Fuel cell cars face challenges

Hydrogen fuel-cell-powered cars are becoming more popular but still face significant problems in terms of infrastructure cost.

Toyota has increased production of its hydrogen fuel-cell, the Mirai, from 700 units last year to 2,000 units this year. Next year, it aims to produce 3,000 units.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Park Service also unveiled a hydrogen fueling demonstration in Washington, D.C., with both agencies adding hydrogen-powered cars to their fleets.

The DOE celebrated hydrogen and fuel-cell day on October 8, highlighting how their research efforts have driven fuel-cell costs down.

Sunita Satyapal, director of the fuel-cell technologies office at the DOE, says: “This is a really exciting time. Through our independent analysis, we’ve seen costs come down by 50 per cent since 2007.”

However, fuel-cell vehicles still lag far behind electric cars, reports Scientific American. Since 2008, Americans have bought more than 500,000 plug-in electric cars, but fewer than 500 fuel-cell cars.

Researchers and analysts say that while the fuel cells themselves have made dramatic improvements in efficiency and cost, they are still lacking the infrastructure to support their use.

Like battery-powered cars, fuel cells are only as clean as the fuel that powers them. Hydrogen can be generated from splitting water molecules, but the cheapest way to create hydrogen is through steam-reforming methane. However, the process produces greenhouse gases.

Satyapal says researchers are developing cheaper ways to generate hydrogen from renewable sources. While current retail prices for hydrogen fuelling stations are between NZ$18 and $22, Satyapal says their target is to reach NZ$4 for every three litres of petrol-equivalent cost.

The uptake of fuel-cell vehicles is also hindered by the cost of building fuelling stations, which are expensive to build and have fewer cars with which to recoup their costs at the outset.

Costs are further raised as much of the hardware is being developed for the first time, with fuelling stations requiring large storage tanks that can hold hydrogen at very high prices.

“It’s a very limited supply chain,” says Satyapal. “Even a single nozzle can be very expensive.”

Chris Robinson, a research associate at Lux Research Inc., says the outlook for the vehicles is “pretty grim.”

“It’s going to be really hard for a consumer to justify this.”

However, he says that Japan is “the one area where fuel-cell vehicles could really catch on,” as they don’t have another viable option for fuel other than imports.

He adds that a small country like Japan could make a better case for a hydrogen economy, with its limited natural resources and high energy prices. “You can, with a smaller number of stations, provide coverage to the entire island.”

The Japanese government is currently investing heavily in hydrogen infrastructure.

But Satyapal is still optimistic about fuel cells catching on. She says that it may be a tough sell for passenger cars, but the technology makes sense for fleet vehicles that travel during the day before returning to a central station. Several carmakers, including Toyota, have announced projects to develop fuel-cell-powered buses.

“This is not a laboratory curiosity anymore,” she says. “We just have to keep up the momentum.”