Fool Cells here, but expensive

Hydrogen Fuel Cell vehicles are essentially electric hybrids with a fuel cell in place of the gasoline engine. The fuel cell promises to be far lighter than the batteries required to achieve the 300 mile range that American drivers seem to expect, and in theory could be refueled about as fast as a gasoline or diesel tank.

In 2003, it was an article of faith among many in the Peak Oil community that automobiles powered by hydrogen fuel cells were a pipe dream. At Roscoe Bartlett’s 2005 Energy Conference, speaker John Howe derisively dismissed them as “Fool Cells.”

… Hydrogen is not a fuel source unless you take a lot of energy to separate it, and about 97 percent of our hydrogen today comes from natural gas, and natural gas … is in even more dire straits than oil. [This was before the fracking boomlet.] Even though there may be a lot of it around the world, it’s a stranded resource and you just can’t ship it here and there and most of it that is available in the world is already spoken for. …

Despite those challenges manufacturers have been steadily working on fuel cells for cars, trucks and buses. As described in Fuel Cells at Center Stage, the current crop of auto shows now feature fuel cell vehicles by Toyota, Hyundai and Honda. GM and Daimler are also promising fuel cell vehicles. They seem to work, but they are so costly that it is hard to imagine then as anything but luxury vehicles with clean emissions.

… The main challenge facing Toyota engineers, however, is the vehicle’s price.

“The effort to bring this car to market is about lowering the cost, while providing satisfactory performance,” said Matt McClory, principal engineer of fuel cell vehicle development for Toyota in the United States, as we did a test drive around Torrance, Calif. “Bringing the costs down was the biggest bogey.”

Toyota executives say they believe a target price around $50,000 is needed to make the cars attractive. That might require the company to price the cars below cost until production reaches a profitable level.

Toyota managed that with the Prius, and it paid off, but producing the hydrogen, and the infrastructure behind it is still a major challenge.

Update 20131126: In, Hydrogen cars won’t be marketable “until 2020”, says VW

VW Group’s commissioner for electric drive systems, Rudolf Krebs … pointed out that although hydrogen had the benefits of zero tailpipe emissions and none of the driving range issues attached to battery-electric vehicles, there are still concerns over the efficiency of producing the energy.

“We still have the problem that hydrogen mobility only makes sense if you use green energy – you have to use green electricity, then convert it from electric to hydrogen, during which you lose about 40 per cent of the initial energy,” explained Krebs.

“Then you have to compress the hydrogen to 700bar to store it in the vehicle, which costs you further efficiency. After that, you have to convert the hydrogen back to electricity through the vehicle’s fuel cell, which brings another efficiency loss. In the end, from your original 100 per cent electric energy, you end up with between 30 and 40 per cent efficiency.”

Krebs believed the best solution would be a vehicle that relies primarily on battery electric propulsion, with a hydrogen fuel cell as a back-up.

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