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Was Senator Matsunaga Right About Hydrogen After All?

April 4, 2013

DoE Fuel Cell VehicleFor those unaware, former U.S. Senator from Hawaii and visionary Spark Masayuki Matsunaga spent 28 years in Congress and passed away on April 15, 1990. Spark was instrumental in passing legislation for civil rights, reparations for Japanese Americans interned during World War II, space exploration, renewable energy resources, and peace which resulted in the establishment of the U.S. Institute of Peace.”[1]

Spark_MatsunagaThe link between former Sen. Matsunaga and hydrogen is bound in his “vision that renewable energy could provide a sustained source of non-polluting energy and that such forms of alternative energy might ultimately be employed in the production of liquid hydrogen as a transportation fuel and energy storage medium available as an energy export.”[2] His efforts led to the passage of the Hydrogen Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1990. [3]

The act “found that it was in the national interest to accelerate efforts to develop a domestic capability to economically produce hydrogen in quantities that will make a significant contribution toward reducing the Nation’s dependence on conventional fuels. It expanded Department of Energy (DoE) research, development and demonstration activities to hydrogen production, high density storage technologies, small-scale reformer development for distributed power applications and fuel cell vehicles. Furthermore, the act authorized appropriations in the amounts of $184 million.

No other fuel offers hydrogen’s promise of an inexhaustible, continuous, pollution free and cheap source of energy. Hydrogen fueled vehicles are the ultimate EV. Major difference is using water from the faucet rather than electrons from a plug to run the vehicle.

The fuel cell, which pre-dates the internal combustion engine and the electric motor, has been understood since the first half of the 19th century.  Yet, for fuel cell propulsion systems to reach their potential, significant technical challenges have to be overcome, including: size and weight reduction, rapid start-up and transient response capability, fuel processing development, manufacturing cost reduction, complete fuel cell system integration, and durability and reliability demonstration. Non-technical barriers to fuel cell vehicle commercialization include capital investment for large-scale fuel cell vehicle production, an alternative fuel infrastructure, consumer awareness, industry standards for mass production and servicing, and safety regulations.

By the early 2000’s, the George W. Bush Administration’s vision of hydrogen future of fuel cell powered vehicles led the DoE and the Hydrogen Technical Advisory Panel,  comprised of representatives from domestic industry, universities, professional societies, Government laboratories, financial, environmental, and other organizations, to develop program objectives and milestones[4]:
• 0.5 quads of energy from hydrogen by 2000
• 4 quads of energy from hydrogen by 2010
• 10 quads of energy from hydrogen by 2030.

(A quad is a unit of energy equal to 10exp15 (a short-scale quadrillion) BTU, or 1.055 × 10exp18 joules.)

Figure 1 shows FY 2000 – 2013 DOE Budget Request to Congress in constant 2013 dollars for wind (blue), hydrogen (red), biomass (green) and solar (purple).[5]  The relevant point of the graph is the relatively wide swings in allocations by the DoE for hydrogen and fuel cell research, development and demonstration programs. The mid 2000’s were great years for hydrogen programs. Otherwise, biomass and solar energy and to some extent wind power took precedence over investigations into hydrogen technologies.

This roller coaster ride in U.S. government support for fuel cells is best exemplified by two announcements from the DoE. On May 8, 2009, The New York Times reported that the U.S. Drops Research into Fuel Cells for cars.[6] Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells would not be practical over the next 10 to 20 years.  He reasoned that “developing those cells and coming up with a way to transport the hydrogen is a big challenge…”

Then on March 7, 2013, the DoE announced that it will reverse the course and encourage hydrogen investments.  Rick James of Digital Trends reported “The Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, even went so far as to call hydrogen fuel cells an “important technology” at the 2013 Washington D.C. Auto Show. The DoE will soon launch a hydrogen-promoting campaign tentatively called H2USA, according to an Automotivenews report. The program will compile a list of automakers eager to see hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles on the open market in the near future.’[7]

Figure: 1 DoE Budget Allocations FY 2000 – FY 2013

DoE Budget Allocations 2000 - 2013 (constant $).jpg

1. Constant FY 2013 dollars from CPI Inflation calculator:
2. Hydrogen includes Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies
3. Biomass includes Biomass and BioRefinery RD&D
4. Solar includes Concentrating Solar Power, PV Energy Systems and Solar Building Technology Research.
5. FY 2000 – 2011 numbers from “Current Appropriation” column –  Budget Year  +2 Request to Congress
6. FY 2012 numbers from “Enacted” column FY 2013 Budget Request to Congress
7. FY 2013 numbers from “Request” column FY 2013 Request to Congress.

Figure 2 shows the total US energy consumption from 1994-2003 in quads. In 2000, the first key milestone shown above, the U.S. economy consumed about 100 quads of energy.[8]

Figure 2: Total US Energy Consumption 1994-2003

QUads of Energy

Figure 3 shows the U.S. Energy Flow for 2000 by source and sector.It is plainly obvious that hydrogen as a source of energy was not on the map. Petroleum, coal and natural gas standout as the primary source of energy consumed in the US economy! As a side note, the chart shows U.S. net petroleum imports of about 59 % in 2000. Also, U.S. net natural gas imports were shown to be about 15 % in 2000. Charts 2 and 3 are courtesy of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the DoE.[9]

Figure 3: U.S. Energy Flow—2000

U.S. Energy Flow Chart FY 2000 LLNL

Figure 4 shows hydrogen resources neither reached the second national milestone nor entered into the energy pathway into any degree whatsoever.   Data from the EIA, indicates U.S. net petroleum imports of about 40% in 2012.[10] U.S. net natural gas imports were about 6% in 2012.[11]

Figure 4: Estimated U.S. Energy Flow—2011

US Energy Flow Chart 2011 LLNL

“While fuel cell vehicles remain limited today, with no passenger cars on sale and primarily demonstration-driven roll-outs of buses, these two applications plus growth in the materials handling industry will grow fuel cell vehicles to a $1.8 billion market in 2030 at a CAGR of 22 percent, according to a Lux Research report. Sales of passenger cars and forklifts will drive this growth.”[12]

Fuel Cell Review reports that annual fuel cell system shipments in 2011 were 24,600; growing by 39% compared to 2010, led by increases in the stationary power sector, see Figure 5.[13] Annual shipments of fuel cell systems are projected to triple to reach a total of over 78,000 for the full year 2012. Annual megawatts shipped are expected to grow by over 60%, to around 176 MW, see Figure 6. The report also states that by the end of 2011, 215 hydrogen refueling stations were in operation worldwide with twelve new stations being added that year. The stations are located in Europe (85), North America (80), Asia Pacific (47) and the Rest of the World (3).”

Figures 5 and 6

Shipments by Fuel Cell Type 2008 - 2011


In spite of hydrogen’s difficult and erratic journey, trumpets herald earlier this month with Hyundai’s launch of the first production hydrogen fuel cell cars. “Mass-produced, hydrogen-powered cars were once called the wave of the distant future. Hyundai just advanced the timetable as the first production Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell crossovers rolled off the production line in Ulsan, Korea, earlier this year. It’s based on the small crossover called the Hyundai Tucson in the US. The ix35/Tucson Fuel Cell converts hydrogen to electricity to power electric motors, rather than burning hydrogen in place of gasoline as BMW has done with its internal combustion hydrogen cars. Either way, the only emission is water vapor.”[14]

As previously mentioned, several challenges impede the adoption of hydrogen powered vehicles, including: onboard hydrogen storage, vehicle cost, fuel cell durability and reliability, distribution, competition with other technologies, safety and public acceptance. Fuel cell system costs have decreased significantly over the past several years but are still nearly much higher as those for internal combustion engines, see Figure 7.[15]

Figure 7: Hydrogen Fuel System Cost

Fuel Cell System Cost

Source: U.S. Department of Energy

Possibly, one major breakthrough towards further reducing the cost and complexity of hydrogen fuel cells comes from a small specialty manufacturing company in an obscure town in mid America. Without support of the DoE, and the public and private sectors, the owner and CEO, stimulated some informal talks to help pass the time during  lunch over of all things hydrogen fuel cells that led to a proprietary process for producing hydrogen on demand using scrap material as a catalyst, see Figure 8. [16]

“The cost advantage for this simple technology requires only scrap metal and water for fuel. The new method of hydrogen production uses a catalyst that can be produced from scrap paper.”[16]

Figure 8:  Hydrogen Fuel Cell Process for Commercialization

Phillips Fuel Cell

According to the company “More than 35 gallons per minute of hydrogen was recently produced using only water, paper and scrap aluminum. This rate of hydrogen production was sustained with no energy being added to the system after the water was heated. “35 gallons per minute is only the starting point,” said a spokesman. “The production rate can be increased to any desired level of production, up to thousands of gallons per minute of hydrogen.”[16]

“This simple technology represents an alternative-fuel leap forward because, in the past, higher levels of hydrogen gas production have required a proportional increase in input energy for previous methods of hydrogen generation. The new breakthrough solves this drawback, common for all existing hydrogen production methods, including all electrolysis and thermochemical methods. The new breakthrough is based on the discovery and development of a process that uses only scrap materials and increases the output of hydrogen without requiring increasing energy to drive the system.”[16]

On April 8, 2013, I will attend a private demonstration of the technology.

In closing, U.S. interest in a hydrogen economy has seen its ups and downs since the 1970’s when programs were first funded to develop advanced propulsion alternatives to internal combustion engines. It’s no surprise that some 40 years later hydrogen energy to fuel the transportation sector is still a vision. Yet, now more than ever hydrogen fueled vehicles is rising above the radar, possibly in a big way. What’s better than water-to-water.

[1] Senator Spark M. Matsunaga, Matsunaga Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution;
[2] Spark M. Matsunaga Hydrogen Research, Development, and Demonstration Program Act of 1990,;
[3] TITLE 42 – The Public Health And Welfare, Chapter 128 – Hydrogen Research, Development, and Demonstration Program; U.S. Government Printing Office;
[4] A National Vision of America’s Transition to a Hydrogen Economy — To 2030 And Beyond, U.S. Department of Energy;
[5] FY 2000 – 2013 DOE Budget Request to Congress, Budget Highlights, U.S. Department of Energy;
[6] U.S. Drops Research into Fuel Cells for Cars, The New York Times, May 8, 2009;
[7] Department of Energy reverses course, now encourages hydrogen investment with H2USA campaign, Digital Trends, Nick Jaynes, March 7, 2013.
[8] US Energy Consumption, Maxwell, April 2006;
[9] U.S. Energy Flow—2000 – Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, February 2002;
[10] U.S. Petroleum Supply and Disposition Balance, U.S. Energy Information Administration;
[11] U.S. Natural Gas Supply and Disposition Balance, U.S. Energy Information Administration;
[12] Fuel Cell Vehicles ‘a $1.8 Billion Market in 2030’, Environmental Leader, January 10, 2013;
[13] The Fuel Cell Industry Review 2012, FuelCell Today;
[14] First production hydrogen fuel cell cars hit the market, ExtremeTech, Bill Howard, November 7, 2013;
[15] Hydrogen Challenges, U.S. Department of Energy, Fuel
[16] Reference is not disclosed.  Authorization was received from company owner to use the material supplied by company representative.

tags: Spark Matsunaga, Senator Matsunaga, hydrogen, energy carrier, energy source, hydrogen economy, climate change, alternative energy, renewable energy, sustainable energy generation, hydrogen fuel cell, Matsunaga Hydrogen Act, U.S Department Budget Allocation, George W. Bush, EV, hydrogen fueled vehicles,

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 5, 2013 10:47 AM

    Because of the Matsunaga Act’s focus on transitioning to a hydrogen economy by 2030, in 1997 I cofounded the National Hydrogen Fund (NHF), a private fund established to commercialize various emerging hydrogen technologies as an alternate energy source for the transportation sector. The transportation sector was selected due to its high energy consumption, see Figure 2, and the availability of inefficient, costly and large hydrogen fuel cells that if improved can run electric motors in vehicles for John Q. Public. This would have a major impact on reducing both greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and the consumption of imported fuel. In essence, a homerun supporting America’s goal of energy independent and a cleaner environment

    Finally, the wait is over! Hydrogen vehicles are the only vehicle that can truly claim to be pollution-free with water and produces only water.

    Hydrogen is the only substance in the cosmos that can lay claim to be the basic building block of all substances. It is acknowledged, but less important to this discussion, that hydrogen is made up of subatomic particles, which are either elementary particles, like electrons and quarks, or composite particles, like protons and neutrons. Yet, hydrogen cannot be broken down into simpler substances by chemical means.

    Hydrogen formed from the big bang is condensed, collapsed by gravitational forces and fused into helium at the core of the now formed young star. Helium is then fused into heavier elements all the way up to iron at which point nucleosynthesis stops. “Fusion reactions that create the elements up through iron release energy. Fusion reactions that create elements heavier than iron require energy rather than release energy. As iron is formed, the star begins to cool at which time the equilibrium between the outward expansion of the star from fusion and gravitational forces falls apart and the star begins to collapse. If the start is big enough, the collapse results in a supernova which provides sufficient energy to cause the fusion of elements heavier than iron.”

    Technically, hydrogen is an energy carrier, not a primary energy source or a fuel like coal, natural gas and petroleum. Hydrogen gas (H2) does not occur naturally in vast quantities to make it economically competitive to be mined from the earth or atmosphere. Energy is required to separate it from primary sources of energy and other compounds such as water.

    Generated by steam reformation of hydrocarbons, water electrolysis or by other methods, hydrogen is thus an energy carrier (like electricity). Once produced, hydrogen stores energy until it is delivered in a usable form, such as hydrogen gas delivered into a fuel cell. To the extent that electricity can or cannot be called a fuel, the same applies to hydrogen.

    Hydrogen has the potential to solve two major energy challenges that confront America today: reducing dependence on petroleum imports and reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. As an energy carrier, it can be the emissions-free alternative energy resource that revolutionizes transportation and, possibly, our entire energy system. “The transition toward a so-called “hydrogen economy” has already begun. We have a hydrocarbon economy, but we lack the know-how to produce hydrogen from hydrocarbons and water, and deliver it to consumers in a clean, affordable, safe, and convenient manner as an automotive fuel or for power generation.”[3] The feasibility of a hydrogen economy therefore depends on issues of electrolysis, energy sourcing, including fossil fuel use, climate change, and sustainable energy generation.


  1. The Good and Bad News of the FY 2014 DOE Budget Request to Congress | BarryOnEnergy

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