Monday, July 21, 2014

Fuel cell update

Rob Wile over at Business Insider takes another run at the possibility that fuel cells may be the answer to the question, "Can we make a serious car that produces no carbon emissions?"  If you type "fuel cells" into the search box on the top left, you will see that I have covered this subject before in some detail. And the big objection to a widespread adoption of fuel cells is the fact that hydrogen fueling stations are extremely rare so it doesn't much matter how good any fuel-celled vehicle might be.  I mean, say what you want about the inconvenience of plugging in a battery-powered car, it is almost impossible to be somewhere where there isn't an electrical outlet nearby.

But the landscape IS changing.  Musk really has made a splash with the Tesla S—a car so good that Lexus has noticed that it is losing sales of its flagship LS to its plug-in rival.  Lexus pretends to be unconcerned asking “I think the question remains to be seen how many people will buy a second Tesla.”  Lexus is Toyota's premium brand and it's Toyota that is sending the most serious fuel-celled car to market—so this is obviously the company line.

Honestly, I don't see any way around the problem of zero hydrogen infrastructure.  On the other hand, Toyota didn't become the biggest car maker on earth by making too many big mistakes.  It is also a company that stands by its convictions.  They lost a lot of money on those early Priuses before the market would prove them right.  (I live in a town that is crawling with Priuses so it is especially hard for me to remember when the hybrid car was considered a joke.)

In a duel between little Elon Musk and mighty Toyota, the odds must tilt heavily towards Toyota and its marketing worldview.  On the other hand, Musk has managed to capture sales from the absolutely superb Lexus LS so he and his vision may survive yet.

Here's The Technology Of The Future That Could Crush Elon Musk's Dreams

ROB WILE  JUL. 10, 2014, 4:27 PM

There's been a virtual civil war happening in the battle to create the next generation of motor vehicles. The battle is between plug-ins and fuel cells.

You may have heard more about about plug-ins thanks to Tesla, which has single handedly revived the market for a technology that was otherwise going nowhere. Tesla's foe — and indeed, that is how Elon Musk regards the technology — is fuel-cell vehicles, which run on hydrogen.

Fuel-cell vehicles have seen their own recent jolt thanks to more established automakers like Toyota, which just got a major boost from the Japanese government in the form of fuel-cell vehicle subsidies. At least three other major automakers plan to release FCVs in the near future.

Tesla is enjoying lots of momentum — its shares are up about 50% this year — and the company has embarked on an unprecedented capex odyssey to double the world's supply of lithium ion batteries and expand its charging networks. Can they really be derailed by fuel cells? Or could the two technologies even learn to get along someday?

Let's back up for a moment.

What are fuel cells?

Fuel cells take hydrogen and turn it into electricity. The most common way of doing this involves charging a special material, called a proton exchange membrane, to separate out the proton and electron from a hydrogen atom. The electron gets captured as electricity, then recombines with the proton and a supply of oxygen and comes out as water.

If you stack a bunch of these guys together, you get a fuel cell. Here's what it looks like in the inside of a car. There's only a motor in the front; the fuel cell is in the middle of the car.

Pros and cons

The principal advantage of fuel-cell vehicles is that you don't have to plug them in. Instead, you simply go to a fuel station and refill your car with hydrogen. Battery electrics, on the other hand, require you to leave your car at a charging station for hours (or a little more than an hour in the case of a Tesla). Environmentally, while neither generate direct emissions, creating the hydrogen, and the raw electricity for batteries, requires burning fossil fuels upstream at a power plant. So, neither is truly emission free.

However, there remain huge gaps in fuel cells' charging networks, while those for battery electric are much more widespread.

California battleground

Despite its Fremont digs, Tesla does not rule the California roost. The state plans to have 25 hydrogen fueling stations operating by fall of next year capable of handling 4,000 new vehicles. A new study says existing gasoline stations can safely store and dispense hydrogen, which could allow that figure to jump.

In fact, many hydrogen vehicles start out being only available in California. And because of how the state's complex emissions credit rules are calculated, hydrogen-powered vehicles earn more points for range and speed of refueling than do battery-electric cars, according to GreenCarReports. Indeed, the California Air Resources Board projected in 2012 that there would eventually be more fuel cells on the road than battery electrics:

Governor Jerry Brown recently signed an executive order calling for 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on California roadways by 2025. The state is actually one of eight states that together hope to put 3.3 million zero-emission. The program's incentives are fuel source-agnostic.

Getting cheaper ... at least automakers hope so

To date, most fuel-cell infrastructure has been directed toward power plants that run on hydrogen. A recent note from Navigant Research indicates more sectors are looking to fuel cells to provide sources of power independent of the grid in case of natural disasters. Fuel cells have also found their way into warehouses — Wal-Mart has been using fuel cells as cost- and labor-saving devices for its forklifts; they allow for lower refueling times.
Fuel cell automakers are hoping all this capacity spills over — Toyota, Ford, GM, and Hyundai all plan to roll out new FCVs. Adam Jonas says they don't have much choice: He sees their push as the result of failing to make a good enough plug-in electric. "We are not aware of any recent breakthrough in the field of hydrogen fuel cells," he wrote in a recent note. "What we are aware of, however, is a failure of most EVs to achieve their stated volume targets." He calls their doubling down on fuel cells, "a diversionary tactic to slow down, if not completely reset, a regulatory framework scripted to support mass adoption of EVs that don’t appear ready for prime time." more

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