On April 26th, President George W. Bush unveiled his plans for initiatives in energy while addressing the American Association of Community Colleges Annual Convention in Minneapolis. As part of his $1.2 billion hydrogen initiative, the Department of Energy (DOE) has announced the award of $350 million in research grants, with an extra $225 million from private sources. More than 30 projects will receive funding over five years to tackle the challenges of realizing a hydrogen economy.

But the scale of this challenge is huge. The US currently imports over 55% of the oil required to meet domestic demand. By 2025, this is estimated to increase to over 68%, according to DOE figures. Nearly two-thirds of this oil is used for transportation. To replace oil with hydrogen will take some doing, as Digby D. Macdonald of Pennsylvania State University points out in this issue [Materials Today (2004) 7 (6), 64]. And the DOE has set some pretty stringent milestones, including on-board hydrogen storage systems to enable a 300 mile driving range, polymer electrolyte-membrane fuel cells that deliver 5000 hours of service at a cost of $30-45 per kW, and cost-effective hydrogen delivery technologies. The latest allocation of funds will go toward R&D in these areas: DOE national labs, universities, and industry will investigate chemical hydrides, metal hydrides, and carbon for hydrogen storage; automakers and energy companies will develop demonstration hydrogen vehicles and infrastructure; and industry will work on affordable and durable fuel cells.

But what this initiative does not appear to tackle is the other DOE milestone: hydrogen production. The DOE's Hydrogen Posture Plan (February 2004) highlights three production methods: steam reformation of natural gas or liquid fuel, coal plants, and wind-based electrolysis. The first two of these methods will require carbon sequestration to realize any environmental benefits. Wind-based electrolysis is the only production method mentioned that truly realizes the vision of sustainable, environmentally friendly energy generation – but cannot hope to be sufficient to meet hydrogen demand. Another means of generating hydrogen could be nuclear power, as Macdonald points out. While this would be a clean route to producing hydrogen, the scale of nuclear fission plants needed is unlikely to be a vote-winner. A less immediate solution, nuclear fusion, could offer a much more palatable alternative [see Materials Today (2004) 7 (6), 21].

The DOE initiative includes an allocation to a ‘hydrogen education campaign’ to promote public education and acceptance of the hydrogen economy. But can we hope to simply swap hydrogen for oil without changing our habits? Bush believes that you don't have to choose between the environment and energy use, but with US demand for oil predicted to increase by 50% by 2025, is this realistic? And is hydrogen the only option? What if it becomes evident that a hydrogen economy isn't feasible? Isn't now the time to be investing in a range of options that might meet future needs?

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(04)00257-3