SAE Congress '08: the problems of fuel cell commercialization

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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