Despite Volkswagen’s embarrassing Dieselgate exploits there’s no doubt that the motor industry is serious about cleaning up its act. And supported by government funding, such as Britain’s recently announced grant of £400 million to promote plugin hybrids electric vehicles show signs of making a difference.
However in the 2011 State of the Union, President Obama called for 1 million electric plug-in cars to be on American roads by 2015. Well, by the end of 2015 the Americans were less than one-third of the way there. What happened?
In 2012 the Obama government predicted that GM would be selling 120,000 Chevy Volts annually, and that by 2014, Nissan would be churning out 100,000 plug-in Leafs per year. Even though 2014 was seen as a decent year for the EV market, and quite a good year for the category-leading Leaf, only about 30,000 Leafs sold. That was an all-time high, but far short of the forecast: And Volt sales didn’t even top 20,000 in 2014.
It’s no great surprise that America is coming up way short on the 2015 EV goal. By 2013, Obama and the Energy Department admitted that it wouldn’t happen, even as federal policies promoting EV adoption will exceed $7.9 billion through 2019, including but not limited to a $7,500 tax credit for each EV purchase.
Among the reasons often cited for lower-than-wished-for EV sales are their limited driving range and lengthy charge times.
Whilst EVs are rapidly moving towards charge times approaching those of current petrol/ diesel powered vehicles there is an alternative technology that meets global emissions standards and can be charged in a matter of minutes: Hydrogen fuel-cells.
Proton exchange membrane fuel cell technology is clean and convenient.
Fuel cell vehicles use hydrogen gas to power an electric motor. Unlike conventional vehicles which run on gasoline or diesel, fuel cell cars and trucks combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, which runs a motor. Since they’re powered entirely by electricity, fuel cell vehicles are considered electric vehicles, but unlike other EVs, their range and refueling processes are comparable to conventional cars and trucks.
The proton exchange membrane fuel cell (PEMFC) uses a water-based, acidic polymer membrane as its electrolyte, with platinum-based electrodes. PEMFC cells operate at relatively low temperatures (below 100 degrees Celsius) and can tailor electrical output to meet dynamic power requirements.
Due to the relatively low temperatures and the use of precious metal-based electrodes, these cells must operate on pure hydrogen. PEMFC cells are currently the leading technology for light duty vehicles and materials handling vehicles, and to a lesser extent for stationary and other applications. The PEMFC fuel cell is also sometimes called a polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell (also PEMFC).
Hydrogen fuel is processed at the anode where electrons are separated from protons on the surface of a platinum-based catalyst. The protons pass through the membrane to the cathode side of the cell while the electrons travel in an external circuit, generating the electrical output of the cell. On the cathode side, another precious metal electrode combines the protons and electrons with oxygen to produce water, which is expelled as the only waste product; oxygen can be provided in a purified form, or extracted at the electrode directly from the air.
A variant of the PEMFC which operates at elevated temperatures is known as the high temperature PEMFC (HT PEMFC). By changing the electrolyte from being water-based to a mineral acid-based system, HT PEMFCs can operate up to 200 degrees Celsius. This overcomes some of the current limitations with regard to fuel purity with HT PEMFCs able to process reformate containing small quantities of Carbon Monoxide (CO). The balance of plant can also be simplified through elimination of the humidifier.
Refueling a fuel cell vehicle in minutes.
Refueling a fuel cell vehicle is comparable to refueling a conventional car or truck; pressurized hydrogen is sold at hydrogen refueling stations, taking less than 10 minutes to fill current models. Some leases may even cover the cost of refueling entirely.
Once filled, the driving ranges of a fuel cell vehicle vary, but are similar to the ranges of gasoline or diesel-only vehicles. Compared to battery-electric vehicles the combination of fast, centralized refueling and longer driving ranges make fuel cells particularly appropriate for larger vehicles with long-distance requirements, or for drivers who lack plug-in access at home.
Like other EVs, fuel cell cars and trucks can employ idle-off, which shuts down the fuel cell at stop signs or in traffic. In certain driving modes, regenerative braking can be used to capture lost energy and charge the battery.
OEM’s are hedging their bets.
Since General Motors and Honda teamed to develop hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles two years ago, the partners have slashed the size, weight and cost of the fuel cell stack, the chemical processor that combines hydrogen and oxygen to make the electricity that powers the vehicle, says Charlie Freese, GM executive director of global fuel cell engineering.
The stack’s “next generation is running in our laboratory now,” Freese said. “Weight is down by almost one half. Size is also down by almost one half. And cost has come down in orders of magnitude.”
By way of example the precious metal loading of the next generation stack will be reduced from 29g to 10g, and is already running in the GM laboratory. Furthermore weight is down by almost 50% and size is also down by almost one half, with cost being reduced in orders of magnitude.
GM is No. 1 in the world in fuel cell patents and Honda No. 2; by combining forces, the JV has created broadest patent portfolio in the business, and by leveraging the strengths of the two companies the joint-venture has managed to significantly reduce the learning cycle and associated costs.
In an effort to promote the technology another major player in fuel-cell technology, Toyota, made available more than 5,500 fuel cell patents, providing royalty-free licenses to other automakers and entities.
Unveiling the initiative at the 2015 CES, physicist, futurist and author Dr. Michio Kaku said from Toyota’s dais: “We’re leaving the age of hydrocarbons and entering the age of hydrogen to create a hydrogen non-polluting society. Seventy-five percent of the universe is made out of hydrogen. Hydrogen is the most plentiful substance in the universe. Contrast that now to oil, black gold, one of the rarest of substances on the Planet Earth. Nations will kill to secure supplies of oil. Oil is found perhaps in the most dangerous, volatile, unstable areas of the Planet Earth.”
Toyota are working toward launching the first generation hydrogen fuel cell vehicles between 2015 and 2020. In order to achieve this a concerted effort and unconventional collaboration between automakers, government regulators, academia and energy providers will be essential.
The approximately 5,680 total global patents break down into roughly 3,350 fuel cell system software control patents, 1,970 fuel cell stack-related patents, 290 high-pressure hydrogen tank patents, and 70 hydrogen production and supply patents.
All of these will be made available to fuel cell vehicle manufacturers, fuel cell parts suppliers, and hydrogen fueling station companies through an initial market introduction period that Toyota expects to run until 2020. Toyota will also consider requests from outside the transportation sector on a case by case basis.
The future of hydrogen fuel-cell mobility.
At the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit Honda Motor Co announced that it would start selling its new hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in California by year’s end.
The Japanese automaker will launch the next-generation Honda Clarity Fuel Cell model at around $60,000 with a targeted monthly lease under $500. Honda declined to say how many it planned to sell.
Whilst the focus remains on electrification the underlying power generation is still open to discussion: Full EV, Hybrid, Plugin hybrid and fuel-cell; and I think that, as was the case in the early 1900’s, we may see a proliferation of new and exciting technologies evolve over the next few years.