Increasing the pace of fuel-cell expansion

  • 28-Apr-2015 02:30 EDT
Intelligent Energy04-15 100kW fuel cell architecture.jpg

Intelligent Energy's latest 100-kW automotive fuel cell power unit.

James Batchelor is a fuel cell advocate. As Managing Director of Intelligent Energy’s Motive Div., he is undaunted by the cost and hydrogen infrastructure challenges that have so far bedeviled the technology as a high-volume alternative energy solution.

The sector has now been stimulated by FCEV (fuel cell electric vehicle) announcements from Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and Volkswagen. Batchelor said he is so confident of its potential that his company has just introduced a 100-kW (134-hp) fuel cell platform producing 3.5 kW/L and 3.0 kW/kg, claiming a “world-leading” stack power density.

"It has been designed and developed to deliver primary motive power within an electric driveline," he told Automotive Engineering, "and is tailored to applications where ‘traditional’ performance driving pleasure is an important part of the ownership experience.”

Doubters of FCEVs becoming an affordable breakthrough for future motive power may be confounded. Intelligent Energy uses its own evaporatively-cooled technology, which removes the need for hundreds of separate cooling channels between cells in the fuel cell stack. The twin-stack system also brings significant weight and package advantages over conventional liquid-cooled stacks, Batchelor claimed.

Audi’s announcement that it is buying Ballard Power Systems’ automotive fuel cell intellectual property is seen by Batchelor as a further significant development in the FCEV debate.

“Greater public awareness of the benefits of hydrogen fuel cell technology is central to stimulating the demand that will justify investment in hydrogen infrastructure—something also assisted by Toyota making its patents relating to refueling stations available on a royalty-free basis, forever,” he said.

Impact of the Audi/Ballard deal

Operating range that far exceeds any current EV, and refueling times that are on par with a typical gasoline or diesel vehicle remain the big pluses for FCEVs. Cost and refueling logistics issues also are currently being addressed by OEMs, their suppliers and partners. Batchelor acknowledged that a hydrogen refueling infrastructure is still work in progress, but he is convinced that the pace of expansion will increase.

“In the short term, we believe that a significant number of early users of FCEVs will be fleets operating on a ‘return to depot’ basis, so refueling will not be an issue. This makes switching to zero emission FCEVs relatively easy for taxis, buses and local delivery fleets, which would in turn help drive improvements in urban air quality," Batchelor explained. Intelligent Energy is operating a small fleet of FCEV London taxis that are nearing the end of a 3-year trial (see http://articles.sae.org/12863/).

As a leading thinker on the subject of alternative powertrains, he puts particular emphasis on VW/Audi’s interest in FCEVs.

“In Audi’s own words regarding the Ballard announcement, this is ‘strategically important’ for them and it sends a clear signal to those responsible for infrastructure investment that the industry is converging on a shared view," Batchelor noted. "Audi is also on record as saying that future mobility should not sacrifice driving pleasure—a view that we share strongly and is at the heart of our work on high-power fuel cell architectures.”

Of course, in the auto industry the big issue is cost, regardless of technology. Batchelor believes FCEV cost will be tackled through next-generation iterations of design, further industrialization and greater production scale. These challenges are being addressed across the industry.

“The cost of the fuel cell in the new Toyota Mirai, for example, has been quoted as being about 5% the cost of the system used in the 2008 vehicle," Batchelor observed. Beyond this, Toyota engineers have also spoken of a target cost of as little as 25% of today’s system for their next-generation vehicle due around 2020.

The key is in first designing the fuel-cell powertrain for high volume manufacture with simplification built in, then focusing on down-costing the supporting systems—which is easier because they are comprised of known technologies, he noted.

Developing production scale

Design scalability is at the heart of Intelligent Energy’s approach. Its air-cooled architectures developed for applications up to around 15 kW (20 hp) are described by Batchelor as being extremely simple, leading to improved economics. This technology is said to be ideal for hybrid range-extenders and also is used in the world’s first type-approved fuel cell scooter, produced as part of the company’s ongoing collaboration with Suzuki (see SAE Technical Paper http://papers.sae.org/2011-32-0644/).

For OEMs, scalable manufacturing is as important as ensuring the technology meets their performance and validation goals, stressed Adam Huckstep, Engineering Director of Intelligent Energy’s Motive Div. The company has a pilot production line at its U.K. technical center that can manufacture fleet-trial volumes to mass production processes and cycle times, he said.

FCEVs also need bespoke solutions in the critical areas of air delivery, fuel and cooling. Intelligent Energy continues to work closely with automotive Tier 1s on technologies that are integrated into the fuel cell system, thereby reducing the bill of material along with cost and weight.

Intelligent Energy has gained what it regards as significant transferable knowledge from its portable fuel-cell-powered Upp product that is capable of recharging USB-compatible devices when grid power is unavailable.

“The consumer electronics industry demands a high level of utility, ruggedness and reliability as well as expecting relentless focus on value engineering and reduced development program durations," Huckstep explained. "And while the absolute numbers and timescales may be different, the impetus to reduce cost and compress development time is akin to that seen in the automotive industry.”

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