Fuel Cells Finally Showing Promise? – Part One

Fuel cells are one of those technologies we have covered before, usually citing some manufacturer who is fan-faring a new technology purported to be game-changing for the cost structure of the hydrogen fuel cell market. So far, fuel cells are used predominantly in specialist applications such as submarines and space vehicles, or in remote areas where power requirements are low yet refueling is expensive or difficult — or both.

The breakthrough application would be an economically viable application in automobiles, but according to the FT, carmakers have sunk large amounts of money into hydrogen research programs with little to show for it so far, in terms of cars on the road. General Motors says it has invested $2 billion in the technology to date. But although it says it has a test fleet of 100 fuel-cell vehicles on the road in Europe and the US, which will be ready for market introduction by 2016, there is not a viable business model for providing a refueling infrastructure or firm details of what models will be powered by fuel cells.

The reality is as attractive as zero-carbon-emission vehicles are: if the vehicles are prohibitively expensive in the first place and there is not a robust, widespread refueling infrastructure in place, the public will not buy. Just witness sales of all electric vehicles — barely 1,000 plug-in vehicles were registered in Britain last year out of a market for some 2 million cars.

So the British government’s launch of two initiatives (backed, it must be said, by hard cash) sounds like something of a leap of faith if it wasn’t for the parties involved and some interesting technological developments. The first is a bringing-together of industry firms, including Air Liquide, Johnson Matthey, Daimler, GM, Shell, Total and others in a program called H2 Mobility, as part of a US and European-wide drive to map out the steps necessary to make the technology commercially viable by 2015.

In itself this could be yet another taxpayer-funded talking shop, but one hopes the presence of the oil companies may ensure that any resulting road map has sufficient critical thinking into the refueling infrastructure, which is seen as a make-or-break issue in widespread adoption. Oil firms cannot be said to have embraced the re-charging requirements of electric cars to date, probably because the technology still requires lengthy re-charging times incompatible with current gasoline forecourt layouts or power supply options.

The second initiative follows on neatly from this issue: the UK government is backing two firms in a joint effort to develop self-contained hydrogen refueling stations that could be introduced to just about any contemporary gas station, along with a liquid catalyst fuel cell that would bring down the up-front cost of the fuel cell, so that jointly, the power cost would drop to $37 per kW generated, making it competitive with conventional engines, say backers of the project, the Carbon Trust.

What about the costliness of catalysts? Read on in Part Two later today…

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