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Fuel-Cell Vehicles Are Likely Coming (A Few): Who's Winning?

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Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell with mobile refueler

Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell with mobile refueler

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We're on record with the analysis that electric-car production will far, far outweigh that of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles built over the next decade, and perhaps longer.

Still several carmakers are pressing ahead with plans to build hydrogen-powered vehicles, and now Pike Research has ranked them.

The full results are in their report, "Light Duty Fuel Cell Vehicles," which appears to be so expensive that the company won't even give you a price unless you log into their site.

However, Pike has summarized their results and provided a useful chart showing their assessments of where the major global players in hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are positioned.

The "contenders," as Pike calls them, are five large global automakers. Here's what we know about each:

Pike Resarch chart showing relative positions of carmakers with hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle plans

Pike Resarch chart showing relative positions of carmakers with hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle plans

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Pike also identifies a second rank of automakers, which it calls "challengers": Ford, BMW, the Nissan-Renault alliance, the Chinese company SAIC, and a British startup called Riversimple.

Why, by the way, are we so pessimistic about hydrogen as a vehicle fuel?

First, and most importantly, there's no distribution system for hydrogen, whereas electricity is essentially everywhere.

To achieve a national network of hydrogen fueling stations, you'd have to build at least 15,000 in exactly the right locations, at perhaps $2 million each. That's $30 billion, not a small chunk of change when we have a $50 billion-plus hole in the funds just to keep our current roads in a state of good repair.

Pike also projects there will be just 5,200 hydrogen fueling stations in the entire world by 2020.

Actress Q'orianka Kilcher poses next to a Honda FCX Clarity at the 2007 Los Angeles Auto Show.

Actress Q'orianka Kilcher poses next to a Honda FCX Clarity at the 2007 Los Angeles Auto Show.

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Second, the wells-to-wheels carbon balance of hydrogen is highly suspect. It's fine if it's made using renewable power, but it takes a huge amount of energy to separate the hydrogen from the other elements to which it binds--which is why hydrogen as a fuel has so much potential energy.

If that electricity comes from burning coal, it's much better (i.e. lower carbon) simply to use it to recharge an electric-car battery than to make, distribute, and use hydrogen in a fuel-cell to propel a vehicle of the same weight.

How do you feel about the prospects for hydrogen as a vehicle fuel in the near and medium term?

Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.

[Pike Research]

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Comments (42)
  1. John, you cannot say there is no distribution system for hydrogen, when we have a century old infrastructure for the distribution of water and electricity. Hydrogen generation systems based on electricity and water have been commercialy available for a long while, so hydrogen infrastructure is as readily available as electric vehicle charger infrastructure.
    As for efficiency, consumers only care about cost / convenience. If you have rapidly refill your fuel cell vehicle, as opposed to sitting dead 4+ hours, people will pay more for that convenience.
    In addition, there is a matter of performance. A fuel cell vehicle will be lighter than an electric vehicle, so it will accelerate and corner better than an BEV.
     
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  2. So once the Hydrogen is separated from the Oxygen and is a free gas, all one needs to do is compress it to about 5,000 PSI so it can fill your 3600 PSI on-board tank. That will take a lot more electricity than the original H2O breakdown.
     
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  3. Assuming there is only one type of storage. [There are currently three.]
     
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  4. At 850°C, 225 megajoules are required (64% efficient) to electrolyze 1 kilogram of hydrogen from water. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-temperature_electrolysis

    Compressing that to 350 bar (5000 psi) takes only 11 MJ. http://www.hydrogen.energy.gov/pdfs/9013_energy_requirements_for_hydrogen_gas_compression.pdf
     
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  5. Electrolysis is a notorious inefficient way to make hydrogen. The same amount of electricity would get you 3 to 4 times more miles when used in an EV. Maybe nobody cares about that but people will care about the extra cost involved in wasting all that energy plus the cost of the expensive production/distribution stations involved. Plus, do we really have that much surplus energy to waste? About performance: The Tesla Roadster gets 0-60 in 3.7 seconds. Should be enough to keep up with traffic...
     
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  6. Not sure about that 3 or 4 times - electricity going into and out of a battery is also pretty inefficient, plus losses getting there. And producing electricity via wind or solar ain't exactly cheap - look at the horrendously expensive California power in many places - 6 times more expensive than coal. And I have severe doubts, based on current research, that eliminating carbon emissions will have anything other than a barely perceptible effect on any climate temp variations. Carbon hysteria should be passe, based on what we now know. Old wives tales die hard, though. People still think you catch a cold by getting chilled, or wet. It's been over 80 years since those ideas
    were disproven.
     
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  7. The best figures I've seen indicate roughly 10% transmission losses and another 10% lost in heat during battery charging, meaning ~ 80 percent of the energy produced at the power plant makes it into your battery pack. Electric motors are similarly efficient, versus gasoline engines that only manage to turn 25% of the energy in gasoline into torque at the wheels, wasting the rest as heat and noise.
     
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  8. If you're comparing electrolysis to charging--both taking place at the pumping station--the cost of producing the electricity and transmitting it to the station will be the same per watt.
     
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  9. "Electrolysis is a notorious inefficient way to make hydrogen."

    So is running a computer if you are using those outdated numbers. Maybe it is time for you guys to get up to speed. :)
     
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  10. I wouldn't put GM so far back within the contenders category, when they are in mass production of an electric propulsion vehicle, which is 99% of an FCV. All GM needs to do is sink a fuel cell into the Volt, and they are done.
     
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  11. Both a fuel cell and the storage system are marvels of engineering compared to the EV part of a HFC vehicle. Bit more than 1% of the equation I'm afraid...
     
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  12. One of the things I hate about gasoline is having to stop and get it, it would be the same with hydrogen. That is one reason my vote goes to electric cars, you car ride around all day go home plug-in and wake up every morning to a full car. And with chargers being installed at businesses I could get a charge at my destination, but I doubt I'll need to, in a 300 mile per charge Tesla Model S.
     
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  13. That should have been " you can ride around" Sorry
     
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  14. Fine for you that have a place at home to plug in your car, but there are an enormous number of folks who live in condos, apartments, townhouses, etc that don't. A small flaw in your "just-go-home-and-plug-it-in" scenario.
     
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  15. "...that don't" YET. That's not an unsolvable problem, Kent, except in your rather negative worldview.
     
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  16. Its a hard business case to justify the rollout of electrical infrastructure. There is no realistic return on investment because the amount you can charge for public charging is negligible (pennies per hour?) vs. the cost of a lev 2 or 3 charger. For example, my office building refused to install just an outlet near my Volt.
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  17. $10,000 for a so called DC quick charger vs. $2,000,000 for a, not so quick that it yet compares to gas, hydrogen refill island. C'mon Kent, has the electric revolution come so far that it's that hard to kick up a reasonable level of FUD. Please try harder.
     
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  18. Most carmakers say they prefer fuel cells to batteries, but what problem is really solved by fuel cells?
    Problem: batteries are expensive; so are fuel cells.
    Problem: batteries don't last long; neither do fuel cells.
    Problem: batteries take up a lot of space; so does the fuel cell stack+ storage cylinder(s).
    Problem: batteries are heavy; maybe fuel cells have an advantage here.
    Problem: batteries take a long time to top up; here lies the only real advantage of fuel cells, at least compared to most current battery technologies.
    Choosing fuel cells still doesn't mean you loose the problems with batteries though since HFCV's have considerable batterypacks too, you just add the fuel cell problems to your battery problems.
     
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  19. I'm with Voelcker on this one. Fuel cells are too inefficient to be practical. I have also seen the 3 to 4x figure reported from people who actually make fuel cells. Unless, and until, that problem is fixed, hydrogen has little chance of moving forward.

    However, I agree with the concerns about the cost and limited range of EVs.
     
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  20. The 3X - 4X less efficient number is a lie perpetuated in every fuel cell debate, generated by comparing best case BEV numbers to worse case FCV numbers to be found. Regardless, when energy is clean, cheap and abundant, consumers won't worry about efficiency, just cost / convenience. They will pay a premium not to sit 4+ hours with a dead vehicle.
     
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  21. Jason, I think you are right. With fuel cell vehicles being at least 2x more efficient that the equivalent internal combustion vehicle, hydrogen prices can be 2x higher than the gasoline per gallon (the DoE refers to gge or gasoline gallon equivalents). 1 kg of hydrogen is roughly equivalent in energy content to 1 gal. of gas. So, if hydrogen were $7.00/kg (probably in line now with actual supply/delivery costs), it would be like paying $3.50/gal. At that price point, fuel cells become competitive. And fuel cells can be used in any vehicle application, not just small vehicles.
     
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  22. Except that there's no distribution infrastructure. And to build one that covers the U.S. would require $30 billion plus. And that still leaves the dubious wells-to-wheels math of using all that energy to create the H2 in the first place.

    I think the H2FC boosters are right about the consumer acceptability of hydrogen fuel-cell cars. But that's only one piece of the puzzle. I haven't seen any substantial discussion in this comment thread of realistic plans to overcome the substantial and very costly production and distribution challenges.
     
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  23. People who are interested in educating themselves about the trouble with hydrogen should read this article:

    http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-hydrogen-hoax

    US Secretary of energy Steven Chu once said it takes four miracles for hydrogen to become a reality (solving the problems of production, distribution, storage and fuel cells)adding that even saints need only three...Mind you, this guy is not just a politician, he is a Nobel price winning physicist so unlike your average (hydrogen funding supporting)politician this guy actually knows what he is talking about.
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  24. My sense is that when the cars are ready, we will see the automobile OEMs partner with suppliers to set up clusters of stations rather than "hydrogen highways". It does not make business sense to put 100 cars here, 100 there, etc. Rather, we need to see 1000+ vehicles, plus 5-6 1000/kg/day capacity stations in a region. And then build out like the cell phone networks did. With that sort of commitment, fuel cell infrastructure can achieve critical mass so that private investors will jump in. As for the wells to wheels analysis, in most if not all scenarios, H2 beats gasoline. I don't see in home hydrogen production- it makes more sense to simply use a plug. Btw John, I know we met somewhere... trying to remember where...
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  25. Chris, my understanding from talking to some auto execs was that Dr. Chu did not want to talk to them at all about hydrogen. My understanding is that the R&D is done on the vehicle and dispensing side, so no "breakthroughs" are necessary. All that remains are engineering issues- refining the manufacturing techniques to make them cheaper to build (which I don't mean to downplay- it is definetely a challenge). Prototypes by their very nature are expensive. But GM et al. are confident they can perfect this technology. From the supply side, there are no obstacles. If I remember correctly, the DoE has targeted $3.00/kg for the 2015 timeframe. This would make H2 more than competitive with gasoline.
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  26. There are more comments in this thread
  27. Hi Jason - - - -1)DC Quick chargers, 2)4 to 5 times less expensive than fueling with hydrogen.
     
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  28. Some back up:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Battery_EV_vs._Hydrogen_EV.png

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrogen_economy#Electrolysis_of_water
     
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  29. I wonder what Jason will say now that the numbers have been posted.
     
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  30. I would also like to know where all this clean, cheap yet abundant energy he wants to waste at a rate of 3 or 4:1 compared to battery electrics is going to come from. Seems to me that most electricity is either cheap and abundant or clean but rarely both.
     
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  31. From your second link, "Hydrogen can be made via high pressure electrolysis or low pressure electrolysis of water. Current best processes have an efficiency of 50% to 80%," meanwhile, the head-to-head comparison in your first link uses 40%. Using the best fuel cell efficiency number makes the comparison less than 2:1, far from 3:1 or 4:1
     
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  32. Yes, except if you read my first link more carfully you would notice that the hydrolysis losses are followed by further losses due to compression and in the fuel cell itself which is only 40%(!) efficient, resulting in a grid to motor efficiency of 25% for electrolysis powered fuel cells vs 86% efficiency for battery electrics.

    So the question remains: where is all the clean, cheap yet abundant energy going to come from that can be wasted for the sake of quick refills?

    I agree though that batteries still need a lot of improvement. However, fuel cells are still a long way from becoming a mainstream reality too and I doubt they will ever catch up with batteries based on:

    http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-hydrogen-hoax
     
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  33. I think the real question is how much would hydrogen cost the consumer rather than how efficient it is to produce. My understanding is that delivered today (assuming there were sufficient vehicles in an area), hydrogen would cost $6-$7 per kg. This is equivalent to $3.00 to $3.50 per gallon of gasoline. And consumers like the idea of quick refills. I got a Volt rather than a Leaf for that reason. Sometimes I have to drive more than I expected. I am still averaging 201 mpg lifetime. But I would love to be able to ditch the ICE range extender in favor of a fuel cell. Best of all worlds. If you think of a fuel cell as simply a supplement to BEVs rather than a competitor (like the Volt's ICE), I think it would be more palatable.
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  34. I was a participant in GM's Project Driveway (fuel cell demonstration project), as well as a member of the Volt "Customer Advisory Board." What I came away with is that fuel cells and batteries are two great tastes that taste great together. The technologies compensate for the each other's weaknesses: batteries are great at providing power on demand, but are heavy and take too long to recharge (and so we see battery EVs in small vehicle applications). Fuel cells are great at providing a nice steady stream of power (not so great at power on demand), and can be refilled in 3 minutes. As a result, I believe we will see the two technologies blended together.
     
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  35. While we are blending technologies, perhaps we could blend an EV with an ICE engine. The EV could work great for daily travel and the ICE could be used on longer trips. This would eliminate the need for hydrogen altogether.

    The best part is, Chevy is already shipping this technology.
     
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  36. Also, there's more hydrogen in a liter of biodiesel than a liter of liquid hydrogen.
     
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  37. Don't want to sound negative but you guys sound like you all work for the government. If you want to look at the viability of hydrogen as the future than instead of comparing costs of gas/fossil fuels at todays prices look out 20 yrs from now when we have another billion people and millions of more cars on the road worldwide. Anybody want to take a guess at what a gallon of gas would cost then, I think it's fair to say that water, sunshine,and geothermal wind will still be free. So, does somebody want to post a real 20 yr business plan on the industry, that's where the debate should start. In fact that business plan should also take into consideration where the USA should be .

    What's possible: www.youtube.com/watch?v=xEdQRVQtffw
     
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  38. Ed,

    Where I live water is not free. And if I want something more than a suntan, a fresh breeze, or a view of a geyser, the power from sunshine, geothermal and wind are not free either. Any viable business model or policy direction will take that into account, plus the fact that putting electricity into a BEV is 3 times more efficient than converting that electricity into hydrogen and using it in a BEV with a fuel cell range extender.
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  39. Jeff,

    First, let me say if you are paying more than $100.00 (current price of oil) for a barrel of water I would suggest you move.

    second, I'm glad we can agree that "ALL" the data should be used in a business plan, especially cost projections.

    Third, I forgot the third item, oops!

    Everything I just said above is bunk. When it comes to energy and the future there is no choice but to get rid of the fossil fuels and nukes.

    Our only choices for the future is what type of renewable energy or combination of is "best" for a given area. I agree whenever you convert energy from one form to another you loose, so maybe rather than charge ev batteries maybe you just pull in a station and exchange them in a few mins like a toy car.
     
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