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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Fuel Cells Still a Viable Option?

Based on an original post by Daniel Tomm on the Econ 244 course blog

By chance there is a CNN Money story today (Aug 15) on fuel cells, Has the fuel cell car's time finally come? by Brian Dumaine, senior editor-at-large @FortuneMagazine, which will appear in the September 2, 2013 issue of Fortune. This post was written prior to seeing that story.

Automotive News reported here on May 13th that Hyundai, Mercedes, Nissan, and Toyota have been working with the U.S. Department of Energy to prepare hydrogen fuel-cell powered cars. This public-private partnership – if successful – will lead to a new class of alternative fuel vehicles. These would cut point-source emissions to zero, because the only on-vehicle byproduct is water. At present the underlying hydrogen source is natural gas; fuel cells thus likely have a low overall greenhouse gas emissions burden.

...specialized applications may develop ... passenger cars won't be one of them...

As of now only the Honda FCX Clarity and the Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-cell are used in certain U.S. markets as test vehicles. With the help of the DOE there are hopes of increasing the number of car options using fuel cells. One problem is that there are not many fueling stations, making them impractical for most vehicle users. New partnerships may help shift this chicken and egg dilemma, as Nissan, Mercedes-Benz and Ford unveiled a joint venture with the intent of bringing fuel cell vehicles to market by 2017.

The Prof drove an experimental Ford fuel cell vehicle a decade or so ago. The fueling barrier noted above seems no lower than before. Hydrogen, however, is widely used in industry so given demand, stations could be set up, as we're seeing with natural gas and with fast electric vehicle recharging stations. Critical issues remain. The fuel cell membrane uses platinum as a catalyst and is hard to manufacture, on-vehicle storage is both expensive and requires large tanks that eat up space, and the fuel cell system doesn't like cold weather. I'm very skeptical that fuel cells will ever be viable – particularly as the alternatives keep improving so that the competitive hurdles are getting higher, not lower. Reflecting that, Dr. Chu as Secretary of Energy did not push hard for fuel cell research.

If there's been a breakthrough to change such commercial calculations – as opposed to political calculations coming from Congress – I've not heard of them. Media coverage [August 14, 2012 on Daily Tech and a Feb 4, 2013 note on Fuel Cell Today] of the modest continuation of research pointedly avoided details of fuel cells themselves, and instead noted the improved potential low-cost availability of hydrogen thanks to natural gas discoveries. The Department of Energy Fuel Cell Vehicle web site says nothing to the contrary, and FuelCell.org contains the normal news of incremental improvements – and of non-passenger car uses. Fuel cells will continue to get better. But to reiterate, so will the alternatives – and those alternatives are already far superior. While specialized applications may develop, my continued belief is that passenger cars won't be one of them.