Like other major car makers, GM R&D has been working on a fuel cell design for quite some time. So, when “Maximum Bob” Lutz needed a concept to offset the WKTEC bad press, the Sequel skateboard chassis, a fuel cell series hybrid, became the E-Flex drive train (video tour available).
Autoblog Green is one of many transportation publication noting that Ballard Power Systems, a renown maker of PEM fuel cells, has confirmed rumors that “they are in talks to sell their automotive fuel cell assets to Daimler AG and Ford Motor Company.” Actually, ABG is referring to the remaining controlling share of stock not yet owned by the two automobile manufacturers.
Ballard gives, as the reason for selling, the “lengthy projected timeline to commercialization and high cost of development.”
Lascelles Linton opines, “A statement like that coming from a major fuel cell company just may mean the end of politicians standing in front of fuel cell cars talking about a hydrogen future.” Tyler Hamilton asked Clean Break readers if the fuel cell car was dead and I had to scoff.
General Motors is deploying Chevy Equinox SUVs; Honda is commercially offering the FCX; and, Sebastian Blanco informs us, “the countries with the largest natural gas reserves are Russia, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.” Thus, the Reason Foundation contends that if transportation would switch to the Hydrogen Highway, as has been advocated, then supplying the hydrogen for all the cars in the U.S., would “significantly increase the need for foreign-produced natural gas.” The “soundbite”, says Seb: “Instead of depending on Middle Eastern oil, we would be reliant on the Middle East’s natural gas.” My money is on Death of Life as We know It on this Planet, before the Hydrogen Highway Hype dies.
Ballard may be unable to compete with Japanese residential fuel cell makers. Still Clean Break commentator mds makes a valid critique of the viability of fuel cell powered transportation:
On the second page of this article, Ian Wright compares the weight of his entire EV sports car to the weight of a hydrogen fuel tank.
Progress has been made but I think problems remain:
- H2 comes from fossils fuels or is inefficiently generated from H20.
- H2 transport infrastructure does not exist yet. It will be expensive to build. (…and if there’s a leak in an H2 pipe that catches on fire it will burn invisibly …nasty)
- H2 tanks are heavy relative to other alternatives.
- PEM fuel cells are expensive and can get poisoned from carbon and other impurities. (I think some real progress may have been made here.)
Basically, all the major aspects of using H2 for transportation have major critical-path development problems. Meanwhile electric transportation is on the edge of hitting mainstream viability.
Why solve all the H2 problems if there’s a viable PHEV and BEV alternative? H2 is DOA. Sorry.
Some of this already has been said numerous times. In response to Tyler’s post, Jim Fraser notes, “This has been my view since the start of The Energy Blog and I am glad to see someone else explicitly supporting my views.” This blog covered and remarked upon the Ballard response to the movie: “Who Killed the Electric Car?”
- Paine Point #1: Hydrogen & fuel cells are a very inefficient way to power cars (someone in the movie says “three-to four times more energy required than using batteries”).
- Ballard Response: Like all fuels, it takes energy to produce hydrogen and deliver it to a vehicle. The amount of energy required depends on how the hydrogen is made. Some methods require more energy than others.
While it may take more energy to produce and deliver hydrogen than it takes to produce and deliver gasoline or natural gas, the hydrogen fuel is used more efficiently in hydrogen vehicles. Fuel cells are two to three times more efficient than internal combustion vehicles. In many cases, the overall “well-to-wheels” energy usage can be much lower for hydrogen vehicles than for gasoline or natural gas vehicles using a conventional internal combustion engine.
- Paine Point #2: Hydrogen & fuel cells are really just a diversion the car companies used to get rid of the Air Resources Board’s ZEV (zero-emission vehicle) rules.
- Ballard Response: First, fuel cell vehicles are not a diversionary tactic. All of the major automakers have fuel cell development programs. And that’s because they see hydrogen fuel cells as being the ultimate replacement for the internal combustion engine. And remember that fuel cell vehicles are electric vehicles too! They’re just not battery-electric vehicles. Some fuel cell vehicles run only on fuel cells, others are fuel cell / battery hybrids.
Stepping up on the After Gutenberg soapbox…
- This blog’s critique of Ballard’s response to Paine’s Point #1:
- Well, when forced to tell the truth, Ballard will admit to the inefficiency of hydrogen, but then hedge about it. After the point is made in response, the WKTEC question still remains: if electric drive is the reason for an overall “well-to-wheels” energy usage that can be much lower than for conventional internal combustion engine, why then is electric drive unsuitable for other renditions, i.e., plug-in hybrids (Well, until oil becomes extremely scarce) or battery-powered, all-electric vehicles?
- This blog’s spin on Ballard’s spin on Paine point #2:
- Yes, all of the major automakers have fuel cell development programs. In fact, DCX [Editor's note: At the time, now Daimler AG] and Ford bought the rights to Ballard Power Systems effectively inhibiting other CanAm fuel cell transportation efforts. The Big Money business plan is to introduce fuel cells eventually. Meanwhile, as one pundit observed, in the Guinness Book of World Records, the world record is this huge number of miles per gallon. So, how is it that I am unable to buy an American car with anything better than 40 MPG or 52.1 MPG from a foreign car sold in America? Is it simply a matter of “real world” conditions, real herein defined as what the corporate advertising budgets can afford?
Bottom line: In terms of emissions during operation, a grid-able electric drive with a fuel cell range extender trumps other, plug-in hybrid configurations. It is the cost of the technology and efficient access to the fuel that continue to inhibit the prospects of fuel cell hybrids.