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 Fuelcellworks.com. 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.