The Fuel Cell Follies

Are they just around the corner or a perennial pipedream?

July 1 2005 by Chief Executive


Standing beside a hydrogen-powered Chevrolet pickup truck built for the Army at a research facility near Rochester, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York has the ear of a GM official, urging him to build a fuel cell vehicle plant at the site. “Upstate New York is uniquely positioned to develop this technology,” she says. With a frozen smile, Byron McCormick, GM’s director of fuel cell development, patiently deflects the suggestion, insisting that a decision on building a fuel cell plant isn’t imminent.

Clinton may be well into her third or fourth term before the first factories to mass-produce fuel cell vehicles are built. Automakers are quick to say that hydrogen fuel cells will allow them to build genuine zero emissions vehicles, removing cars and trucks from the environmental equation. Ford, GM, DaimlerChrysler and Toyota, among others, have invested more than $1 billion each in fuel cell programs; BMW is also pursuing a hydrogen future and hopes to use the fuel in conventional internal combustion engines.

However, questions persist about whether the expenditures are part of a dedicated effort to eventually market fuel cell vehicles, or part of a clever public relations ploy designed to distract the government from imposing more stringent fuel economy and auto emissions limits. The industry has repeatedly announced dates that fuel cells would be available, only to postpone actual rollouts. DaimlerChrysler, for example, predicted the industry would be selling 100,000 fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) by 2004. Obviously, that did not happen.

Skeptics include Joseph J. Romm, author of The Hype About Hydrogen, who supervised transportation fuel cell research at the Department of Energy during former President Clinton’s tenure. “Switching our vehicles to a gas doesn’t make sense,” he says. “The benefits of hydrogen can drop dramatically when hybrids are considered, and it’s going to cost a lot more than gasoline.” He predicts fuel cell vehicles will never have less than a $10,000 price premium over internal combustion vehicles. “Never in our lifetime,” he says.

Romm, who drives a Toyota Prius hybrid, is reluctant to label the push toward fuel cells a publicity ploy. “Part of the reason they’re doing this is to undermine the case for fuel economy,” Romm says. “I don’t think it’s a conspiracy, but it’s a major business mistake.”

Hope and Hype
While it’s true that hydrogen promises to reduce America’s ravenous appetite for imported petroleum, numerous obstacles remain. For starters, fuel cells are still too cost-prohibitive for conventional, commercial applications, despite the billion-dollar investments by global vehicle manufacturers. Hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant element in the universe, yet is difficult and expensive to extract from hydrocarbons or water, requiring more energy to unlock than can be obtained from it.

On the Road

It’s not LIKE WINNING a jackpot, but Gregg Kelly’s bargain fuel cost would fill fellow Californians with envy. Kelly, CEO of Orthodyne Electronics in Irvine, Calif., a maker of equipment used to create semiconductors, pays the equivalent of $2 per gallon to fuel his leased Toyota Highlander fuel cell vehicle with hydrogen.

He was selected by the University of California-Irvine to drive it. The school, which leases the vehicle from Toyota for $10,000 a year, only charges Kelly a rate equivalent to what it would cost to lease a gasoline-powered Highlander. In return, he serves as sort of a guinea pig, providing data to UC-Irvine on what using an FCV on a daily basis entails.

Kelly gets slightly less than 40 mpg on a kg of hydrogen (equivalent to one gallon of gasoline) and says driving an FCV is routine, except that he can’t travel more than 100 miles from a hydrogen pump. The Highlander is also inconvenient to park because he can’t turn it over to valets, or even park in a garage, because of safety concerns. He is personally not concerned about driving with a tank full of hydrogen.

He has racked up 67,000 km driving the Highlander FCV so far without any major mechanical difficulties or running out of fuel. He says he enjoys the experience because it is such an environmentally friendly vehicle. But he doesn’t expect to be joined by other drivers in the near future. “It will be 10 to 14 years before fuel cell vehicles go on sale,” he says. “It may be available in buses and taxis before then.”

Assuming the costs of fuel were lower, someone would need to create a hydrogen distribution infrastructure, and that still wouldn’t address the fact that fuel cell performance currently pales in comparison to that of the internal combustion engine.

Hydrogen is also very difficult to store; as a gas it must be kept in a tank under very high pressure, and as a liquid it must be cryogenically stored in expensive insulated tanks. Toyota recently unveiled a new high-pressure hydrogen tank that stores 1.7 times more hydrogen than what is currently available. The new tank would give Toyota’s fuel cell vehicles a 375-mile cruise range, making it comparable to cars with internal combustion engines.
While Romm questions the direction many automakers are heading in with regard to their commitment to FCVs, he readily concedes that some people at GM are “true believers” in the technology.

Larry Burns, GM’s vice president of R&D and one of the industry’s greatest champions of fuel-cell vehicles, is one of those believers. “Why would we spend so much money on a PR program?” Burns asks. GM’s fuel cell R&D budget is running at $150 million annually, and according to Burns’ estimates, GM will have invested $2 billion by the time its prototype fuel cell vehicle debuts in 2010. But he won’t say when GM might have a fuel cell ready for sale.

Such a vehicle must also be affordable at scale volume, he says. “We won’t start building such vehicles until there is a compelling business case that they can earn a profit. That’s Rick Wagoner’s assignment to me.” However, Burns forecasts that GM will be the first carmaker to sell 1 million fuel cell vehicles profitably.

GM’s current experimental 40-vehicle fuel cell test fleet, like those of its competitors, is based on serial production cars that have been modified to run on fuel cell stacks rather than internal combustion engines. They are based on the Opel Zafira, a non-U.S. minivan.

Later this year, GM plans to test the Sequel, its latest in a series of fuel cell concept cars that’s about the size of a Cadillac SRX. It’s built on a “skateboard” chassis that Burns argues will reinvent the automobile because it can be scaled up or down to accommodate any size, from compact car to pickup. The Sequel is designed to have a cruise range of 300 miles and accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in under 10 seconds.

GM, like most other carmakers, is a member of the California Fuel Cell Partnership (CaFCP) in Sacramento, Calif., a 31-member partnership founded in 1999 to foster the commercialization of fuel cells. The creation of CaFCP fulfilled the vision of Ferdinand Panik, former chief of DaimlerChrysler’s fuel cell program, who made the prediction of 100,000 fuel cell vehicles by 2004. Panik is no longer at DaimlerChrysler, but his vision remains one of the driving forces of the fuel cell research effort, including the idea that all the companies should show their vehicles at the California partnership. The partnership hopes to place up to 300 vehicles with fuel cells in independent fleet demonstration projects by 2007.

Catherine Dunwoody is the executive director of CaFCP, which boasts a 55,000-square-foot facility in Sacramento where the auto company members hold team meetings before going their own ways to develop fuel cells. Dunwoody rejects any notion that CaFCP is just a PR charade, even though it is not involved in the actual design or engineering of FCVs. That’s the responsibility of its members, she says. Instead, the partnership focuses on developing an infrastructure within which fuel cell vehicles can operate. Among its achievements is a manual for first responders to the scene of FCV accidents that addresses how to deal with hydrogen tanks in wrecked vehicles.

In a recent visit to the partnership’s facility, 37 FCVs were being tested. Vehicles at the facility have been intensively road-tested for more than 190,000 cumulative miles to eke out every bit of efficiency and horsepower, but the companies have yet to achieve breakthroughs that would make fuel cell vehicles competitive with those powered by internal combustion engines.

Kyo Hatori, chief of operations for Toyota at CaFCP, says that the company has developed a 90-kilowatt fuel cell stack that is equal to approximately 110 hp. “That’s enough to power a Highlander-size vehicle,” he says. But it costs Toyota about $500 per kW to build a fuel cell stack, so a 90-kW stack would cost about $45,000 alone, which is more than 15 times the average cost of an internal combustion engine. A GM spokesman concedes its stacks are too expensive, but claims its present fuel cell stacks are less than 10 times more expensive than internal combustion engines and still closing the gap.

Hatori says fuel cell stack life needs to meet the 100,000-mile range expected from standard internal combustion engines and doesn’t dispute the fact that no company, including Toyota, has been able to achieve this goal. “We’re showing steady progress, but we’re not close to our target yet.”

Toyota tests three fuel cell vehicles at the California site. The vehicles are Highlanders modified to be hybrids that run on electricity generated by a fuel cell stack. Two of them are leased to the University of California-Davis at $10,000 per month. One of UC Davis’ missions is to study the societal acceptance of FCVs. But it is contractually prohibited from operating its FCVs in freezing temperature€¦quot;water vapor is a significant by-product from fuel cell operation and still a major roadblock hindering commercialization€¦quot;or from storing FCVs indoor due to unfounded fears that hydrogen leaks will pool and explode.

Wolfgang Weiss, head of DaimlerChrysler’s operation at the California testing site, strongly disagrees with the idea that FCVs are Hindenbergs on wheels, stating that hydrogen-fueled cars are safer than gasoline cars. “If we tried to get approval for a gasoline car, we would not get that today,” he says. He cites University of Miami tests where a fire in a hydrogen-fueled car was extinguished in minutes; the same fire in a gasoline-fueled car burned for more than half an hour.

DaimlerChrysler is also improving durability in tests. “We are pretty close to achieving 5,000 hours of operation at an average speed of 30 mph in highway and city cycles,” Weiss says. He predicts that FCVs are halfway to commercialization. “They’re five to ten years away,” he says.
At present, DaimlerChrysler obtains its fuel cell stacks from Ballard Power Systems, a Vancouver, British Columbia, company. Ford and DaimlerChrysler are major stockholders. Ballard, which has never made a profit, has pioneered fuel cell development despite its perennially shaky finances.

Ballard declines to reveal its annual production volume, but says it shipped 56 light- and heavy-duty fuel cell stacks to vehicular customers. One of these customers is Ford, whose FCVs are based on the European Focus and are now being leased to government fleets. The Ford FCV runs on a Ballard 902 series fuel cell stack that’s fueled with 5,000 pounds per square inch of compressed hydrogen. It has a driving range of 200 miles and a top speed of 80 mph.

Gaining real world experience with FCVs is a top priority. DaimlerChrysler and GM are not only testing fuel cell powered cars, but are also testing fuel cell bus fleets. Government laboratories and academia are helping with the testing and development trials.

One important area is finding the most effective way to deliver hydrogen to the fuel stack. At the Combustion Research Facility of Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, Calif., and HRL Laboratories in Malibu, Calif., researchers are experimenting with hydrides for GM. HRL is testing a mixture of lithium borohydride and magnesium hydride, both of which yield hydrogen. But instead of forming metal at the end, they form a stable alloy, which significantly improves the energy required to release their full amount of hydrogen.

To date, 9 percent hydrogen is the best GM has been able to achieve from hydrides. “We have theoretical models that lead us to expect we could get as much as 11 percent,” a GM spokesman says. Burns, who believes that hydrides may ultimately be the safest practical way to carry hydrogen in FCVs, says this is in the range where they can be effectively used for fuel cells.

It will take a partnership of government, industry and academia to perfect fuel cells. The latest energy bill passed by Congress includes $322 million for hydrogen and fuel cell research. Senator Clinton has cosponsored legislation with Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota that would increase government funding for hydrogen research by $10 billion over the next decade.

Ballard CEO Dennis Campbell recently told a National Hydrogen Association meeting in Washington, D.C., that meeting future global energy demands for petroleum will require an investment of $200 billion a year until 2030. “Rather than spend $200 billion per year for the next 25 years on 19th century technology, we should apply a significant portion of that commitment to energy solutions of the future,” Campbell says.

How Fuel Cells Work

Proton exchange membrane, or PEM, fuel cells are the most common type being developed for transportation use. They’re still hand-built in the lab and far from mass produced.

The PEM fuel cell operates like a battery, converting chemical energy to electricity. But it doesn’t run down like conventional batteries. It keeps making electricity as long as it gets hydrogen and air. As hydrogen flows into the fuel cell, it combines with oxygen from an air compressor.

A catalyst-coated electrode splits hydrogen atoms into electrons and protons, and the movement of the electrons generates electricity. Best of all, the only product of this chemical reaction is water vapor. One fuel cell creates less than 1 volt€¦quot;it takes a stack of hundreds to power a vehicle.

Source: Chief Executive

The nation’s capital is the epicenter for real-world demonstrations of FCVs. In fact, GM operates an FCV fleet for use by members of Congress, their staffs and federal officials. It is attempting to persuade these officials that FCVs are a viable transportation alternative. GM also recently announced it would place 13 FCVs in operation in the metropolitan New York area.

Honda, whose FCX prototype is the first fuel cell car in the world to receive U.S. government certification for commercial use, leases one to the City of Los Angeles to operate for city business.

All of the FCV development would be for naught without hydrogen availability to fuel the vehicles. Royal Dutch/Shell Group’s Shell Hydrogen is pioneering establishment of hydrogen pumps at conventional gas stations. It already operates such a station in Washington, D.C., and is building another one in New York.

Shell Hydrogen CEO Jeremy B. Bentham says his company plans to create mini networks of four to six stations in the next five years, providing the nucleus for a primarily bicoastal hydrogen distribution infrastructure. Bentham says that 50 million tons of hydrogen are used in the U.S. every year. Most of it is for industrial use, including the refining of gasoline, and it would take an equivalent amount to fuel 200 million vehicles.

Bentham says $20 billion will be needed to create a widespread hydrogen infrastructure. Although he won’t forecast how many FCVs will hit the market, or when, he remains hopeful. “One scenario predicts that there could be 50 million [FCVs] on the road by 2030, 150 million by 2040 and 300 million by 2050,” he says. “Of course, that’s an optimistic scenario.”

A more conservative forecast comes from Marshall Miller, director of hydrogen technology at UC Davis. “I would be surprised if you could walk into a dealership to buy one [FCV] before 2014,” he says. “It could be much later than that.”

Indeed, all the exuberance about hydrogen’s future in the mid-1990s has been replaced with the reality that the production of a fuel cell vehicle is tougher than anticipated. Even the resources of giants such as DaimlerChrysler, Ford, GM and Toyota are insufficient to achieve breakthroughs in the near future.

Barring a Manhattan Project-type national effort to achieve this daunting technological goal, the reality is that the American auto fleet is going to continue using more petroleum every year for a decade. As that recognition sinks in, pressure could mount on automakers to make more rapid strides in improving the efficiency of their internal combustion engines€¦quot;sooner rather than later.