Car fuel cells: the road ahead
(This article is from Energy storage Report published on 2nd October 2013)
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
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
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 petrolpowered 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
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!