Thanks to a retweet by the Electric Drive Transportation Association (@ElectricDrive), I happened to view a YouTube video just released by Hyundai promoting what they say is the first volume production fuel cell vehicle; their Tucson Fuel Cell (aka HydrogenEV). Indeed, though over 20 hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) prototype and demonstration cars have been released since 2009, none are yet in full scale production. Hyundai is positioning the vehicle as an excellent blend of internal combustion engine (ICE) capability and battery electric vehicle (BEV) emission-free operation. (Who doesn’t like acronyms?)
The vehicle sports modest horsepower and acceleration numbers but its stated range rivals ICEs at an estimated 265 miles per tank of hydrogen, which only takes 10 minutes to refill. According to Edmunds.com, there is no established retail hydrogen pricing but is estimated to initially run about $10 per kilogram, which is equivalent to 1 gallon of gasoline. The Tucson claims a combined 50 miles per gallon equivalent. However, Hyundai is leasing the car for $499/month for the three years to include all fuel and maintenance costs. The car is only available in southern California where all but three of the 12 Hydrogen stations in America exist. And of course, the only “tailpipe” emission is water but a serious “flaw in the slaw” has been omitted in its discussion. Where does the hydrogen (the most abundant element on earth) currently come from and what are the life-cycle (well to wheel) emissions of operating an FCEV today?
Similar to BEVs looking for the holy grail in battery technology, FCEVs are looking for a holy grail in hydrogen production. According to Space Daily, the most economical process at the moment is to extract hydrogen from hydrocarbons or fossil fuels such as natural gas. In fact, Hyundai highlights the use of America’s current abundant domestic resource, natural gas, to produce the hydrogen for its vehicle in their video. Unfortunately, this results in life-cycle emissions nearly the same as directly burning the fuel in an ICE. The ideal scenario for producing hydrogen is to inexpensively extract it from water using clean renewable energy from the sun; a scenario called solar to hydrogen from water. At the moment though, the process technically known as photoelectrochemical (PEC) production is not economically feasible and requires significantly more research and development to make full scale production possible.
Scientists at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) created a model of a PEC facility producing 610 tons of Hydrogen per day using all of the factors and limitations known today. If all of today’s US vehicles were FCEVs, they could be fueled by 160 such facilities. The model was aimed at illustrating how much energy the plant would generate over an assumed 40 year lifespan, what the amount of energy produced would be versus the amount used, and what would be the payback time to justify the cost of building the facility. The end result yielded the primary areas where breakthroughs needed to occur in order to make this a reality. Of utmost concern, was the efficiency with which solar energy generated hydrogen. The best case scenario given the current state of technology is only 10%. Of secondary concern were issues surrounding the PEC cells such as longevity. According to the researchers, a solar to hydrogen efficiency of 20% with PEC cell longevity of 20 years, would make full scale production of such facilities economically attractive. However, PEC cell lifespan is currently only measured in hours within the lab so there is considerable breakthrough required.
The use of fuel cells has been an attraction for some time given the abundance of the resource and the potential for clean transportation. But until the industry finds that holy grail and no longer relies on fossil fuels for hydrogen, battery-based electric vehicles are going to continue to capitalize on their substantial head start despite not yet having found their holy grail.