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Debunking the myths Why FCEVs are viable for the mass market

dr henri winand chief executive officer executive director Intelligent Energy - Debunking the myths Why FCEVs are viable for the mass market

by Dr. Henri Winand, CEO of Intelligent Energy

2014 has been a year of rapid growth for the fuel cell market with positive progress being made globally, especially in markets such as US, UK, Germany, France and Japan. Public-private investment initiatives, government funding for infrastructure and consumer subsidies, falling production costs and notably, the commitment to future OEM launches of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs)—all indicate a clear road to adoption.

The findings from last year’s UK H2 Mobility report support this conclusion, outlining that FCEVs represent an attractive and sustainable long-term business proposition and that they can deliver important environmental and economic benefits to the UK.Despite the recent progress, a number of myths around the use, power efficiency and cost of fuel cells still exist.

With global leading car OEMs such as Toyota, Honda, Hyundai all recently announcing their intentions to make their FCEVs available to the consumer, there is no doubt that the OEMs have done their homework. A hydrogen-powered version of Hyundai’s Tucson sport utility vehicle has already appeared in southern California showrooms. In August 2014, Hyundai’s ix35 fuel cell model was driven a record distance for a hydrogen-powered production car on a single tank, covering 435 miles across three Scandinavian countries. Honda next year will offer Californians futuristic sedans that can travel 300 miles (480 km) or more on a tank of hydrogen gas while emitting nothing more toxic than pure water vapor. Most recently, Toyota announced that its fuel cell sedan would also be available in the UK, USA, Germany and Denmark during the summer of 2015.

FCEVs are a real opportunity to offer motoring consumers a zero tailpipe emissions yet practical solution. It’s time to debunk a number of myths.

Myth #1: Hydrogen energy is not all that energy efficient

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe but, on earth, it must normally be extracted from water or organic compounds. This is not much different from diesel and gasoline which are produced from refining and cleaning crude oil (a process which heavily involves the use of hydrogen). Whilst hydrogen today is extracted from natural gas and is already a global, multi-billion dollar industry used in a wide range of industrial applications, it is also produced from renewable sources like solar, wind or biogas without the need to use fossil fuels. This renewable production capacity is increasingly important to ensure the existing power grid can accept more renewable sources. Of course, this also has the merit of producing so-called “green hydrogen”.

In addition, fuel cell vehicles have zero-CO2 and zero particulate tailpipe emissions. And, according to a report by the California Fuel Cell Partnership, cars that run on hydrogen derived from natural gas emit 55% to 65% less carbon than gasoline-powered ones, because of their higher efficiencies. Because fuel cells are much more efficient than internal combustion engines (ICEs), whether produced from natural gas or renewable energy, on a so-called ‘well-to-wheel’ basis, hydrogen used in FCEVs is much more efficient than natural gas burnt in ICEs. And of course, FCEVs also don’t spew carcinogens or smog-forming particulates and compounds which matter to public health in cities.

Myth #2: Hydrogen gas is dangerous to store and use

One of the most common arguments heard when discussing the use of hydrogen is that, as a flammable gas, it is easily ignited and therefore far too dangerous to be stored either in refueling stations or within a pressure tank. However, hydrogen is no more or less dangerous than other flammable fuels or the batteries used in electric cars, and vehicles with pressure gas storage tanks are nothing new. With millions of on-the-road miles driven over the last few years, an existing global multi-billion industry transporting and making hydrogen for many decades, the motive industry is certainly convinced that hydrogen can be stored safely, with Toyota very recently having received approval from Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) to self-inspect and manufacture hydrogen tanks for FCEVs.

To reinforce the safety aspect of using hydrogen storage tanks, Toyota reported that they had fired bullets at their carbon-fibre fuel tanks, which did little more than bounce off or make small dents.

In fact, hydrogen has a rapid diffusivity (3.8 times faster than natural gas), which means that when released, it dilutes quickly into a non-flammable concentration. Because of this it may even be considered a safer alternative to the gasoline we use today, which when spilt creates an easily ignitable hazard for an extended period and, unlike hydrogen which has a low emissivity (you can put your hand next to a hydrogen flame without being burnt), when ignited sets secondary fires as the heat generated by gasoline is high.

Myth #3: FCEVs and their supporting infrastructure are too expensive to build so they will never provide a mass-market alternative solution

The cost of making fuel cell vehicles has recently dropped dramatically. Recent advances in fuel cell manufacturing and catalyst performance have led to a dramatic decrease in the cost of fuel cell production. In a recent interview with digital publication Quartz, Gil Castillo, senior group manager of advanced vehicles for Hyundai in California, says costs have dropped 70% since the company began working on fuel cells in the late 1990s. So much so, Hyundai has announced it is leasing its hydrogen SUV for $499 a month, with fuel thrown in for free.

Manufacturers are working hard to further reduce the cost of FCEVs, and these will decrease as they scale production for mass market: nothing new to invent here, just volume manufacturing and product engineering like any other products. In fact, Toyota recently mentioned that it has been able to streamline its FCEV manufacturing process, by gaining Japanese government approval to build and inspect hydrogen tanks, which is expected to help reduce the enabling costs of installing fuel cells into electric vehicles.

Add to the mix a surge in global government funding initiatives and subsidies from California to Japan, and across Europe, and the case for affordable fuel cells and consequent infrastructure is strengthened. On the 1st of May 2014, the California Energy Commission announced that it will invest $46.6 million to accelerate the development of publicly accessible hydrogen refueling stations in California in order to promote a consumer market for zero-emission fuel cell vehicles. Furthermore, the Obama administration has launched the USA’s hydrogen strategy nationwide through the launch H2USA—a new public-private partnership focused on advancing hydrogen infrastructure to support more transportation energy options for US consumers, including fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs).

On 9 October 2014, the UK Government announced an £11-million investment to help establish an initial network of up to 15 hydrogen refueling stations by the end of 2015, and will include £2 million of funding for public sector hydrogen vehicles.

The investment in infrastructure is not a distant hope or contained to the US alone. According to ITS-Davis researchers, regional investment of US$100-$200 million to support 100 stations for about 50,000 FCEVs would be enough to make hydrogen cost-competitive with gasoline on a cost-per-mile basis. This level of investment is already poised to happen in at least three places: California, Germany and Japan.

Myth #4: It will be difficult and time intensive to fill up FCEVs with hydrogen at the pump

Drivers don’t have to make significant changes to their refueling behaviour to fill up their FCEV with hydrogen—a similar ‘nozzle-to-car’ method is the norm and unlike many other alternative fuel vehicles, standards already exist. The fuel cell electric vehicles manufactured by Toyota, Hyundai and Honda already allow an ‘at-pump’ refuel that will take only a few minutes to fill, compared to the extended periods (including overnight) required to recharge battery-only vehicles. Crucially the driver does not have to fill up again for several hundred miles. And hydrogen technology is already being trialled in fuel cell buses by a number of cities including London and can also be scaled up to long-haul trucks and other big vehicles.

Myth #5: FCEVs don’t have enough energy for long journeys

FCEVs offer zero tailpipe emission motoring without compromising on performance and range. The ability to carry more energy on-board the fuel cell vehicle in comparison to a battery powered car means that the fuel cell vehicles have greater range. And performance has improved over time. An FCEV can now achieve a much longer range with an on-board hydrogen gas tank, making it competitive with conventional and hybrid vehicles. In a real-world test on California roads, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) researchers demonstrated that a fuel cell-powered Toyota Highlander SUV can travel over 400 miles and achieve a fuel economy of 69 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe).

In fact, hydrogen cars now coming onto the market have triple the range of most battery electric cars and can be refueled in several minutes (rather than recharged in hours), and this is just the start.

With the advancement of fuel cell technology, it’s clear to see that the case for adoption of FCEVs will continue to grow. This will also be driven by ever tightening global policies on carbon emissions. Industry partners from OEMs, to governments and fuel cell technology providers need to continue to work together to seize this opportunity and deliver a highly scalable and viable tailpipe, emissions-free energy alternative for the mass market.

We’re excited about the opportunity that fuel cell technology offers to the automotive industry, and we look forward to welcoming further market advancements and examples of real-world commercial use that will come to market in the next 12 to 18 months.