By on January 28, 2013

There are people, and some of them comment on TTAC, who are convinced that a hydrogen-powered car is an insanity that will never work, but other people who work at the world’s largest carmakers beg to differ. Today, Ford, Daimler, and the Renault-Nissan Alliance signed a tripartite pact for the joint development of a fuel cell system that promises to be implemented faster, and at lower cost, both to automakers and customers.

The plan is to leverage the considerable economies of scale of the three signatories into “the world’s first affordable, mass-market FCEVs as early as 2017,” as a joint communique says.

All three have significant experience in FCEVs. Their FCEVs have logged more than 10 million km in test drives around the world. There is one problem that faces all presumptive makers of FCEVs: How to make them affordable. If they are affordable, they will hopefully be bought. If there are FCEVs on the road, hydrogen fuel stations will hopefully follow.

This ramp-up is too steep for a single automaker, even the biggest one in the world. After Toyota and BMW, Ford, Daimler, and the Renault-Nissan Alliance formed an even bigger pact. The three companies will invest equally into the project, and amount was not disclosed.

Discounting doubts of TTAC commenters, Thomas Weber, a member of Daimler’s management board, said: “We are convinced that fuel cell vehicles will play a central role for zero-emission mobility in the future.”

Expect more alliances (who’s left, Volkswagen and GM?) and an industry-wide push for FCEVs in the 2015-2020 timeframe.


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32 Comments on “Ford, Daimler, Renault-Nissan Alliance Sign Huge Hydrogen Pact...”

  • avatar

    Hydrogen is the long and medium term future. The auto manufacturers for once aren’t completely dragging their feet. This sounds more like a push for standardized equipment with shared cell tech that will be amoritized much more quickly this way. Hopefully we’ll see the first serious FCEV soon and then we can expect the oil industry to be forced to move.

    • 0 avatar

      what do you mean “for once they aren’t dragging their feet?” Practically everyone’s been working on fuel cells for a long time. Matter of fact I’d think it’s reasonable to say the fuel cell is a solved problem. As always, “it’s the infrastructure, stupid.”

      • 0 avatar

        The infrastructure problem was solved, too. You can make hydrogen on-site with a reformer and never need to transport it on a truck anywhere. All you need is a natural gas line, which most buildings (at least around where I live) have.

      • 0 avatar

        If you’re going to require a natural gas line anyway, why not just replace the reformer with a compressor and run cars off of CNG instead? What’s the advantage to introducing hydrogen?

      • 0 avatar

        It’s much more efficient to reform the natural gas into hydrogen and then run it in the fuel cell. A lot of this is due to the fact that the fuel cell itself is much more efficient than an internal combustion engine. Combine that with an efficient reformer and you are over twice as efficient as burning the gas directly.

      • 0 avatar

        No, it’s the cost of the catalyst.

      • 0 avatar

        “I’d think it’s reasonable to say the fuel cell is a solved problem.”

        Hardly. They’re costly to produce and lack durability. Not even close to being ready for market.

    • 0 avatar

      If only they could figure out a good way to store the Hydrogen. My prediction: they never will.

  • avatar

    If working on things for a long time is the test of whether or not they are ready for prime time, electric cars would also be the medium and long term future. It’s so great we have two best technologies.

    I’ll bet on gasoline for the medium term at least.

    What is the range for a hydrogen car with fuel storage of some reasonable size?

  • avatar

    I don’t believe that a “hydrogen-powered car is an insanity that will never work,” but I do believe it offers too little benefit at too much cost to be worthwhile.

    I don’t see us finding a raw H2 source anytime soon, at least in any quantity that would be necessary to power a nation’s car fleet. That means any H2 used would have to be produced. That production requires energy from another source, typically in the form of electricity. Thus, H2 is a carrier, not a source, of energy. The question remains–why then not use the source instead of the carrier and avoid all the inefficiencies of multiple conversions?

    If H2 is produced using electricity, a car using the most efficient fuel cells can travel less than half as far as BEVs that are currently for sale using that exact same electricity. H2 does have the advantage of faster refilling times, but given that a primary driver for switching to H2 is to be clean, a 50%+ loss of efficiency is hard to swallow.

    Most estimates have the Honda FCX Clarity costing $100k+ to make. Obviously, that’s not what production fuel cell cars will cost. However, given that BEVs are now sold (presumably not for loss) for well under half that, it is genuinely questionable whether it will ever be cheaper than batteries. What is reasonable is thinking that even as fuel cells improve (cost & performance), so will electrics. I personally believe we will solve EVs’ cost & refilling time problems before we solve H2’s cost/supply/efficiency problems; thus, fuel cells may be a perpetual futility machine.

    Going back to the clean issue, CO2 only recently began to be considered a pollutant. Hydrogen is considered clean because it only produces water vapor. But is water vapor a pollutant, too? It is a far more effective greenhouse gas than CO2, but its concentration is self-limiting (clouds, precipitation). We don’t yet know all the thermodynamics of cloud formation and so don’t know the net warming/cooling effect of changing atmospheric water vapor. However, heat island effect is quite real around cities, and I’m not so naive as to think that wholesale changes don’t come with unintended consequences.

    If I were in charge of a car company, I would have the R&D guys work with H2 to stay up on the technology, because you never know what govt requirements will come. However, I’d point the real money & intellectual muscle toward EVs.

    • 0 avatar

      “The question remains–why then not use the source instead of the carrier and avoid all the inefficiencies of multiple conversions?”

      Are you saying that batteries are a source of electricity? You do realize that, just like a fuel cell, a battery is just a storage vessel for energy? The electricity for a battery still has to be PRODUCED and then stored in the battery.

      As for finding a “raw” hydrogen source, there isn’t one (unless you go to the sun). But the great things about renewable fuels is that we can keep making it, and don’t need to find a raw source of it anywhere. Currently we can make hydrogen using natural gas or nuclear power plants. The cool thing about nuclear is that they already make the superheated steam you need to separate the hydrogen from H2O. Or they can use electrolysis to make it during non-peak hours. I’m sure we can make enough hydrogen to fuel a nation’s entire fleet.

      The main argument with fuel cells vs. batteries isn’t that the fuel cells are more efficient. It’s the fact that RIGHT NOW there are no batteries that can fully recharge in minutes, but every fuel cell car can refill in that time. The first comment on here speaks the most truth, that “Hydrogen is the long and medium term future.” Once we have mega batteries that can charge and discharge in seconds without catching fire, then we’ll see the switch to pure EVs. But since that is an unknown amount of time from now, why not switch to the best currently available alternative?

      And as an aside, no energy storage medium, batteries included, are 100% efficient. I’m glad you personally believe that batteries are going to leap decades ahead in the next year or so, but right now we’ve already solved hydrogen’s supply/efficiency problems. The cost goes down when fuel cells stop being produced in labs and instead on assembly lines.

      • 0 avatar
        Andrew Bell

        I think both technologies will play a significant role in the future. Fuel cells are most efficient when under a relatively constant load. Quickly throttling a fuel cell is not efficient. Electric motors run off of batteries can more efficiently respond to changes in throttle position. Combining the benefits of both allows for a reduction in battery pack size and fuel cell output requirements.

        You can use a relatively small battery pack to directly power the electric traction motor while using a much smaller fuel cell system to resupply the battery. The fuel cell system can be much less powerful because it only has to keep up to the average power output of the motor (not the peak output). You could still plug the car into the grid at night if you wanted as well.

        Further flexibility can be built in by outfitting the vehicle with a reformer system. Reforming a liquid fuel such as methanol into hydrogen (on demand) is very straight forward. It also eliminates the hassle of transporting and storing compressed hydrogen.

        I personally designed, fabricated and tested a methanol-fueled range extender prototype electric vehicle while working for Serenergy (Denmark) in 2009. The concept works extremely well and has since been refined in limited production runs. Google it if you are bored.

      • 0 avatar

        I agree. The hydrogen fuel cells I worked on (I’m an engineer) were employed in hybrid vehicle configurations (parallel), as opposed to a range extender configuration like you explain. We utilized the battery for load changes that the fuel cell couldn’t immediately compensate for. We did get our stacks to go from no load to full load in a matter of seconds, however, and the systems were set up to rely on the battery only for immediate increases in power demand while the FC ramped up the current.

        On-board reforming a very viable option, but at the same time it does add another system to each vehicle that needs to be maintained and monitored for efficiency/safety. I’d say both options are a hassle in their own way, but reforming fuel in the vehicle would likely alleviate the public’s (overblown) fear of H2 storage.

        To the future!

      • 0 avatar

        “Are you saying that batteries are a source of electricity? You do realize that, just like a fuel cell, a battery is just a storage vessel for energy? The electricity for a battery still has to be PRODUCED and then stored in the battery.”
        No shit. (And a fuel cell doesn’t “store energy,” it is a mechanism that extracts electricity from the chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen. The energy is stored as chemical energy just as it is with gasoline.)

        The point is that if you want to create hydrogen, you need electricity, and the process of:
        electricity -> hydrogen -> electricity
        is far worse than:
        electricity -> electricity stored in battery -> electricity
        It is the same as converting dollars into euros just to convert it back to dollars, except you have to pay very steep exchange fees with each step.

        “As for finding a “raw” hydrogen source, there isn’t one (unless you go to the sun). But the great things about renewable fuels is that we can keep making it, and don’t need to find a raw source of it anywhere.”
        You miss the point. It is because of the fact that there is no raw hydrogen, it must be made, which requires energy, which requires some fuel/raw material/etc to make that energy. If you make it from nat gas, you still have the limited resource problem as well as the CO2 problem. Try to use nuclear for all our cars & you will run into limited resources there, too. Eventually you end up with wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, etc., which all produce electricity, which takes us back to the conversion issue noted above.

        Hydrogen is in no way a long-term solution because of the limitation of conversion efficiencies. If we had everything else already in place, it could be a short term solution because it addresses the small issue of refueling times. But we already have fuels that work extremely well for the short term. A superior long-term solution is an all-electrical solution that charges quickly (which I suspect will involve capacitors more than batteries). Considering the recent progress in electrics, that seems more likely than increasing the efficiency of converting hydrogen multiple times. The fact that there really are NO fuel cell cars on the road but there ARE electric vehicles on the road means it is not the “best currently available alternative.”

        “no energy storage medium, batteries included, are 100% efficient. I’m glad you personally believe that batteries are going to leap decades ahead in the next year or so, but right now we’ve already solved hydrogen’s supply/efficiency problems.”
        Currently, the batteries in the Leaf & eFocus are ~85% efficient. (For comparison, electricity to hydrogen via hydrolysis of water is ~70%, and hydrogen to electricity via fuel cells is ~45% efficient, for a net efficiency of ~31%, or less than half what is CURRENTLY ON THE MARKET.) I don’t interpret that as having “already solved hydrogen’s efficiency problems.” Nowhere did I claim that batteries will leap decades in a year or two, nor do I think that we will leap decades with fuel cells in the next year or two. I do not share your irrational exuberance that fuel cells will suddenly become cheaper than batteries just because an assembly line makes them. What I do believe is that the progress of both technologies will continue, but given batteries’ head-start, it is unlikely that hydrogen tech will overtake battery tech.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, H20 is a greenhouse gas, but you’re not adding more of it to the atmosphere by running a fuel-cell car, assuming you’re getting your hydrogen by cracking water molecules. You’re just pulling it out of the water cycle and then returning it.

      The carbon you burn in your engine has been sequestered under the earth’s surface for eons, unless you’re running ethanol.

      • 0 avatar

        I think it’s a bit more complicated.

        Assuming that all hydrogen comes from water (not nat gas or other source), and assuming all that that hydrogen goes back to being water (and doesn’t leak from containers and escapes to the upper atmosphere), then yes, the overall amount of water stays constant. What may (or may not) change is the ratio of water vapor to liquid water.

        In places like AZ, there is little water vapor, and the exhaust from hydrogen will increase it. It is unlikely that water vapor will return to being liquid through condensation/precipitation locally. It may (or may not) do so somewhere else.

        We already observe heat island effect which is increased temps around cities due to building materials & industrial heat generation / exhaust. That means such local effects are possible. Also, in the time after 9/11 when planes were grounded, global brightness & high/low temps were measurably different due to the absence of contrails and/or the exhaust at high altitude produced by those planes. Using hydrogen instead of jet fuel will produce even more water vapor albeit without the CO2.

        If the average humidity around the world was 100%, then absolutely, using hydrogen would not increase the water vapor in the atmosphere. But it isn’t, and I don’t think anyone can say whether a hydrogen economy would increase it. But no one ever thought that CO2 from industry would change global climate (and many still don’t). I am therefore cautious about assuming that using hydrogen as a fuel will not lead to some sort of climate change.

    • 0 avatar

      I think redav is spot on. Let me see if I can put it more simply:

      * If you are going to generate hydrogen by stripping it from natural gas, it’s more energy efficient and cost efficient to just burn that natural gas in an internal combustion engine. With a synergy drive system you can gain power and efficiency and sill be much lower cost than a fuel cell vehicle.

      * If you are going to generate hydrogen by electrolysis of water, it’s more energy efficient and cost efficient to just use that electricity to charge batteries for a pure electric vehicle. You can add a range extender IC engine if you want. Whatever system is used for fast-charging fuel cells with hydrogen could be redeployed as a fast-charging system for batteries.

      A fundamental problem with fuel cells is that creating and storing the hydrogen is energy inefficient. So no matter how you slice it, you’re going to consume more energy with that system than when using other solutions that are capable of running on the same energy inputs. If nuclear fusion energy production ever happens and electricity becomes practically free, then by all means go for fuel cells, since their inefficiencies wouldn’t matter.

  • avatar

    I find the search for alternative fuels and development activity by the automakers fascinating and think this is a great opportunity to create any number of new business opportunities.

    In the interim, however, I’m wondering how I will carry a “can” of compresed hydrogen back to my car if I run out of gas on the highway . . . . .

  • avatar

    This deal isn’t as ‘huge’ as it seems, and there are some serious questions about this partnership.

    First to consider, neither Ford nor Daimler make their own fuel-cell stack. Ford’s fuel-cell is made by Ballard Systems, and Daimler is made by AFCC. AFCC is not coincidently owned by Ford, Daimler, and Ballard Systems.

    As for Renault-Nissan; Renault isn’t part of this deal (though they are open to join).

    Nissan is one of the few companies that actually designs and builds their own in-house fuel cell stack and technology. Add to this they have a existing mass production EV to base their fuel-cell car on. Nissan doesn’t want to give-up their technology, which they have been working on for decades, so easily.

    According to Bloomberg it seems that Nissan won’t be joining the AFCC, and Nissan will work under contract from Daimler. Basically what we have here is a Daimler-Ford Fuel Cell Project adding Nissan as a contractor.

  • avatar

    Unless we start running out of oil, you will never beat the cost of pumping a hydrocarbon out of the ground, refining it, and burning it inside a relative cheap chunk of metal known as the internal combustion engine. It requires imposing artificial “costs” on CO2 emissions to make alternative technologies appear cost effective. Setting high costs on CO2 emissions in turn requires clinging to global warming orthodoxy with a religious fervor. I for one can’t wait for the whole global warming edifice to collapse–hopefully it will happen soon before all cars are turned into $hit boxes that only an environmental wacko could love. The real inconvenient truth is that the earth has experienced no statistically significant warming in the last 12 years–even Michael Mann, the godfather of global warming, has admitted as such.

    • 0 avatar

      I know I shouldn’t be feeding the trolls, but even the morons at Faux News diagree with you:

      And then you can read this:

      You drive a car designed by engineers and scientists, and you trust them to make a fun, safe and reliable car. Yet those same scientists and engineers are clueless when it comes to the climate? The irony would kill you if you could see it.

      • 0 avatar

        I’m not going to play war of the web links with you. For every link you cite, I can also cite a link that bolsters my point. In the end, it comes down to who you believe. I trust my sources and my gut instinct, as an engineer and amateur scientist, over papers published by scientists who, but for government interest in global warming, would be out of a job. And I don’t watch Fox News. And I do believe in evolution–lest you start tagging me as some sort of luddite who doesn’t believe in science. What’s currently happening with climate studies is just that–studies, not science.

      • 0 avatar

        Spoken with the atavistic fervor of someone defending his gravy train. Goodbye, credibility.

    • 0 avatar

      Earth is moving in climate cycles relative to the Sun that last very long time. How will you explain tar sands and dino bones found in Alberta? It’s definitely does not have a climate that is favourable to dinosaurs. And after dinosaurs we had the Ice Age. Now Earth is starting to heat up again and everyone is blaming greenhouse gases that we produce. But it’s my personal opinion.

  • avatar

    “Spoken with the atavistic fervor of someone defending his gravy train. Goodbye, credibility.”

    What makes you think you know the first thing about me? I know its hard to believe that someone who reads an automotive blog might just be a car enthusiast, but that’s all I am. My livelihood in no way depends on the future of the internal combustion engine and I don’t work in the auto industry. My motivation, if I have one, is to preserve what’s good about the automobile and the freedom it provides–to not see it regulated out of existence by government bureaucrats and environmentalists.

  • avatar

    If ever there are hydrogen-powered vehicles, I can assure you that my state will be among the last to have an infrastructure for them. People here would much rather continue to drive around in their big body-on-frame SUVs…

    • 0 avatar

      On the contrary — with their large amounts of free space, and easily accessible and relatively simple drivetrains, big body-on-frame SUVs are among the easiest vehicles to refit.

      I have little interest in knee-jerk elitism, but do at least try to be logically consistent.

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