Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles: Where’s the Holy Grail? 6


Hyundai’s 2014 Tucson Fuel Cell

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.

About Steve Yakshe

As President and CEO of a mid-sized technology company engaged in instrumentation to monitor the world’s water resources, I developed a passion for protecting and enhancing the environment we all share. Following the sale of that company, I’ve combined this with my passion for cars to research and promote the Next Generation Car that will transport us cleanly and without detriment to our world’s ecosystem.

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6 thoughts on “Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles: Where’s the Holy Grail?

  • Brian Osterberg

    Holy Grail is aluminum. Pls visit site. hyalenergy.com. Breakthroughs about to be announced with RFT. Woodall group has informed me of background, time and place. Reddy, a colleague for 20 years, preparing.

    Aluminum is the ultimate battery, moving easily, reacted in low tech reactors to refuel car at home and provide off grid power to homes. Germans already field testing home fuel cells. Need only match with RFT reactor, using scrap aluminum. Byproduct powder is resmelted back into solid aluminum for reuse. Closed loop fuel.

    Brian Osterberg, President
    HyAl Energy LLC

    231 242 4571

    • Steve Yakshe Post author

      Thanks for the reviewing the article and enlightening me with the comment Brian. Having not encountered this technology before, I of course checked it out at your site and read the 2009 report. I guess no technology is without its “gotchas” but this one shows some promise. Based on the paper, transport of the Al Oxide may end up being the biggest polluter in the life-cycle. I’m guessing that salt water is preferable?

      • Brian Osterberg

        Steve, salt water is usable. Less compounds/chemicals going into the reaction of aluminum and water, the more pure the immediate byproduct AlOH3 will be, then to be converted into alumina (air drying can work) for reconstituting back into solid aluminum (primary) with smelters powered by on-site Wyoming/Texas wind, desert solar or even Wyoming coal.

        Moving by rail/sea large amounts of AlOH3 or alumina to logically-located smelters will amount to cheap/safe/lightweight transportation of reactor byproduct – – then that smelter location becomes net exporter of primary aluminum (again lightweight and safe to transport as “fuel”. Estimated that 25%+ of all aluminum ever produced is in garbage dumps. Once aluminum becomes publically associated with creating energy, for mega-watt power plants and even for total-off-grid-energy home units (TOGE), the efficient use of aluminum and the new Reusable Fuel Technology will be consumer-driven, when Greens happy to oblige. Walmart will start selling aluminum lawn chairs again, instead of oil-based plastic. Aluminum: space-age and for the ages.

        • Steve Yakshe Post author

          Thanks again for the info Brian. Interesting fact about the amount of Al in the dumps. I’ll be sure to watch these developments closely and write a follow-up as it unfolds.