Hydrogen refueling stations will continue to increase, according to one advocate, who added that the establishment of more commercial fleets and increased support from automakers will help fuel cell vehicles gain a firmer footing.

As the managing director for the Motive division at Intelligent Energy, a company that develops eco-friendly automotive systems, James Batchelor spends a lot of time considering the fuel cell market. He recently talked with SAE International’s Stuart Birch about what currently is holding back fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) and what he believes the solutions are.

The Infrastructure Conundrum

When pondering the problem of FCVs and their refueling stations, the age-old debate of the chicken and the egg comes to mind. In order for more consumers to pick fuel cell technology, hydrogen needs to be available in nearby, convenient locations. But it’s difficult to justify the cost for these stations when so few FCVs are on the roads.

Batchelor agrees that the hydrogen infrastructure is still lacking, and said the starting point is to increase the public’s exposure in order to solidify FCVs in the marketplace.

“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,” said Batchelor.

“In the short term, we believe that a significant number of early users of FCVs will be fleets operating on a ‘return to depot’ basis, so refueling will not be an issue. This makes switching to zero emission FCVs relatively easy for taxis, buses and local delivery fleets, which would in turn help drive improvements in urban air quality.”

Audi’s recent purchase of fuel cell patents from Ballard is also significant, according to Batchelor.

“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 said.

SEE ALSO: Fuel Cell Advances Discussed At SAE World Congress

Increased efficiency

Another drawback commonly quoted by critics is the energy process itself, which some say isn’t as efficient as the powertrains in battery electric or hybrid vehicles. But new advances linked to the components of fuel cell systems continue to change these calculations.

Intelligent Energy, for example, recently developed a fuel cell platform that with an output density of 3.5 kilowatts/liter and 3.0 kilowatts/kilogram. This is higher than the Toyota Mirai’s current stack power density of 3.1 kW/L and 2.0 kW/kg.

“It has been designed and developed to deliver primary motive power within an electric driveline and is tailored to applications where ‘traditional’ performance driving pleasure is an important part of the ownership experience,” said Batchelor of Intelligent Energy’s new fuel cell platform.

SEE ALSO: 5 Reasons Fuel Cell Vehicles Might Not Be The Future

Approaching Production Readiness

In order for automakers to add more models to the fuel cell segment, the technology needs to become more affordable. Batchelor said this too is improving.

“The cost of the fuel cell in the new Toyota Mirai, for example, has been quoted as being about 5 percent the cost of the system used in the 2008 vehicle,” he said. For the next generation of the Mirai, Toyota’s engineers have said they want to bring this cost down another 25 percent.

By continuing to improve the technology, cost and supporting infrastructure, Batchelor said that hydrogen-powered vehicles can become a “high-volume” segment. These are no minor obstacles, though, and it’s still too early in the technology’s timeline to see FCVs can carve a solid niche in the marketplace.


Photo courtesy of Cal State L.A.

Automotive Engineering