After pouring billions of dollars of federal money into fuel cell car research over decades, the US Department of Energy is cutting back on future spending. In the 2010 budget that the administration is submitting to Congress, Energy Secretary Stephen Chu proposed slashing more than $100 million from the Energy Department’s hydrogen program. That’s a cut of almost 60 percent and one that will almost entirely come from transportation.

Dr. Chu said yesterday that he holds little hope for fuel cell cars in the coming decades. In a press briefing, he said, “We asked ourselves, ‘Is it likely in the next 10 or 15, 20 years that we will covert to a hydrogen car economy?’ The answer, we felt, was ‘no.’”

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Car Pump

The US Department of Energy is cutting funding for fuel cell cars, reducing the prospects of hydrogen becoming a common fuel for automobiles.

The National Hydrogen Association and the US Fuel Cell Coalition quickly issued a joint statement criticizing the program cuts, but the federal government and the auto industry have already switched direction toward hybrid gas-electric cars, plug-in hybrids, and other battery-powered vehicles. “We think it is too early to be picking winning and losing technologies,” said Patrick Serfass, the National Hydrogen Association’s vice president for technology, in an interview with Edmunds.com.

Dr. Chu pointed to significant stumbling blocks to widespread adoption of hydrogen fuel cell cars, including the lack of a nationwide fueling infrastructure. Plug-in cars—such as plug-in hybrids and pure battery-electric cars—also face significant obstacles in reaching a mass market, including lack of an electric recharging infrastructure and high costs for next-generation lithium ion car batteries. However, the obstacles for introducing those cars— which can be powered via the electric grid—are viewed as solvable, even though it could take five to ten years before plug-in cars reach 1 percent of the new car market.

Support for auto battery research will encourage adoption of all vehicles that are powered, to one degree or another, by electric power. Sales of today’s gas-electric hybrids, which represent nearly 3 percent of the market, are expected to be the fastest growing segment of “alternative” cars in the coming years. Forecasters predict that conventional hybrids will reach approximately 10 percent penetration in the next five to seven years. The Energy Department is also shifting resources to biofuels and development of lightweight materials.

The shift away from hydrogen fuel cells and toward hybrids and electric cars sends a clear message to auto companies—especially those seeking federal support for research and development. The change of direction could even further slow down the establishment of a hydrogen infrastructure—already viewed as way off in the future.