Cell Walls: How the rise of electrics spells the end for fuel cell vehicles

By Nicole Stevenson

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles show tremendous promise. Done properly they could meet all of our transportation needs without producing an ounce of extra pollution or carbon dioxide. However, like fusion power and flying cars, the technology always seems just out of reach. Many have dismissed it as unsuitable for the mass market, due to the expense of hydrogen production, storage, and transportation. Hydrogen technology is still moving forward, but can it compete with the humble battery?

Costs for hydrogen drivetrains have fallen by 80% in the last decade, and major automakers such as Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, and Honda have invested heavily in their fuel cell prototypes. Honda’s FCX vehicle is being leased to fifty lucky SoCal residents, and the company hopes to launch an FCX descendant to the general market by 2018. Toyota has a similar program in Japan, and hopes to bring its own fuel cell vehicle to market in 2015.

From the outside, fuel cell vehicles are indistinguishable from traditional cars, but on the inside they are anything but traditional. The main component, called the fuel cell stack, looks like a large aluminum shoe box and combines pressurized hydrogen gas with oxygen, converting the two into the electricity that powers the car. As in hybrid vehicles, which supplement gasoline with electric power, the fuel cell vehicle contains a battery which supplies the car with extra, self-generated power. Unlike in a hybrid, this battery is accompanied by a hydrogen storage tank, which supplies the fuel cell stack with highly pressurized hydrogen.

For all its intricate parts, the fuel cell vehicle’s only emission is water. Still, there are obstacles to these green cars becoming a viable option for consumers. One of the main hurdles is the production of hydrogen. If producing the hydrogen to propel the cars creates large emissions of greenhouse gasses, it could easily defeat the purpose of the vehicles. This obstacle could be tackled by further research into the gasses’ production.The cars are also extremely expensive currently, partly due to budget cuts that have drastically decreased the funding for said research.

In addition to these practical concerns, the Obama administration has proposed cutting the budget on hydrogen fuel cell research by 40% in 2012. America currently invests $100 million annually into such research, compared to Germany’s cool $2 billion. The United States Government favors electric and hybrid cars over the development of hydrogen powered vehicles, something that upsets leading visionaries. The first budget cut upset the previous director of General Motors hydrogen fuel cell team, Byron McCormick, so much that he quit his position.

McCormick told the Houston Chronicle by email, “I resigned because of the closed-mindedness of the administration on these matters,” mentioning “the dismissive attitude and seeming unwillingness to talk or discuss” viable alternative energy sources. The fuel cell vehicle is an innovative and feasible alternative to America’s dependence on fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the technology continues to be shot down as impossible and impractical. As Byron McCormick says, “I just feel sad they’ll be proven so very wrong by history.”

Perhaps the administration was just listening to the technology’s many critics. For every advocate like McCormick, there is a critic who points out a flaw with the current ideas. One flaw is the simple fact that pure hydrogen is rather hard to come by here on Earth. It must be reformed from other sources such as water, natural gas, or other hydrogen rich compounds. This takes energy. Current methods produce as much or more carbon dioxide per mile as conventional fossil fuels.

Defenders will rightly argue that the energy could come from “green” sources of electricity, but at that point hydrogen becomes redundant. Why spend billions establishing a hydrogen infrastructure when you could simply pipe this “green” electricity directly into homes and the waiting batteries of electric cars. Even as Toyota and Honda engineers tweak their FCVs for their future premiere, Nissan’s Leaf electric vehicle is already in driveways. Once, hydrogen powered cars seemed perennially in the future, but advances in battery technology could render it a thing of the past.

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