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There was a panel discussion at this week's SAE Congress that I couldn't pass up. Titled "Fuel Cell Vehicle Panel: Challenges Remaining for Commercialization," the session was a bit of a brainstorm on just how we might one day drive hydrogen-fueled cars with some of the people who are working quite diligently on the problem today. The panel featured Dr. Massimo Venturi, CTO of NuCellsys GmbH, Germany, Dr. Kev Adjemian, senior principle engineer, Nissan Fuel Cell Laboratory, Michigan, and Dr. James Miller, director, Electrochemical Technology Program, Argonne National Lab (for DOE), Fuel Cell Laboratory, Chicago. The three spoke and answered questions for about 30 minutes. Needless to say, the big problems weren't solved in this half hour, but it was enlightening to hear from another industry panel where things stand today regarding the automobile and the hydrogen economy. Considering that the public's perception of hydrogen fuel is currently defined (for many) as the Hindenberg explosion, there are more than just technological issues to deal with.

Because of the nature of the SAE Congress, I did not have permission to post the audio of this panel. Instead, I've detailed some of what was said and given a few of my own thoughts after the break.

Adjemian said in his introductory remarks that the competition between the different factions of the green car community really needs to be toned down (it's not hard to notice the divide between EV and hydrogen proponents here on AutoblogGreen, for example). A lot of the technology that gets developed for one fuel type or powertrain type can later be transferred to another he said. I hear this a lot, mostly from the EDTA, which is the Electric Drive Transportation Association, and lumps hybrids, fuel cell vehicles and BEVs under the "electric drive" umbrella. While I certainly don't expect anyone to stop promoting their own favorite technology (the comments section would be so boring if everyone did), I think Adjemian has a valid point about the mobility of some of the technology.

And Adjemian should know. Just two weeks ago, he left Japan for the U.S. to help Nissan set up a new hydrogen fuel cell laboratory here in Michigan sometime in the near future (late '08 or early '09, I think he said). To further hydrogen technology advancement, he said, Nissan is quite willing to partner with other companies in the fuel cell field. Nissan is willing to open their technology to the partner as much as the partner will open to them, he said.

One attendee asked about the amount of precious metal that is used in a fuel cell, compared to a standard gasoline or diesel engine. Today, a conventional ICE might have a few grams of platinum whereas today's fuel cells use roughly 40 grams. Considering that the cost of platinum has doubled in recent years, finding ways to reduce the platinum content is paramount. The DOE does have an active program that is investing a lot of R&D funds into finding ways to reduce or eliminate platinum in hydrogen fuel cells.

Currently, the only private citizens who are driving hydrogen-fueled cars are a.) celebrities in a Hydrogen 7 or b.) people participating in some sort of automaker fuel cell vehicle test fleet (e.g., Project Driveway). When someone asked about the possibility of selling a small number of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles at a high price, creating a sort of niche market, Adjemian responded that this isn't something that the OEMs are willing to do quite yet. After all, they are investing a lot of money in R&D on this technology and to see a return on all of that, hydrogen vehicles have got to become a large player in the market.

Miller said the DOE is not in the position to choose a pathway of hydrogen production for widespread use, but does prefer renewable sources of energy over fossil fuels as a way to produce hydrogen. Venturi's view is that hydrogen production should be decided at the local level, so nuclear production might be best in France while other areas might get their hydrogen from biomass sources. Similarly, whether the hydrogen is produced on site or in a centralized regional area will be best defined by the hydrogen users/sellers. Customers, Venturi said, probably won't care but costs will dictate what happens.

When a question was asked about any possible new sensors that will be needed in hydrogen fuel cell cars, Adjemian said that sensors certainly play an important role in making sure the FCV is safe (see: that Hindenberg issue) while Venturi said that he'd like to see fuel cells that are so stable that no sensors are needed. That comment drew laughs from the audience.


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  • 21 Comments
      • 7 Years Ago
      I'd like to make sure here that everyone knows that there are two types of Hydrogen vehicles. There are the Fuel Cell type which are really a battery replacement for an electric car, and then there is say the BMW Hydrogen 7 which is an internal combustion engine running hydrogen. The later must be excluded from this article and discussion as powering a car this way (BMW) is on a whole other level, and a very intelligent level at that. I hope people here and the writers of this article will grasp this understanding.
      • 7 Years Ago
      I don't think the level of competition is inappropriate at all. The fuel cell side is responsible for much of it, when for instance they convinced CARB to stop the EV program, since hydrogen was just around the corner. The fact that the head of CARB at the time was also on the board of a hydrogen fuel cell consortium didn't help suppress the conspirosy theorists.

      I am convinced that pratical hydrogen fuel cell technology will always be 10 to 20 years away, and serves mainly to stall progress on other alternatives, mainly BEVs.

      Also, when the DOE spends money on fuel cells that means less money is available to go into battery technology. The amount of crossover technology is really not that big, and consists mostly of batteries that fuel cell vehicles need to recover energy when braking. Those batteries are similar to what is required for hybrids, but not so much to the ones required to implement BEVs.
      • 7 Years Ago
      The problem with fuelcell is that nobody know how to commercialize something that is free to produce but require some machinery and some investment and that don't have any customers.
      • 7 Years Ago
      I fail to see consumers ever embracing genset trailers or battery swapping--I don't see the public ever accepting it.

      EVs will need to be at least equal to our current GAS-and-go ICE cars. The point is to make things better, not make a product that is less convenient that what is replaces.
      • 7 Years Ago
      "That leads me to see that will likely see extended range electrical vehicles that rely on a fuel cell to provide energy beyond, say 40 miles as in the Volt."

      How you can you complain about unused deadweight for most trips in one breath, then turn around and advocate adding in several hundred pounds worth of engine, generator, pollution controls, tank, and fuel as though it's weightless?

      Personally, I find the ideal solution for those obsessed with range (which I think is the wrong focus, personally) is a Long Hauler-style trailer. Take it when you need it, leave it when you don't.
      • 7 Years Ago
      If the fuel cell industry can ever make the fuel cells CHEAP enough maybe they could build small trailers (as someone above mentioned) with the fuel cell in it that BEV (or even E-REV) owners could RENT for long trips ... like at Avis, Hertz, etc.

      They could have these rental centers all over the place. The rental centers could make the hydrogen on site ... inexpensively maybe ... from water preferably instead of natural gas. Maybe the solar technology will be good enough soon so that cracking hydrogen from water will get cheap. I hear there are several new ways to get the hydrogen actually. Solid hydrides, using bacteria that make it, etc. Who knows which method will be ideal. Whichever one is cheapest will probably be used.

      I bet hydrogen fuel cells start being used first in truck and car FLEETS. Companies like Wal Mart, UPS, Fedex and those guys might be the first ones to get fuel cells .... that is, IF the fuel cell industry can make their stuff cheap enough. They could have their own networks of hydrogen pumping stations with other companies. A lot of utility trucks go on very regular routes so it probably wouldn't be a big deal for them to only have a dozen or so hydrogen pumps in each city at first.

      They could build "recharging trucks" (or "hydrogen refueling trucks" if that is safe) to help with the people who run out of hydrogen if they get stuck in traffic or something. They should make hydrogen fuel cell trucks and cars have PLUG-IN capability like the Volt. A recharging truck could juice them up quick (or pump a little hydrogen) to get them to the nearest hydrogen pump.

      I think it's a good idea for fuel cells to be rolled out first with the company fleets to prove to the general public that hydrogen vehicles will be safe and reliable enough. Even though they are expensive now, I would like them to at least TRY to make hydrogen fuel cells work. We won't know what's possible until we do a bunch of "pilot tests" to find out.

      I think E-REVs (series hybrids) like the Volt are going to dominate for the next 10+ years. If the fuel cells, the hydrogen itself and infrastructure gets in place, it would probably be pretty easy for GM to simply yank out the IC engine in the Volt and drop in a fuel cell. Maybe GM will design the Volt to be so modular that this is a very easy to do.

      Drive your Volt til 2020 and then it's "out with the old, in with the new" time ... with a shiny, new fuel cell. Then you REALLY have "street cred" with the environmental folks. More bragging rights. Just water vapor coming out of your car then. Hot looking environmentalist chicks at Earth Day might even give you a big hug for it. :)

      Who knows what could happen by 2020 with the battery technology though. We might not even need fuel cells at all if some company comes up with a SUPER energy concentrated, lightweight battery that is quick charging and goes 300+ miles. That would THE ideal thing to happen. That would change everything. No doubt.
      • 7 Years Ago
      @Seidl:
      At the risk of telling you something you already know I offer the following: The cost of BEV batteries is predicted to follow pretty much an equation of 50% price per kWh improvement every 5 years. This is somewhat of a modified Moore's Law where the price decreases 50% every 18 months for chip production. so the price will decrease as research brings improvements to the market; currently ranges of 100 miles are commonly attainable and the idea of tailoring the amount of battery weight to cover the daily drive are a good start to making the BEVs more feasible. Range extension using an on-board light-weight genset and portable trailer gensets are all possible today to solve the range problem while we wait for the cost of batteries o decrease and their performance to increase. Automated Robot battery exchange stations is an idea that is taking root to solve the range problem also.

      The currently active project "Better Place" has addressed many of the problems of changing a country over to solar power and battery cars. Among the plans are to implement a country-wide grid of electrical receptacles; where ever there is a parking place, there will be a near by plug to charge the BEVs battery. The plans also include the idea of exchanging batteries by robotic stations and the basic ongoing idea of improving the battery technology by free upgrades. The batteries are rented and the cars are purchased with the cost of the cars varying based on a subscription rate; just like the cell phone model in use today.

      I invite you to jump to : http://www.projectbetterplace.com/
      • 7 Years Ago
      The biggest problem with fuel cells is that using hydrogen as an automobile fuel is insanely stupid, due to some fundamental laws of chemistry and physics which cannot be either wished or legislated away.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Unlike fossil fuels, hydrogen is not an energy source; it is an energy distribution mechanism. We need to produce the hydrogen gas from fossil materials (the one exception is water electrolysis) compress it into a liquid, store it, distribute it and pump it under high pressure into a car's container system. This is in itself a very difficult problem to solve. In the car we currently have two choices: burn it in an internal combustion engine at a loss of 70 to 80% or run it through a very very expensive fuel cell. The best we can hope for is to recover 25% of the original energy needed to produce the hydrogen fuel. It is an inefficient process that is not close to being ready for prime time in the mass market.

      The real question is will the auto industry and the oil industry continue to use the hydrogen car as weapon to lobby against plug in electric cars or will they follow the lead of Israeli and Denmark and embrace plug in technology so our country can once again move to the head of the economic line. The electric car is a disruptive technology that threatens the control of the energy market by the oil companies. Will they continue to delay this new technology by predatory lobbying or will they decide to support the inevitable change?

      As an aside: The solution for extending low range, slow charging batteries in BEVs is initially carrying a range extender as suggest above and as the battery ranges are increased by a simply swap out of the battery with a robot battery service station as will be done in Israel and Denmark.
      • 7 Years Ago
      @Mike:
      "If you look at nations where gasoline is over $7/gallon for over a decade, BEVs have failed to catch on. In other words, the argument that higher fuel prices alone will cause a move towards BEVs has yet to be proven in any real world scenario."

      A decade ago, battery technology was lead acid and NiMH, with the NiMH under control of Cobasys. NiMH EVs could have been possible at the time had Cobasys not taken companies to court who attempted to build large format NiMH batteries. Even Toyota has been limited by not being able to build large format NiMH power units. Google "Cobasys' and do a little research for an interesting story of oil company control of NiMH batteries.

      "Even if we assume that fuel prices go to $10/gallon, with a 35 mpg car, the annual fuel cost is only $3,500--or about 12% of median income. Buy a Prius and even with $10/gal gas you will spend more each month on dinning out or apparel than on gas."

      Don't I wish I had this budget! I'm still a middle-class person moving further toward becoming a peon because of the Bush policies; but that's another story. I would like to refer you to the following web site and ask that you read the white paper as an information source: http://www.projectbetterplace.com/

      "Tesla motors nailed the issue facing BEVs, the people that promote them generally hate cars to begin with and therefore they produce ‘penalty box’ cars that are more about targeting their own guilt than producing a better product—which is a shame because as Tesla proves BEVs CAN be better than an ICE car if you put the effort into it."

      Another budget issue for me and I suspect many others in that their roadster costs $100,000 USD and their whitestar sedan product is expected to cost $50,000 USD. I still drive a '97 Volvo that cost $20,000 used off lease 1n 1999.

      "The reality is that gasoline is still very cheap, and BEVs have to create a product that people WANT to drive, because if England is any example, people will drive a Ford KA before they drive a G-Wiz. BEVs have a lot of advantages, but let’s remember the key to great businesses: Increase Customer Value and Reduce Costs. Those that only do one are doomed to fail."

      I hate to repeat myself; but, I live on a fixed income and have a problem with $4 bread; there are others that do also, and with the price of fuel at $4 per gallon, I must concern myself with every gallon I use. $10 gasoline and you would force me to consider a three wheel ZAP!

      I think I can safely say that you and I are in different tax rate brackets and that we can agree to disagree.
      • 7 Years Ago
      @Lad
      "Indeed, look how long the advance of battery technology has been stalled."
      I want to say that's true of auto-grade batteries, but for consumer based battery the development has been moving along in a steady pace, though not anywhere near as fast as the other tech (like Moore's law for transistors, for example). But development of auto-grade batteries have really only been continued these recent years. Again 2010 is a year to look out for, b/c supposedly that's the year when lots of these new PHEVs/BEVs are supposed to come out or have already come out, and we can see how the various electrical energy storage technologies fare.
      • 7 Years Ago
      If someone insists to you that the efficiency problem of fuel cells will be solved just around the corner, just tell them, "Gibbs free energy" and leave it at that. The maximum efficiency of a fuel cell at realistic temperatures is lower than the combination of power tranmission, rectifier losses, and battery losses for li-ion and its variants combined. So even if your hydrogen was generated with no losses, not even rectifier losses, you'd *still* be saving energy with a BEV. And not like "lossless hydrogen" is even remotely realistic.
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