Carmakers Still See Promise in Hydrogen Fuel Cells

By EV World Editorial Staff

In the wake of Toyota and BMW collaborating on fuel cell technology, Ford, Daimler and Nissan announce their own trilateral agreement with aim of introducing commercially viable fuel cell cars in four years

Permit me to take you back in time a decade. General Motors had just recalled the EV1 electric car, Chrysler was about to become DaimlerChrysler, and Ford was busy looking for a buyer of its short-lived Th!nk electric car program. It was around this time that carmakers were promising to have production-ready, fuel cell-powered cars by the end of the decade; in other words by 2010, three years ago now.

Technically speaking, they accomplished that goal, if by production-ready, you don't also mean affordable by the average buyer. At the moment, here are a couple hundred fuel cell vehicles -- Honda FCX Claritys - running around southern California, plus some Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cells. (Note: pictured above is Mercedes F600 Hygenius fuel cell concept car). Hyundai has been demonstrating its own fuel cell SUV in North America and northern Europe, were Daimler also has a fair number of Citaro hydrogen-fueled transit buses in commercial operation.

Recent US government analysis indicates that progress is being made in terms of stack costs and performance, but the goal of a five thousand-hour automotive fuel cell stack, where hydrogen is electrochemically reunited with oxygen, cleanly generating an electric current, still eludes manufacturers. At best. they're only about halfway there, and most have demonstrated far fewer hours of operation than that.

The newest carmaker announcements suggest they are still looking for the next best power plant for their vehicles, one that offers the clean air advantages of battery-powered drivetrains and the refueling convenience of gasoline engines, along with the range. Most current generation hydrogen demonstrators offer driving ranges close to that of some ICE age models. But these collaborations also say the OEMs don't think the current crop of battery chemistries is going to cut it in the larger market place. So, the horserace between batteries and fuel cells appears to be back on.

Ford, Daimler and Nissan will share costs and research facilities; the two former at a joint facility near Vancouver, Canada they established around the time of the first flush of fuel cell excitement, along with a Daimler facility in Nabern, Germany. Nissan will work out of its operation in Oppama, Japan. The aim is to develop a common fuel cell power plant that each manufacturer can use, thus increasing the scale of production and thereby helping cut costs.

The announcement also seems aimed at their respective national governments, from whom they, no doubt, would like to see a few billion (Euros, Dollars, Yen) in funding.

What hasn't changed, of course, is the lack of hydrogen refueling infrastructure and its dependence on fossil fuels, principally natural gas that is reformed into hydrogen, most of it for gasoline refining purposes. Now that hydraulic fracturing has opened new sources of shale gas, converting some of it to hydrogen and sequestering the carbon may look a lot more promising than it did a decade ago. BP's latest energy forecast bullishly contends there are now decades, if not, hundreds of years worth of the stuff deep down, the environmental consequences be damned.

On a related and less ominous note, a research team at Princeton, just announced that they are one step closer to developing a catalyst that uses an enzyme similar to that used by microbes that expel hydrogen as a waste product. Such a catalyst, if successfully developed on a commercial scale, could separate hydrogen and oxygen in water will far less energy intensity and associated costs.

Driving a fuel cell vehicle isn't any different than a conventional one, other than the fact that the exhaust is water vapor instead of a long list of carcinogens and smog. But whether Toyota, who says they'll have their fuel cell car in production by 2015, or Honda, whose own fuel cell program was seriously set back by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, or GM, who recently moved their fuel cell program from New York state to Michigan, or Daimler, Ford, BWM or Nissan can actually keep their promise this time, remains to be seen.

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Originally published: 01 Feb 2013


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