Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Fuel cell myths (debunked?)

Someone over at Toyota must have noticed that I have been writing about cars and fuel cells.  So yesterday, I was sent a link by email hoping I would post something on why fuels cells are not a crazy idea.  Toyota has a big battle on its hands to get folks to accept such a radical idea.  So they are starting by trying to shoot down the basic misconceptions about their technology. (see below)

I have written about Toyota's plunge into these uncharted waters.  For example:

Saturday, November 2, 2013
Fuel cells for cars

While I am reasonably certain that a major player like Toyota will offer a well-designed and constructed fuel-celled car, I am far from certain they will sell very many simply because there is no installed infrastructure for hydrogen refueling.  Even folks selling cars powered by something as relatively common as propane face major sales resistance over insufficient fueling stations.  Apparently, Toyota is betting that fuels cells are so obviously the future that when they start moving their goods, the infrastructure will follow.  Personally, I don't believe that.  I think that if Toyota wants to sell fuel-celled vehicles, they are going to have to take a very active role in getting those refueling stations built themselves.

10 fuel cell myths

With Toyota offering a fuel cell powered vehicle in 2015, it's time to tackle some myths about fuel cells and the vehicles that will use them.

myth #1
Fuel Cell Vehicles Burn Hydrogen

Fuel cells don't burn hydrogen - they use an electrochemical process to convert hydrogen and atmospheric oxygen into electricity and water. They have no moving parts and no open flames.

myth #2
Fuel Cell Vehicles Are Expensive

This used to be true - a prototype 2007 Toyota FCV reportedly cost more than $1 million dollars to build.

However, recent advances in fuel cell manufacturing and catalyst performance have led to a dramatic cost decrease. According to the US Dept. of Energy, fuel cells will cost $30-$50 per kw-hr of output by 2017, depending on production volume. To put this number in perspective, Tesla battery packs are estimated to cost over $200 per kw-hr of output today and may fall to $140-175 per kw-hr by 2017. In all likelihood, fuel cell vehicles will cost less than battery electric vehicles by the end of the decade (barring some major decrease in battery costs, of course).

myth #3
Hydrogen Is Too Expensive Compared to Gasoline

A gallon of gasoline currently costs about $3.50, and that gallon will take a new Prius about 50 miles, resulting in a fuel cost of $0.07 per mile. A kilogram of hydrogen gas generated via wind powered electrolysis will cost $5-6, according to research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Upcoming fuel cell vehicles from Toyota and Hyundai will be able to travel more than 70 miles per kilo of hydrogen. That's a fuel cost of $0.07 - $0.09 per mile....and that's for "green" hydrogen made from renewable power. Hydrogen reformed from natural gas will cost half this amount.

So, while "green" hydrogen is more expensive than gasoline, the difference is pretty small. What's more, gasoline production and delivery is an established technology. There's every reason to believe green hydrogen production costs will fall as FCVs become more common (and, we'll have affordable hydrogen from reformed natural gas in the short term).

myth #4
Hydrogen Storage Tanks Are Dangerous

Toyota's new carbon fiber hydrogen storage tanks have withstood a shot from a 50 caliber rifle

Some people believe that the high pressure hydrogen fuel tanks used on FCVs are too dangerous for everyday use. However, vehicles with high pressure gas storage tanks are nothing new. Most vehicles that run on compressed natural gas (CNG) have them. What's more, Toyota's new FCV will feature a carbon fiber hydrogen storage tank that can withstand a shot from a .50 caliber military sniper rifle.

myth #5
Fuel Cell Vehicles Use Liquefied Hydrogen

None of the upcoming fuel cell vehicles (or existing hydrogen fueling stations) use liquified hydrogen. If fuel cell vehicles used liquid hydrogen, it would be very wasteful, as cooling hydrogen down to liquid form would require a great deal of energy... but that doesn't apply here.

myth #6
Hydrogen Fueling Systems Are Dangerous

Some believe hydrogen fueling systems are dangerous and/or unproven technology. Nothing could be further from the truth. The technology used to refill hydrogen-powered vehicles is essentially the same as technology that's used to refill vehicles that run on compressed natural gas (CNG). Currently, there are more than 16 million vehicles worldwide powered by CNG using pressurized systems without incident.

myth #7
Hydrogen Filling Stations Are Too Expensive To Build

The estimated cost of building a hydrogen filling station is $3-5 million dollars, according to a report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. While that's definitely a lot of money, a standard gasoline filling station costs about $2 million to construct (according to the same NREL report).

Hydrogen filling stations are definitely more costly, but the cost difference isn't prohibitive. What's more, a consortium of public entities and private companies are providing gas station owners with funds to help defray these costs.

myth #8
Hydrogen Can Only Be Produced By Reforming Natural Gas

Steam reformation is the most common method used to produce hydrogen today, but it isn't the only viable method of hydrogen production. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has a functioning wind-powered hydrogen filling station in Boulder, Colorado that uses wind power to create hydrogen via electrolysis. German energy giant Linde will begin producing hydrogen at commercial scale via wind power by 2015. There are also solar panels in the research and testing phase that can break water down into hydrogen and oxygen via photoelectricsynthesis and do so at extraordinary efficiency levels.

While existing renewable alternatives to steam reformed hydrogen are more costly, and new methods of creating hydrogen from solar power require more research to become commercially viable, it's not reasonable to say that hydrogen can only come from natural gas.

myth #9
Battery Electric Cars Are Obviously Better Than FCVs

Battery electric vehicles have a low operating cost, and they plugin to an existing (and generally efficient) energy grid. These are big positives. However, BEVs can't be refueled in 3 minutes, and (as of now) can't go 300+ miles between refueling. BEVs aren't really feasible for use in pickup trucks and SUVs, at least not without serious compromises in tow and payload capacities and/or driving range.

Fuel cell vehicles, on the other hand, have long range, fast refueling, and could easily be used in trucks or SUVs without sacrificing payload or tow capacity.

While battery electric vehicles have a lot of positives, it's a mistake to assume that they're obviously better than fuel cell vehicles. It's simply too early to declare a "winner" in the battery vs fuel cell debate.

myth #10
Fuel Cells Are BS

Elon Musk, with much of his personal wealth invested in battery-electric car technology, says rival fuel cell vehicle technology is "BS."

Tesla's Elon Musk once famously quipped that fuel cells are "so BS." Considering Musk's reputation as an innovator and his success with Tesla, many people have taken this comment at face value.

However, in light of FCV range and refueling ease, and Musk's personal investment in battery electric vehicle technology, it would be a mistake to accept his criticism of fuel cells without skepticism. more

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