) that was published on July 16th:

    “We have some confidence the vehicle released around 2015 is going to have costs that are going to be shocking for most of the people in the industry. They are going to be very surprised we were able to achieve such an impressive cost reduction.”

    Greg Blencoe
    Chief Executive Officer
    Hydrogen Discoveries, Inc.
    Publisher, Hydrogen Car Revolution blog


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