By on August 9, 2012

The excitement about battery electric vehicles seems to die down amidst disappointing uptake. Range, weight and cost are in the way. At the same time, dormant interest in fuel cell vehicles is being rekindled. A month ago, we had a new look at the technology from the perspective of the Toyota/BMW linkup. Today, The Nikkei [sub] takes a broader view and says that carmakers are in the final lap of the fuel cell race. Let’s have a look at the contestants and where they stand.

Says The Nikkei [sub]:

“While many car companies are already in a fierce battle for a slice of the market for environmentally friendly vehicles such as hybrids and electric cars, they are also in the final stages of developing fuel-cell cars, which are widely expected to be the ultimate eco-cars because they emit no greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, or other pollutants.

Leading the charge in fuel-cell development are Toyota Motor Corp. , Honda Motor Co., General Motors Co. of the U.S. and Germany’s Daimler AG. The stakes are high, given the vast sums already spent.”

Roland Berger Strategy Consultants told the Tokyo wire that “the four automakers have already spent a combined 100 billion yen on the technology.” That would be a little over a billion $, and I believe that number is low.

Fuel cell research had been conducted since the last millennium. The 2008 financial crisis slowed it down. Carmakers had to cut R&D even on regular cars. Recently, development revved up again.

Prototypes and test vehicles have been driving around for years without exploding. 2015 is the date several carmakers name for the first commercial launch of fuel cell vehicles. Satoshi Ogiso, Toyota’s man in charge of new technology, thinks that the only challenge is affordability.  During an interview with TTAC last year, he likened the challenge to what had faced him during the launch of the first hybrids in 1995.

Just like hybrid powertrains in the 90s, current fuel cell powertrains are big, bulky, heavy and expensive. Ogiso and his colleagues at other carmakers are working on the problem.

The solution to many ills in the auto industry is scale: Make and sell enough cars with the new technology, and you can spread the price of development over many units. Also, with mass production, the price of components can come down drastically.

Even the largest automakers don’t want to wait until they achieved the necessary scale effects themselves. They forge alliances with other automakers.

  • Toyota, usually a company that does it alone and in-house, famously entered an alliance with BMW.
  • Nissan and Renault agreed with Daimler to expand the scope of their cooperation to fuel-cell cars.
  • Honda appears to be partner-less.
  • GM negotiated a fuel cell partnership with BMW. The Bavarians broke off the discussion and are winding down a new energy alliance with GM partner PSA after hooking up with Toyota.

Says The Nikkei:

“One GM executive who has worked on the automaker’s fuel-cell effort for a long time lamented being handed another setback by Toyota.”

Observers familiar with the matter expect more tie-ups. The Roland Berger consultancy predicts that Toyota will enlarge its circle of fuel cell partners.

It will be a few years until fuel cell cars can compete in the marketplace. In the meantime, there is a fierce and sometimes uncivil competition for government grants.

When the U.S. government did bet heavily on EVs in 2009 and decided to shift funding away from fuel cell vehicle research, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said that fuel cell vehicles “will not be practical over the next 10 to 20 years.” In the meantime, he had a change of heart.

“The development of America’s tremendous shale gas resources is also helping to reduce the costs of producing hydrogen and operating hydrogen fuel cells,” Bill Gibbons, a spokesman for the department, told the New York Times in May.

If an investment into fuel cell vehicles would be successful at last, past investments into EVs would not go to waste. A fuel cell is just another battery. Except that it can be charged in minutes than hours, and except that it lasts 400 miles instead of 100.

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23 Comments on “The End Run Of The Fuel Cell Race...”

  • avatar

    “they emit no greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide”

    “shale gas resources is also helping to reduce the costs of producing hydrogen”

    Steam reforming of natural gas to produce H2 or burning it in a power plant to produce electricity to charge a BEV both release carbon into the environment. There is still no free lunch. Directly burning natural gas in an ICE is so much simpler and could emit less carbon per mile driven due to fewer conversion losses.

    • 0 avatar

      Consumers are unwilling to accept that there will be no technology that replaces gasoline as an energy carrier without a lot of compromises in the way we go about transportation. Thus we have industry tripping all over itself trying to find said holy grail of a cheap, efficient, nonpolluting powertrain and energy carrier. See also: cold fusion, perpetual motion, zero point energy, unicorn farts.

  • avatar

    Come to think of it, don’t we (every living breathing animal) release CO2, and don’t plants need CO2 to live so they can release O2, something we’re rather dependant on?

    This whole CO2 crap is just that – crap!

    But the sky is fallin – the sky is fallin!

    • 0 avatar

      A natural state ecosystem is pretty much CO2 neutral — animals produce CO2, plants tie it up and then release it when they burn or decompose.

      Burning wood as fuel (and planting equivalent trees to replace them) would essentially be CO2 neutral. There are multiple other issues with wood as a practical large-scale fuel, though.

      The reason fossil fuels are not CO2 neutral is because burning them releases CO2 that was tied up millions of years ago.

      Whether or not the CO2 balance matters is hotly debated. I don’t believe anyone argues that fossil fuels are CO2 neutral, though.

      • 0 avatar

        “Whether or not the CO2 balance matters is hotly debated”

        No, it isn’t.

        People would like to think it is, but it isn’t really debated at all within the scientific community. There’s debate in the same sense that there’s debate about Intelligent Design or vaccines causing autism, which is to say that there’s science on one side and “special interests” on the other.

    • 0 avatar

      To address your concerns, just follow the money (Carbon trading) great business model, I wish I was in it.

    • 0 avatar

      “don’t plants need CO2 to live so they can release O2, something we’re rather dependant on?”

      Yes, that’s true. Of course, no one credible is saying that the issue is CO2 toxicity, just like no one is saying that breathing is a problem because it’s part of the carbon cycle. You may as well prefix your argument with “I don’t understand climate science”.

      This also is putting aside the fact that we’re destroying greenspace on land and badly damaging the ocean’s ability to act as a carbon sink. If you’re proposing stopping the destruction of green space, aggressive re-forestation and such, I’d be willing to entertain your argument. Somehow, though, I never hear the likes of Exxon talking about that.

  • avatar
    Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

    SOFCs that run directly on hydrocarbons are the way to go, once they can be productized and operating temps come down a bit (though turbo EGTs are comparable to SOFC operating temps)..

    • 0 avatar

      I also consider hydrogen fuel cells a waste of everyone’s time.

      Yet still, for some reasons I cannot comprehend, Bertel refuses to address their endless issues (well-to-wheel efficiency, lack of cheap H2 transport, storage and distribution, price) and, instead of writing The Truth About Cars, he repeats same “it’s almost there” stories without a single remark.

      Lets remind that, as of 2012, automotive industry has serious troubles bolting a small electric motor and some battery to an engine and achieving respectable market share with that.

  • avatar

    What about Ford and Daimler? I though they were still developing fuel cell technology from the share they bought off Ballard here in Vancouver.

    Ballard by the way is now focusing on fuel cells for back-up and auxiliary power generation, not cars.

  • avatar

    I remember a college lecture by the CEO of a technology firm who was predicting the dawn of the hydrogen age (needed to make fuel cell cars a reality). It was just too obvious to ignore, he said, and the infrastructure was in place for natural gas. Just replace the natural gas with hydrogen and let’s go! That was 1975 and the lecturer was Kip Siegel, of a company called KMS Fusion. Kip is gone, KMS Fusion is gone, and we still use fossil fuels.

    I think fuel cell cars are still many, many years away.

  • avatar

    Toyota is only looking at their side of the problem when they talk of challenges. They either don’t know or don’t or don’t care about the infrastructure problems, such as where to get the hydrogen, how to transport it, how to store it, etc.

    I personally do not believe that hydrogen fuel cells will ever be worthwhile. Hydrogen isn’t a raw resource to tap. It has to be made, and that takes energy, energy which could directly power a car. BEVs can go twice as far as HFC cars for the same starting energy, and I believe cost & weight problems of batteries will be solved before fuel cell costs.

    • 0 avatar

      I dont see H2 being used by the public.. but for the military it is a different issue. It can be manufactured aboard aircraft carriers and it is 1/6 the weight of jet fuel for the same amount of energy.. but quick in-flight refueling could be an issue.. also it is very bulky and would require new airplane and helicopter designs.

      I can see a 747 sized airliner flying on hydrogen with tremendous weight savings.. but it would cut down on some of the passenger and cargo space for the huge tanks. A spherical tank the diameter of the fuselage would carry an equivalent amount of fuel as it does now. It would be insulated since liquid hydrogen is very cold.

  • avatar

    I remember seeing the Chevy Sequel at the Baltimore Auto Show and being impressed – An Equinox-sized CUV that generates its own electricity. Too bad that single unit cost _$4 million_.

  • avatar
    Darth Lefty

    It’s always just a few years away. Set your alarm clock for a few years and see how they’re doing then.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    Setting aside the production and distribution problems of H2, on board storage is the biggest remainig issue for fuel cell vehicles. H2 is a very light gas needing high pressure and volume to store enough on board. Currently, high pressure cylinders are the only practical means of storing H2 on board a vehicle. The weight and space required for storage imploses too many penalties on hydrogen as a fuel. Also, having a few pounds of high pressure H2 in your grarage does not inspire confidence in the home owner who drifts off to sleep with visions of Hindenbergs drifting by.
    A reversible, on board low pressure storage system is needed before FCVs can make any serious sales to individuals. But, if this can be developed for H2, it can also be developed for methane (natural gas), and the advantage would swing to NG powered cars since an infrastructure for delivering NG to buildings is in place. The price of an NG powered car would essentially be the same as an ICE powered car plus the cost of the new low pressure “gas tank”. With the discovery of a hundred years of natural gas reseves in the US, the price should be stable for a long time to come.
    So I need the B&B to get off their collective butts and develop low pressure natural gas storage so I can lower my cost of driving to work.

  • avatar

    A friend owns a lab that makes and sells reformulators that take methanol and water and produce hydrogen of sufficient purity to be used in fuel cell research and he supplies many of the companies engaged in that research because it’s cheaper to buy methanol and one of his gizmos than pay Air Liquide for H2 in 6 nines purity. So he knows something about hydrogen (with at least a half dozen patents on the topic). He’s also the smartest person that I personally know. He says that hydrogen is not a fuel, that we probably will never go to a hydrogen economy, and that methanol makes the most sense as a liquid fuel replacement for gasoline. He also agrees that we’ll still be running cars on gasoline in fifty years.

    • 0 avatar

      Funny that he would say that.. steam reformers that convert methanol, ethanol, gasoline or diesel to hydrogen and then feed a fuel cell are very practical.. Solid Oxide Fuel Cells skip the separate reforming stage and do it all in one step… they are beginning to overtake the large diesel generator market.

  • avatar

    “The excitement about battery electric vehicles seems to die down amidst disappointing uptake. Range, weight and cost are in the way.”

    I think it’s fairly safe to assume that for BEVs, these issues will be resolved to the public’s satisfaction sooner than it can be said for the issues holding back hydrogen vehicles.

    Either way though, I don’t understand why these two methods are always pitted against each other. Both use the electric motor as their source of motion. To fit a fuel cell into a BEV as a range extender could solve a lot of the issues that both technologies face alone.

  • avatar

    Mars Rover is the future. Nuclear powered cars for all, just pay close attention to that temp gauge.

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