Against a backdrop of large investments in hybrid and electric cars, you could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that many automotive OEMs now place the research and development of hydrogen fuel cell powered cars very low on their list of priorities. However, while it is undoubtedly true that hydrogen continues to lag behind electric in the race towards low carbon transport, many companies are still investing significant amounts of money in hydrogen and fuel cells and have dedicated teams of hundreds of researchers still working on the technology.
After an initial period of testing and demonstration many car makers, including Toyota, Honda and Mercedes Benz are now embarking on a phase of full market testing. Now increasingly convinced of the viability of hydrogen, they are also moving towards the development of the next generation of fuel cell cars with one eye on commercialisation, perhaps sometime around the middle of the decade.
In December 2009, German carmaker BMW decided to pull the plug on an experimental run of 100 hydrogen fuelled internal combustion engines and concentrate on researching and developing the next generation. At the time, spokesman Tobias Hahn reported that the company had learned everything they wanted to learn from the large scale field test and confirmed that they are still committed to hydrogen as the long term alternative for switching to sustainable mobility, adding that the biggest problem is on board storage.
The company is now testing prototypes of a hydrogen hybrid based on the 1-series hatchback converted to front wheel drive. The new system features a normal front drive powertrain combined with a hydrogen fuel cell, electricity storing supercapacitors and an electric powered rear axle. BMW engineers say that the new technology should surpass today’s generation of petrol electric hybrids and enable drivers to travel completely emissions free in urban areas.
There is some speculation that the new drivetrain could be used in the next generation Mini and the front wheel drive BMWs planned for 2014. However, the system has not yet been given the go ahead by BMW management and the company is not likely to move towards commercialisation until it is sufficiently certain of the financial viability of the project and addresses concerns over the provision of an adequate refuelling infrastructure.
Beginning in 2007, GM produced a test-fleet of 100 Chevrolet Equinox fuel cell cars and recruited 5,000 people to drive them over a 25 month period. The trial, known as Project Driveway, was the world’s largest market test and demonstration of fuel cell vehicles, amassing almost 1.3 million miles of ‘everyday’ driving, in cities around the world.
As part of the Project Driveway program, GM also partnered with a research supplier, Gongos Research, to create an online research community focused on the advancement of alternative propulsion vehicles.
Following the completion of the two year trial period, GM has shelved the fleet and, like BMW, is withdrawing the vehicles with a view to upgrading the technology. In recent developments, the company has revealed improvements in the size, weight and cost of its hydrogen fuel cells with a system that it says can be packaged in the space of a traditional four cylinder engine. The system is half the size, 100kg lighter and uses about a third of the platinum of the power plant found in the Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell demonstrator. The new generation of fuel cell vehicles are to undergo testing similar to that seen within Project Driveway, with a view to commercial production in 2015.
Long seen as a pioneer in fuel cell technology the Japanese car maker has said it has an ultimate goal of achieving the mass market commercialization of zero emissions fuel cell vehicles. The company has produced a roadworthy hydrogen vehicle, the FCX Clarity, which produces electricity onboard from hydrogen via the company’s innovative V Flow fuel cell stack, enabling an average driving range of up to 240 miles.
Various incarnations of the vehicles have been tested through a series of partnerships over the last seven years with various fleet users and retail customers. A small but growing network of hydrogen fuel stations in Southern California that enable vehicle refuelling in about five minutes has prompted the company to launch a small fleet of 50 models, currently available for lease at $600 per month. An assorted mix of celebrities, actors and sport stars, including 2010 Canadian Olympic hockey team captain, Scott Niedermayer, are counted amongst the early users.
Honda says it intends to increase the fleet to 200 sometime this year but declines to release a price tag on the Clarity, with some experts speculating that the market price could be as much as $1 million each.
As part of its much vaunted Blue Efficiency strategy, Mercedes Benz has already demonstrated a very convincing fuel cell vehicle based on its B-Class model. Following a successful test period, production of the Bâ€‘Class F-CELL commenced in late 2009 with the first of around 200 vehicles due to be delivered to leasing customers in Europe and the USA during spring 2010. The company claims the model is the world’s first fuel cell powered automobile to be produced under series production conditions, with mass production mooted to begin as early as 2012 or 2013.
The car has a performance similar to the equivalent two-litre petrol version and consumes the equivalent of just 3.3 litres of diesel per 100 kilometres in the NEDC (New European Driving Cycle). It also boasts a creditable driving range of about 400 kilometres and short refuelling times of around three minutes. The F-CELL also features a lithium-ion battery to boost power and recover braking energy and employs the unique sandwich floor architecture well known from the A- and B-Class.
In common with most other companies, Mercedes remains concerned about the availability of an adequate hydrogen refuelling infrastructure and is cooperating with government authorities, energy utilities and oil companies in joint projects across a range of locations including Hamburg, Stuttgart and California.
Toyota remains committed to bringing series production fuel cell vehicles to market by 2015 and sees fuel cells as the best long term solution to zero emissions transportation.
In January, the company announced that more than 100 of its Fuel Cell Hybrid Vehicle – Advanced (FCHV-adv) vehicles will take part in a US-wide demonstration programme over the next three years. Toyota will place vehicles with universities, private companies and government agencies in both California and New York. Additional regions and partners will be added as and when new hydrogen stations come online. The programme will create one of the largest fleets of active fuel cell vehicles in the country with the twin goals of promoting essential hydrogen infrastructure development and demonstrating the reliability and performance of fuel cell technologies prior to Toyota’s planned market introduction in 2015.
As part of its ongoing efforts, the company has also recently joined the Clean Energy Partnership (CEP) in Europe to help promote low and zero emission vehicles and related infrastructure. The company will make five of its Highlander based FCHV-adv fuel-cell vehicles available for the CEP test fleet in Berlin and Hamburg.
For now, car makers still remain largely focused on battery power. At most of this year’s motor show’s nearly all of the major manufacturers showcased their latest electric vehicles or plans to produce them, while the few hydrogen vehicles on display attracted little attention.
It is therefore now safe to assume that electric and hybrid technologies are set to dominate the market for low carbon vehicles for the foreseeable future. However, far from disappearing from view, as some commentators, most recently in the Economist, have suggested, the above analysis demonstrates that fuel cell technology continues to be viewed as a perfectly viable long run competitor.
Provided that the industry can overcome major technical challenges in areas such as fuel tank capacity and demonstrate that a comprehensive refuelling infrastructure is more than just a pipe dream, it is difficult to deny that hydrogen will form an increasingly important part of the future energy mix. To achieve this goal, it is now vitally important that governments, manufacturers, infrastructure companies and other stakeholders redouble their efforts to develop and establish viable distribution and refuelling networks. As we have already seen in Germany, Wales and the US, there are now positive signs that such partnerships could drive the sector forward.
While electricity continues to take the lions share of subsidy schemes it is likely that hydrogen will struggle to compete on a level playing field. However, bullish statements from many manufacturers confirm that it may in fact be the industry itself that provides the financial impetus to drive fuel cell technology towards the mainstream. It may not come for some time yet, but there is now an increasing chance that, by the middle of the decade, a combination of plug-in electric and hydrogen may emerge as the major low carbon alternatives on our roads.