Car fuel cells: the road ahead

GM has accumulated nearly 3 million miles of real-world driving in a fleet of 119 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles since 2007. Photo credit: General Motors

GM has accumulated nearly 5 million kilometres of real-world driving in a fleet of 119 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles since 2007. Photo credit: General Motors

Today we’ll be taking a look at an energy storage medium that’s very much in the news at the moment, with various auto-manufacturers announcing hydrogen-powered vehicles, fuel cells increasingly being used for off-grid energy supply and back-up, and innovations in the production of hydrogen. So let’s kick off with cars.

The current star of the electric vehicle (EV) show, at least in terms of media coverage, is Tesla Motors, a company that uses packs of multiple Panasonic lithium-ion batteries that would otherwise be destined for laptops. General Motors (GM) has announced it plans to outsmart and out-compete Elon Musk’s company by offering vehicles with specially designed energy packs.

Meanwhile, the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt lead the field commercially with more than 80,000 vehicles sold jointly in the US since launching in 2010.
But what if they’ve all got it wrong?

What if the future of electric car motoring is hydrogen fuel cells, not conventional chemical batteries, despite the fact that this has been the technology of choice for EVs for over a century, whereas only very limited numbers of fuel cell road vehicles have been released in the US so far… and these are mainly for testing purposes rather than retail sales?

Collaboration; but where are the cars?

GM is one of the auto manufacturers hedging its bets, or at least appearing to do so. One way it and its competitors are dipping a toe in the pond is by collaborating in fuel cell research. GM, for example, is going into partnership with Honda to build a better cell by 2020. Daimler and Ford have also got together for a fuel cell future with the Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation Corp. (AFCC for short).

There are other alliances, too, some with state backing. As for the cars themselves, only the Nissan Clarity and Mercedes F Cell are currently for sale in the US, with the Hyundai iX35 scheduled for production in 2015. But there are other niches for fuel cell vehicles to fill. Lifting vehicles such as forklift trucks have been used commercially, although these also rely on internal combustion engines.

Where fuel cells win

Despite their current scarcity, there are several reasons why battery EVs might one day be trumped by fuel cell vehicles (FCVs). These include speed of refuelling and range, which are significant barriers to the mass adoption of EVs. Like a conventional petrol-powered vehicle, FCVs take minutes, not hours, to recharge.

In addition, fuel cell vehicles are set to suffer less from ‘range anxiety’, with the Honda FCX Clarity, for example, clocking up 240 miles between refuel stops. Long-distance travel depends on a widespread refueling network, however… but we’ll deal with that later. In fact, if fuel cells are to beat batteries on the road, it may not initially be through powering a sedan or a station wagon.

Another technical advantage of fuel cells over the current crop of batteries is their ability to power larger, higher power vehicles such as buses. And some of these vehicles are being trialled in China, Brazil and Canada. Numbers remain low, however.

Obstacles on the road

So what is keeping FCVs back? Initial thought would be the lack of a hydrogen infrastructure; why would car companies and their customers invest in cars with few and far refueling points? To address the issue of hydrogen infrastructure, GM has claimed that in the US, at least, 70% of the population lives within a few miles of a commercial hydrogen source.

Another aspect may be fear of flammability: people are rightly, or otherwise, cautious of the gas that fuelled the Hindenburg and the R101, so safety considerations are bound to add to the cost. According to a recent Navigant report, it’s capital costs that will be the real barrier to adoption. The analysis predicts a measly 1,000 vehicles sold in 2015, but with sales taking off somewhat to 2m units a year from 2030.

That’s a global figure, though, and still only a tiny percentage of total car sales. So if the future for the mobile fuel cell economy looks uncertain, what about the other uses of the technology? And who are the major players in the industry? We return presently with answers to these questions… and a lot more. See you then!

Written by Mike Stone

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