Last year Elon Musk came straight out and said fuel cells are so bullsh*t. A couple months ago Slashdot ran an article asking where the future of automobiles was going: Fuel Cell or Battery Electric Vehicles. Mercedes, BMW, Mitsubishi, Renault / Nissan and of course Tesla are fully invested in battery powered electric vehicles, and yet somehow hydrogen fuel cells continue to be brought up as a viable alternative.

Fuel cells, like gasoline hybrid power-trains, are at best a stop-gap measure in the electrification of the automobile industry. The best case mass, volume and cost projections for fuel cells do not match the current state of the art li-ion batteries. As batteries become cheaper with higher power densities, faster charge times and more charging cycles, any business case for fuel cells will completely disappear.

Petroleum-powered automobiles in 2014 are a lot like the typewriters of 1984.

In the automobile industry, fuel cells serve two purposes: a solution that is equivalent to (and more expensive than) the internal combustion engine and an excuse to explain away continued lack of progress in electric vehicle development. Fuel cells amount to nothing more than a publicity campaign for automobile manufacturers to delay battery powered electric vehicles and promote the status quo.

Just as the USA automobile industry underestimated the market potential for small cars in the 1970's and 1980's, auto manufacturers clinging to dream of fuel cells underestimate the appeal of battery powered electric vehicles. The fuel cell offers a perfect distraction: a way to divert attention away from battery powered electric vehicles by promising a better solution "in the future" while focusing today on the business model auto manufacturers understand best: petroleum powered automobiles.
Hydrogen Road Tour

Plugging in becomes an afterthought, but you save an hour or two each month.

One attractive thing about driving a battery powered electric car is that you avoid wasting 10-15 minutes a week driving to the gas station to fill up at a fuel pump. In your daily routine, you just drive to the places you want to go and plug in your car when you arrive home. Plugging in becomes an afterthought and takes only a few seconds, but the result is that you save an hour or two each month. Fuel cell vehicles waste even more time filling-up because commercial hydrogen fueling stations are very scarce. There are only 12 in the US.

Delivery of electricity is much more efficient than hydrogen. The electricity grid already exists. Hydrogen is an incredibly difficult gas to transport because the hydrogen molecule is so small. Hydrogen suffers from handling issues because hydrogen embrittles metals and is highly explosive. And forget about getting hydrogen from the electrolysis of water: industrial hydrogen from electrolysis costs $67/million BTU compared with $11.5/million BTU for hydrogen from natural gas. Today 95% percent of hydrogen production comes from steam reformation of natural gas, so even with hydrogen fuel cells, our dependency on fossil fuels will continue.

The success of Tesla's business model when copied by other major automobile manufacturers will dramatically reduce the market for petroleum, reducing demand and lowering fuel prices, making many oil wells, oil tankers, tanker trucks, pipe lines, refineries and fuel stations obsolete. Gone with them are the environmental hazards and pollution they create. A Tesla Supercharging station costs about $200,000 and requires a one-time installation of a maintenance-free charging facility which is powered by the electric grid (or solar power). Hydrogen fueling stations can cost from $500,000 to $5 million per location. The costs associated with building a distribution network for hydrogen make it impossible for fuel cells to compete with electricity.

When electric vehicle charge at night they increase the efficiency of the electric grid. Today, the electric grid in the US runs close to full capacity from 8 in the morning to midnight. From midnight until 8 am, though, power stations have excess capacity but they can't just shut down. Power stations must remain online and all that additional electric capacity is often wasted. Storing 'wasted' capacity in batteries at night and using it to drive during the day will dramatically improve the efficiency of the electric grid without a significant increase in cost. Petroleum, hydrogen and ethanol have no way of competing with 'almost free.'

Hydrogen Comeback

The costs associated with building a distribution network for hydrogen make it impossible for fuel cells to compete with electricity.

Battery improvements from the EV1's lead-acid batteries to Tesla's lithium-ion technology have been dramatic. Tesla's Gigafactory will propel development in the battery industry to reduce battery material cost, increase power density, reduce weight and increase the number of battery cycles. The eventual outcome will be batteries with large storage capacity that weigh only a few hundred pounds, take up roughly the volume of an engine and gas tank, cost a fraction of what they cost today and have a very long lifespan. When this reality is reached - and it will - fuel cells will be irrelevant.

The expense of fuel cells, the dearth of hydrogen filling stations and readily available petroleum will ensure the dominance of internal combustion engine hybrid drive trains as the preferred stop-gap solution until the wholesale adoption of pure battery powered electric automobiles. Some automobile manufacturers remain focused on hybrids which trade expensive battery packs for an internal combustion engine with 'unlimited' range. One snapshot on how this is working: Chevrolet Volt sales are down 8.7 percent year-to-date while Nissan Leaf sales are up 34 percent.

Petroleum-powered automobiles in 2014 are a lot like the typewriters of 1984. Tesla has proven that stop-gap measures are no longer required and that pure-electric automobiles can succeed just as the Apple Macintosh proved in 1984 that computers would one day replace all typewriters. Household name typewriter manufacturers like Royal, Underwood, Remington and Olivetti are gone. IBM is the single exception and is a completely different company today than it was 30 years ago. It will be interesting to watch how the automobile industry changes and reinvents itself during the years ahead.


Charlie Paglee is the CEO of Brannan Auto, an American automotive component engineering and manufacturing company focused on China, specifically on the electric vehicle industry. Mr. Paglee has more than two decades of business experience in China and speaks fluent Chinese Mandarin. Mr. Paglee is an electrical engineer who started working with electric vehicles in 1991. Mr. Paglee was the Vice President of China for Fisker Automotive and before that he was Employee Number 5 at Aptera Motors.


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  • 273 Comments
      Jon
      • 7 Months Ago
      *Grabs popcorn* http://goo.gl/jQdP5q
      Bob Dobalina
      • 5 Months Ago
      Everyone said it can't work, what a waste of money, Toyota is dumb to invest so much money in this technology. And that’s just what they said about Prius… Tesla: 8 hour charge time, 100 mile range, still powered by fossil fuels, mainly coal. HFC has 3 times the range, one tenth the refill (“charge”) time and half the price of a Tesla. Not to mention the pollution required to make a LI battery. Plus almost no dealer network and no technological milestones in the near future for batteries. Tesla is nothing more than a toy for the rich, HFC is clean affordable transportation for the masses. The person that wrote the above article clearly bought some stock on bad advice lol.
      2 wheeled menace
      • 7 Months Ago
      10/10, confirms my bias
      Red Sage
      • 3 Months Ago
      @Marco Polo wrote, "The same people who built the massive existing infrastructure, could just as easily roll out H2 refuelling depots." Stop by the website for the California Fuel Cell Partnership. Once there, you'll see that the people who built that 'massive existing infrastructure' have NO INTEREST IN FOOTING THE BILL FOR THE INSTALLATION OF HYDROGEN FUELING STATIONS. They instead lobby strenuously for the Great State of California to build 100 of them at around $2,000,000 a pop. So why would dozens of companies, each with billions of dollars in their back pocket, decide NOT to invest a relatively paltry $200,000,000 in a technology they purport is 'The FUTURE of TRANSPORTATION!!!'...? I'll tell you why... Because Hydrogen is VIOLENTLY COMBUSTIBLE, far more so than gasoline. It is actually illegal to put those hydrogen fueling pumps in residential areas, convenient to consumers. There would be immense liability attached to their installation and no insurance company in their right mind would touch them no matter the premium. Oh, but government projects can get exemptions to those restrictions and can get the needed passes to complete construction. Once something is built by the state, the government holds all liability, effectively underwriting any potential accidents, or explosions, or lawsuits that derive as a result. So that means the Great State of California's tax payers would foot the bill for both building the hydrogen fueling stations and paying out the legal claims for deaths and injuries that come about when they inevitably fail tragically.
      • 7 Months Ago
      I have long waited to see electric cars become mainstream and the progress they are making has been pretty great. I was hopeful in days gone by with Zinc Air, Sodium Nickel Chloride etc. and now lithium - ion seems to be carrying the torch. What Tesla has done has been quite good and should be commended and encouraged. However, for those who claim that waiting 30 minutes to have their cars charge is no big deal as you can eat, sleep etc. while you charge, you have not been observing you fellow humans and their behaviour. These are the people who drive at 90 + mph, playing cat and mouse with the police and their lives just to get to their destinations a mere 15 - 20 minutes faster. These are the people who drive up to the drive-thru lanes of fast food restaurants and eat while on the move to not minimize dead time (time spent not rolling towards their destination). These are the people who swap drivers mid way through the trip while the other sleeps to "keep rolling or keep on truckin'" in US parlance. These are the folks who work a full day and then set off at 4 pm in the evening or later for an eight hour drive that is over 500 miles to arrive in the wee hours of the morning at their destination, often without making meal stops. They may grab something quick at their origin or enroute and be on their way, the stops being quite such as for a leg stretch or bathroom break.of no more than 10 minutes. Even for more normal folks, some people prefer to stop at their favourite pit stops along the way which may not align with the requirements of the next mandatory charging stop. In other words, people "DO NOT" want to have the stop locations be dictated by the needs of the vehicle. In my mind, if they do not get charge times down to 10 minutes at the most, EVs can garner no more than a fraction of the total market for this very reason. For the folks who dismiss H2, ask this question. Can battery only technology scale to the needs of society in a fully renewable energy system? In other words, what takes the place of natural gas fuel flexibility on anything more than a diurnal or few days basis? Even in a well connected grid setup, there are going to be times when without natural gas, you are going to be in a bind if you are relying on storage solutions that can't scale to seasonal level. The wind, solar , geothermal, biofuels balancing may still fall short sometimes simply because of the vagaries of the day to day weather on an annual basis. What happens in an emergency scenario where a natural disaster severs the continental connectivity, wouldn't an energy store be nice to have or are we saying in such a situation we revert to natural gas? That is the role H2 can play. Energy store of last resort for security of supply especially for a country without fossil reserves. For those who disparage efficiency, I can point to several current examples of situations where the most efficient usage pattern is not followed. Electric stoves, etc.
        Red Sage
        • 3 Months Ago
        In actual use, 99% of vehicles are parked somewhere 90% of the time. I don't see any ICE vehicles magically filling their tanks as they go down the road. If your car is parked anyway, while you work, while you sleep, while you shop, while you attend church, tabernacle, or temple... What's wrong with it charging during that time frame?
      elctrNmbliT
      • 7 Months Ago
      @Letstakeawalk I keep saying it over and over again and it seems that it keeps getting lost. On the actual HYUNDAI website for the Tucson FCV is clearly states "UP TO 265 MILES"! Do you think that they are lying about their own product and really people are tearing around actually getting 465 miles? "Bornstein and Hartvig averaged just 47 mph over a ten-hour, mixed-road drive." That sounds like hypermiling to me.
      elctrNmbliT
      • 7 Months Ago
      Only the Leaf is needing to replace batteries from their first couple of model years.They chose to go with a passive cooling system which didn't fare well in extreme hot climates.Their newest models have addressed this problem and there will be less issue."The replacement batteries will be the same packs as those in the 2015 LEAF, which feature a modified cell chemistry for improved durability in hot climates.The new heat-tolerant chemistry should alleviate worries about excessive capacity loss such as that experienced by some owners in the southwest United States" So far anecdotal evidence is showing that EV owners are seeing very little battery degradation south of 100,000 miles because of the advanced active temperature management systems and conservative DOD (Depth of Discharge) that modern EVs are using. Time will tell on this first generation of EVs. However, the next generation of batteries are coming out in the next couple of years and more advancements in the coming years will continue to extend the range with less range degradation. Anyway, one could replace a battery for $5K in a $29K Leaf 4 times to get you to a half a million miles and it would still be cheaper than the $70K dollar, slower than a Prius, Tucson FCV or similarly cost and performing Toyota FCV. "according to John O'Dell, senior editor for fuel efficiency at Edmunds, Hyundai may be losing money on their Tucson Fuel Cell model. He believes the retail price will be around $50,000 but the actual cost to manufacture the vehicle is in the $75,000 to $100,000 range." You:"A Tesla 85kW battery weighs about 1320 pounds as well. That's like driving around 4 325 pound people everywhere you go." Well the Hyundai is no lightweight either. And as you see in the specs it is pretty terrible in the efficiency department as well. Hyundai Tucson: Curb weight 4,101 lbs. MPGe 50 Tesla Model S: Curb weight 4,637 lbs. MPGe 89 Ouch. So the Tesla weighs about 500lbs more but blows the FCV away in MPGe. In fact the FCV has the same MPGe as a Prius but is much slower. You:"And on that long distance trip you better hope there's no line for the superchargers that might or might not be working" Did you just say that? The fact you actually can as of today drive across country on an existing supercharger network is totally lost on you. Can I drive my Tucson FCV across country? You know you're right on one thing though. We might have to wait in line for a supercharger because Tesla might not be able to build more of them fast enough to meet the demand of the hundreds of thousands of Teslas that will be on the road in 5-10 years when the Model 3 comes out. FCVs won't have that problem though.You can just pull right up to your local (and I mean local because you won't be able to leave town) hydrogen station and fill right up with no one in your way since all those Teslas, i3s, Leafs, and Volts will be all charged up traveling from their garages straight to work.
      • 7 Months Ago
      It doesn't matter if H is a good idea or not. In America any idea that makes enough money for someone will be promoted. The future and the environment be damned.
      jimmy_james44
      • 7 Months Ago
      That would be the engineers from GM, Nissan, BMW and Mercedes who support plug-in hybrid, i8, and EV's.
      Rob H
      • 7 Months Ago
      Charlie, you're an "ALL IN" kinda guy in favor of electric cars... you know as well as anyone that electric cars are NOT a big seller. In China, where you live, about 7,000 electric vehicles were sold last year, right? That's not looking great for electric cars taking over the automotive industry. Besides, electric cars were being built well over 100yrs ago and you know that too, so why not share those not so positive aspects about electric cars? You have an agenda, plain and simple. "Petroleum-powered automobiles in 2014 are a lot like the typewriters of 1984." seems like more than just a silly statement from my end and here's why. Typewriters were merely the current version of letter writing prior to email taking root. Email made type written information available to the receiver much more quickly. Can an electric car get a passenger to his destination much more quickly(say, email vs snail mail, quicker)? Of course it can't and it never will. That's more than just a subtle difference. I am not an engineer, but I've been in the automotive industry(recently retired) since the early 80's and have seen, even those 1970's and 80's changes you mentioned, first hand. You said, "Just as the USA automobile industry underestimated the market potential for small cars in the 1970's and 1980's, auto manufacturers clinging to dream of fuel cells underestimate the appeal of battery powered electric vehicles." also and while I don't disagree that Hydrogen fuel cells will never be a big deal with market share, I think you're completely incorrect about the auto industry having underestimated the small car back then. Perhaps you don't recall, the "Big3" all offered smaller cars as early as about 1970. American BUYERS had problems making the change, not the auto makers. It was SUCH a big deal to the makers, they bought in to foreign(Japanese) makers just to market small cars. Chrysler often simply re-badged an otherwise completely foreign vehicle. Taxation also played a role there, but I digress. It's just obvious you have an agenda and I think it's important to remember key facts and share them publicly. After all, most of your potential future customers may be 25 or less right now, but they're largely not interested right now. Those who are interested right now... should be spoken to like the adults they are. Suck it up. PS Underwood was purchased by Olivetti in 1959... Olivetti and Royal are both still in business. Like IBM, they've changed plenty.
      William Stockwell
      • 7 Months Ago
      I think fuel cells have a good chance to be the range extender in plug-in hybrids - but not hydrogen
      • 7 Months Ago
      Wind is the way to power electric cars. The wind either pushes against the car or the car pushes the wind, either way you use it charge the battery. You scoop the air from the front that's deflecting off the car into a blower cage, 4"-8" in diameter 10"-16" long with a small generator or alternator on both ends. If you can build a new car then make a two battery system , charge one run on the other one when low switch back to the one that's charge, go back and forth. This makes it possible to travel 500+ miles without stopping to charge. Air induction charging and storage system.
        Grendal
        • 3 Months Ago
        Science disagrees with you, Bill. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_perpetual_motion_machines
        skierpage
        • 3 Months Ago
        You're an idiot and the conservation of energy would like to have a word with you.
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