Amid all the talk about electric cars, range-extenders, and plug-less hybrids, it is worth noting that the world’s car industry is still working on fuel-cell vehicles. That’s somewhat surprising considering that the "hydrogen highway" has lingered out there beyond the horizon for a long time and had perhaps hit a real roadblock in 2009 when the U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu cut federal R&D funding for fuel-cell technology, essentially citing it as a bad bet.
New vigor in the area arrived during the past few weeks, however, with confirmation that Asian automakers remain squarely in the fuel-cell game. Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota each announced that it is now preparing to mass-produce cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells, promising to have them on dealer showroom floors by 2015. Nissan, in the meantime, unveiled a new concept hydrogen vehicle.
A KPMG global survey of 200 auto executives published in January found that one in five respondents expected fuel-cell electric cars to attract more consumer demand than pure battery electric cars in 2025.
Automakers say they have found ways to cut fuel-cell costs and maybe even build higher-capacity hydrogen fuel tanks. Perhaps a more important consideration is the fact that fuel cells can propel larger vehicles, SUVs, and small trucks, whereas today’s batteries cannot. In North America, the serendipitous arrival of the natural gas boom means a ready supply of hydrogen.
Japanese, European, and Korean governments have maintained support of hydrogen fuel cell technology, funding national fuel-cell research programs for more than a decade. Companies in the Nordic countries have committed to establishing a hydrogen-fueling infrastructure between 2014 and 2017. In Germany, which is expanding its hydrogen network, Daimler continues to stay the course with its long-term fuel-cell vehicle effort. BMW, Fiat, and Volkswagen have built fuel-cell prototypes in recent years.
General Motors in the U.S. has a small fleet of fuel-cell SUVs but has yet to reveal its commercial plans. Meanwhile, state and regional groups in America such as the California Fuel Cell Partnership and NYSERTA have been promoting local hydrogen distribution networks.
In Korea, the government has long supported an R&D program in cooperation with Hyundai-Kia Motors. Together they have fielded about 100 fuel-cell vehicles and plan to have 1700 on the road by 2015, along with about 30 hydrogen refilling stations.
“Battery-electric carmakers entered the market too early without resolving problems such as range anxiety and costs,” said Lim Tae-won, Director in charge of fuel-cell research at Hyundai-Kia, to Reuters before this year’s Paris Auto Show. “It was a hasty approach.”
Fuel-cell cars overcome range anxiety, he said, adding that the price of fuel-cell vehicles will match that of battery cars by 2020-25.
The Korean company has re-upped its commitment to the technology, recently revealing plans to begin small-scale series production of the friendly, hydrogen-fueled Hyundai Tucson ix35 fuel-cell vehicle for public and private lease by the end of 2012. The goal, a company spokesmen said, is to field 1000 of the SUVs by 2015. Hyundai has already signed contracts with cities in Denmark and Sweden to lease the model to municipal fleets
Introduced in 2010, the Tucson ix35 has so far logged more than 3.2 million km (1.9 million mi) of road testing. Driving range on a single fill-up is 588 km (365 miles); it takes 0.96 kg (2.12 lb) of fuel to go 100 km (62 mi). Top speed is 160 km/h (100 mph) and the SUV accelerates from 0 to 100 km/h in 12.5 s. The stack generates 100 kW and it works with a 24-kW battery. The fuel tank stores 5.6 kg (12.3 lb) of hydrogen at a pressure of 700 bar (10.2 ksi).
The carmaker’s longer-term goal is to build production up to 10,000 units annually during the next five to 10 years while cutting costs in half, said Byung Ki Ahn, Principal Engineer and General Manager of one of three teams that comprise the Fuel Cell Group at Hyundai Motor Group. “A rule of thumb says that adding a zero to production volume can cause the price to drop by half,” he said.
Korea, a nation of some 50 million people, imports 97% of its oil, so we are eager to develop new and renewable energy sources,” he continued. Regarding next-generation propulsion choices, Ahn acknowledged that the company is pursuing several. It will also build battery EVs and plug-in hybrids as well as advanced IC engines including clean diesels.
The company has had hundreds of engineers working on fuel-cell technology for the past 14 years at the company’s R&D center in Mabuk, near Seoul.
There are three major challenges for fuel-cell technology to overcome, said Ahn. "First, the cost is too high. Hyundai is targeting a $50,000 price tag (about half or so of the current cost) within a few years, due mostly to improved materials, better design, and automated production technology.
“Our second challenge is to ensure the durability of the system for a lifetime of operation,” he continued. “And the third big issue is the lack of a refueling infrastructure. It’s a basic chicken-and-egg issue that in the long term governments must help to establish.”
According to Hyundai research, about 27% of the cost of a current fuel-cell unit is the membrane electrode assembly (MEA), a stack of proton exchange membranes through which the charge-carriers pass. Eight percent of the cost goes to the gas diffusion layer (GDL), which is a core component that enables transport of gases, liquids, and electricity. A whopping 48% of the cost goes to the bipolar plates that connect fuel cells. Another 7% goes to the gasket, and 7% pays for the so-called balance of systems.
Within several years, according to company forecasts, the MEA will account for a full 55% of the total cost because the costs of the other technologies will fall significantly--—especially the plates and gaskets. Satisfactory durability of catalyst and membrane, however, depends on finding new materials and running at optimal operating conditions. Recycling platinum may help. Smart, cost-conscious design and production improvements should get them to their goals, Ahn believes.
The national platform for early market introduction of fuel-cell technology will be the Ulsan region, Korea’s industrial mecca and home to Hyundai-Kia. The region has many industrial plants and chemical processing complexes that should provide ready supplies of natural gas, and so “there’s lots of cheap hydrogen as well,” said Ahn.