Honda and GM Persevere with Fuel Cell Technology Despite Funding Cuts

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Considering the current administration has cut funding for hydrogen fuel cells for use in cars, it is surprising that so many auto manufacturers are persevering, especially in these hard pressed times. Energy Secretary Steven Chu all but laughed-off the technology’s prospects, saying that it’s at least 15 to 20 years and “four significant technological breakthroughs” away from viability. Chu is reported to have quipped, “If you need four miracles, that’s unlikely. Saints only need three miracles.” But may be that’s just what GM thinks they can pull off following the significant leap forward their fifth generation fuel cell technology has displayed. And they are not alone. Daimler and Honda are also persevering with the technology even though the latter say it is 2015-2020 before it will be commercially viable.

Hydrogen fuel cells are not to be confused with burning hydrogen in internal combustion engines, a process that various manufacturers have tried over the years, most recently Mazda’s MX-8 rotary engined prototype that runs to all intents and purposes like a gas powered car, only with lower power output. Hydrogen fuel cells take hydrogen gas and pass it between platinum plates which act as catalysts to combine oxygen from the air and hydrogen to form water and electricity. The electricity is used to power electric motors that drive the wheels in much the same way as the Tesla Roadster. The technology is only truly non polluting though if the hydrogen is produced by electrolysis of water using renewable energy. Most hydrogen today is split from hydrocarbons making it barely better than other fossil fuels like petrol. Even when split from water if power is drawn off the national grid, some 50% of it will be generated from coal and 20% from natural gas, raising its carbon footprint as if it were a fossil fuel.

As a commercial concept, the hydrogen fuel sell faces some pretty stiff challenges. First, there aren’t many places to fill up. That was part of the idea of behind the Bush administration’s funding of hydrogen stations in Los Angeles. So far there are about 16 stations and only Honda offers a vehicle to the general public, the FCX Clarity available on lease according to The other is the technology currently relies on significant quantities of expensive platinum for the catalysts. Figures aren’t available for the Clarity, but GM’s latest cell has cut platinum usage from 80gms in the 4th generation to 30gms in the 5th.   The goal for next generation is 10gms and there is a lot of research going into developing alternative catalysts such as palladium and even iron and cobalt.

This all begs the question though why manufacturers like Honda, GM, Daimler and others (in fact pretty much all the majors have fuel cell research programs) are persevering with hydrogen fuel cells? The answer is probably back in Steven Chu’s derisory summing up of the industry. With so many smart brains working in the field, none of the auto makers want to risk being left behind if a miracle in the form of a technological breakthrough does happen. A zero polluting car that can be refueled as quickly as a gas engine does have its attractions.

–Stuart Burns

Comments (9)

  1. Greg Blencoe says:

    Toyota is actually the leader in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. See all of their progress in the following article.

    7 reasons to love Toyota hydrogen fuel cell vehicles

    Here are 7 reasons to love Toyota hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (which the company started developing in-house back in 1992 when I was a senior in high school):

    1. 431-mile real-world driving range with Toyota FCHV-adv (mid-size SUV) hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (See YouTube video below)

    2. 68.3 real-world miles per kilogram fuel economy with Toyota FCHV-adv (See YouTube video below)

    3. Ability to operate in temperatures as low as minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 30 degrees Celsius)

    4. Irv Miller, TMS group vice president, environmental and public affairs, made the following comment on August 6th:

    In 2015, our plan is to bring to market a reliable and durable fuel cell vehicle with exceptional fuel economy and zero emissions, at an affordable price.

    5. Masatami Takimoto, a Toyota executive vice president and board member, made the following comment in January at the North American International Auto Show:

    By 2015, we will have a full-fledged commercialization effort.

    6. The Toyota FCHV-adv (Highlander) hydrogen fuel cell vehicle has the same trunk and passenger space as the gasoline-powered version.

    Click on the following link to see a picture of the trunk in the Toyota FCHV-adv hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.

    7. Here is a comment made by Justin Ward, advanced powertrain program manager-Toyota Technical Center, in a Ward’s Automotive article (subscription required) that was published on July 16th:

    We have some confidence the vehicle released around 2015 is going to have costs that are going to be shocking for most of the people in the industry. They are going to be very surprised we were able to achieve such an impressive cost reduction.

    Greg Blencoe
    Chief Executive Officer
    Hydrogen Discoveries, Inc.
    “Hydrogen Car Revolution” blog

  2. John says:

    Give it up Greg, all your postings won’t make hydrogen work, as much as you may want it. Intelligent people realize it’s an inefficient means of storing electricity, and no one wants to be tied to oil companies once again, even if they are now pushing hydrogen.

  3. Ian Falconer says:

    And John has hit the proverbial nail on the head. Hydrogen allows the current oil majors to preserve their business models. There is no real-world hydrogen price right now, but I’m willing to bet that full-cycle margins on a ‘gallon of hydrogen’ would be similar to a gallon of gasoline.

    I’m not sure that I agree that the technology doesn’t work, the question for me is whether it is a step forward in terms of performance in the full life cycle when you include all the infrastructure needed to produce the H2.

    To me it looks likely that H2 production will be linked to advanced, high temp coal combustion and CCS, since electrolysis is currently ruled out on the basis that the asbestos membranes needed to withstand industrial scale temperatures are now illegal in the EU.

    So, given that you’re currently looking at platinum mining and coal, I’m also not sure that its non-polluting in full life cycle. Yes, it spits out drinking water at the tail pipe, but we can see past that can’t we ?

    I think that what Chu is looking at is getting to non-metallic membranes/SOFCs, maybe carbon nano-tubes or graphene as the membrane. That would get rid of the need for platinum. Couple that with algal biofuels as a feedstock and you get somewhere close to what H2 fuel cells said they would be. The question is why would you bother ?

    If you can do the tings listed above, you could almost certainly run the fuel cell directly on biofuels with no need to ‘distill’ it to pure H2.

    The current fuel cells are, in the same way as the Prius, a stepping stone both in psychological and technological terms. A bit ‘Model T’ to begin with but eventually you get to the McLaren F1.

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