National Research Council Report Concludes FreedomCAR and Fuel Partnership Should Continue to Include Fuel Cells and Other Hydrogen Technologies in Research Portfolio

The FreedomCAR (Cooperative Automotive Research) and Fuel Partnership—a research collaboration among the US Department of Energy, the US Council for Automotive Research, five major energy companies, and two electric utility companies—should continue to include fuel cells and other hydrogen technologies in its research and development portfolio, according to a new report by the National Research Council (NRC).

This report is the third NRC review of the FreedomCAR and Fuel Research Program; Phase 1 and Phase 2 reviews were issued in 2005 and 2008, respectively. The long-range goals of the Partnership focus on a transition to a highway transportation system that uses sustainable energy resources and reduces emissions, including net carbon emissions, on a lifecycle or well (source)-to-wheels basis.

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, the new report says, 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 NRC committee sees essentially three primary alternative pathways to achieving the goals of reducing petroleum consumption, reducing emissions and reducing greenhouse gases:

  • Improved internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles coupled with greater use of biofuels;
  • A shifting of significant portions of transportation energy from petroleum to the grid through the expanded use of PHEVs and BEVs; and
  • The transition to hydrogen as a major transportation fuel utilized in fuel cell vehicles.

In general, the committee believes that the Partnership is effective in progressing toward its goals. There is evidence of solid progress in essentially all areas, even though substantial barriers remain. Most of the remaining barriers relate to cost (e.g., fuel cells, batteries, etc.), although there are also substantial performance barriers (e.g., onboard hydrogen storage, demonstrated fuel cell durability, adequate battery energy storage capability, etc.) and production and infrastructure barriers (e.g., the need for widespread affordable hydrogen if mass-produced fuel cell vehicles are to become a reality, a feedstock/production combination for biofuels that does not compete with food crops, etc.).

The fuel cell/hydrogen R&D is viewed by the committee as long-term, high-risk, high-payoff R&D that the committee considers not only to be appropriate, but also to be of the type that much of it probably would not get done without government support. Especially under the present economic conditions, the committee considers R&D for other precompetitive technologies, which could help reduce industry development times, also to be appropriate.

—“Review of the Research Program”

Until recently, the program had primarily focused on developing technologies that would allow US automakers to make production and marketing decisions by 2015 on hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles. 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 report reiterates the findings of a letter report issued by the committee last year. (Earlier post.) At that time, the US 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. 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.

Specific comments and recommendations by technology area in the report include:

Advanced Internal Combustion Engines and Emission Controls. The report says that there seems to be little doubt that, regardless of the success of any of the pathways discussed, the ICE will be the dominant prime mover for light-duty vehicles for many years, probably decades. Therefore, the authors conclude, it is clearly important to perform R&D to provide a better understanding of the fundamental processes affecting engine efficiency and the production of undesirable emissions.

An active ICE and liquid fuels R&D program should be maintained at all levels—i.e.,in industry, government laboratories, and academia—to expand the knowledge base to enable the development of technologies that can reduce the fuel consumption of transportation systems powered by ICEs.

  • Recommendation 3-3. The advanced combustion and emission control technical team should engage with the biofuels research community to ensure that the biofuels research which the team is conducting is consistent with and leverages the latest developments in the field of biofuels R&D.

Fuel Cells. Despite significant progress in performance and cost, no single fuel cell technology has attained the combination of performance and projected costs to be competitive with conventional systems.

The barriers that remain are both programmatic and technical. Programmatic issues relate to the coordination and execution of the high-risk research so that the solicitation timing and content address updated requirements of the Partnership. Technical barriers that still remain for the fuel cell stack are membrane and electrode life, in addition to cost. Both areas must remain the focus of the next round of solicitations, the report concludes.

  • Recommendation 3-7. The DOE should establish backup technology paths, in particular for stack operation modes and stack components, with the fuel cell technical team to address the case of current technology selections determined not likely to meet the targets. The DOE should assess which critical technology development efforts are not yielding sufficient progress and ensure that adequate levels of support for alternative pathways are in place.

Onboard Hydrogen Storage. Research aimed at significantly higher hydrogen storage capability needs to be maintained as a primary research focus. Materials-based storage at the level required to meet all program targets is considered theoretically achievable, yet no single material has been identified that simultaneously meets all of the targets (weight, volume, efficiency, cost, packaging, safety, refueling ability, etc.). The discovery and development of materials for effective onboard hydrogen storage is high-technical-risk R&D not likely to be accomplished without continued research attention and government funding, the report says.

  • Recommendation 3-12. The hydrogen storage program should continue to be funded, especially the systems-level work in the Hydrogen Storage Engineering COE. Efforts should also be directed to compressed-gas storage to help achieve weight and cost reduction while maintaining safety.

  • Recommendation 3-15. The search for suitable onboard hydrogen storage materials has been broadly based, and significant progress is reported. Nonetheless the current materials are not close to the long-range goals of the Partnership. Onboard hydrogen storage R&D risks losing out to near-term applications for future emphasis and funding. The management of a long-term/ short-term joint portfolio should be given consideration.

Electrochemical Energy Storage. The Partnership’s budget for electrochemical energy technologies has increased as the importance of PHEV battery development has increased. At present, about 75% of the funding is focused on near- and midterm development efforts directed at HEV and PHEV applications, and only 25% is directed to long-term R&D. The Partnership should also take the initiative to strengthen its focus on longer-term research on high-energy batteries and the establishment of a path toward BEVs, the report says.

  • Recommendation 3-17. The Partnership should significantly intensify its efforts to develop improved materials and systems for high-energy batteries for both plug-in electric vehicles and battery electric vehicles.

  • Recommendation 3-18. The Partnership should conduct a study to determine the cost of recycling batteries and the potential of savings from recycled materials. A research program on improved processes for recycling advanced batteries should be initiated in order to reduce the cost of the processes and recover useful materials and to reduce potentially hazardous toxic waste and, if necessary, to explore and develop new processes that preserve and recycle a much larger portion of the battery values.

Electric Propulsion and Electrical Systems. Electric propulsion is needed for HEVs, PHEVs, fuel cell vehicles (FCVs), and BEVs. In all of these cases the systems used can be distinguished by the size and power required as well as by the architecture. In addition to the prime mover (engine, fuel cell, or battery), the essential elements of the electric propulsion system are power electronics and one or two electrical machines.

  • Recommendation 3-20. The Partnership should conduct a project to evaluate the effect of battery charging on lithium-ion battery packs as a function of the cell chemistries, cell geometries, and configurations in the pack; battery string voltages; and numbers of parallel strings. A standardized method for these evaluations should be developed to ensure the safety of battery packs during vehicle operation as well as during plug-in charging.

  • Recommendation 3-21. The Partnership should consider conducting a project to investigate induction motors as replacements for the permanent magnet motors now almost universally used for electric propulsion.

Structural Materials. The 50% weight reduction is critical to reaching FreedomCAR goals for energy consumption and emissions. However, the target of no cost penalty for such a large weight reduction was unrealistic when set, and it remains unrealistic, the report says.

  • Recommendation 3-22. The materials technical team should develop a systems-analysis methodology to determine the currently most cost-effective way for achieving a 50% weight reduction for hybrid and fuel cell vehicles. The materials team needs to evaluate how the cost penalty changes as a function of the percent weight reduction, assuming that the most effective mix of materials is used at each step in the weight-reduction process. The analysis should be updated on a regular basis as the cost structures change as a result of process research breakthroughs and commercial developments.

  • Recommendation 3-24. Methods for the recycling of carbon-reinforced composites need to be developed.

Hydrogen and Other Fuel/Vehicle Pathways. EERE. The Fuel Cell Technologies program addresses a variety of means of producing hydrogen in distributed and centralized plants using technologies that can be made available in the short, medium, and long term. Three fuel technical teams are addressing these issues: fuel pathway integration, hydrogen production, and hydrogen delivery.

  • Recommendation 4-1. The DOE should broaden the role of the fuel pathways integration technical team (FPITT) to include an investigation of the pathways to provide energy for all three approaches currently included in the Partnership. This broader role could include not only the current technical subgroups for hydrogen, but also subgroups on biofuels utilization in advanced internal combustion engines and electricity generation requirements for PHEVs and BEVs, with appropriate industrial representation on each. The role of the parent FPITT would be to integrate the efforts of these subgroups and to provide an overall perspective of the issues associated with providing the required energy in a variety of scenarios that meet future personal transportation needs.

  • Recommendation 4-3. The Fuel Cell Technologies program should adjust its Technology Roadmap to account for the possibility that CO2 sequestration will not enable a midterm readiness for commercial hydrogen production from coal. It should also consider the consequences to the program of apparent large increases in US natural gas reserves.

  • Recommendation 4-4. The EERE should continue to work closely with the Office of Fossil Energy to vigorously pursue advanced chemical and biological concepts for carbon disposal as a hedge against the inability of geological storage to deliver a publicly acceptable and cost-effective solution in a timely manner. The committee also notes that some of the technologies now being investigated might offer benefits in the small-scale capture and sequestration of carbon from distributed sources.

  • Recommendation 4-13. Hydrogen delivery, storage, and dispensing should be based on the program needed to achieve the cost goal for 2017. If it is not feasible to achieve that cost goal, emphasis should be placed on those areas that would most directly impact the 2015 decision regarding commercialization. In the view of the committee, pipeline, liquefaction, and compression programs are likely to have the greatest impact in the 2015 time frame. The cost target should be revised to be consistent with the program that is carried out.

Biofuels. A thorough systems analysis of the biofuel distribution and end-use system that accounts for engine technologies and petroleum blending fuel properties could help to identify priority areas for further development. This could result in modified priorities for different biomass sources, conversion processes, biofuels, distribution systems, and engines.

  • Recommendation 4-14. A thorough systems analysis of the complete biofuel distribution and end-use system should be done. This should include (1) an analysis of the fuel- and engine efficiency gains possible through ICE technology development with likely particular biofuels or mixtures of biofuels and conventional petroleum fuels, and (2) a thorough analysis of the biofuel distribution system needed to deliver these possible fuels or mixtures to the end-use application.

The study was sponsored by US 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.

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