Are electrics a bridging technology, and hydrogen fuel cells the future?

November 1, 2017 |

Are electrics the future, or a bridge to the future? Recently, Lexus’ Paul Williamsen told Australia’s CarAdvice team:

“Both hybrid and EVs are merely bridging technologies on the way to the solution, which is hydrogen. The problem with EVs is a simple matter of chemistry – we won’t be able to get the charging times down. I’ve worked with batteries enough to know that fast-charging a battery is about the second worst thing you can do to it. There are two ways to abuse a battery: overheat it or fast charge it. With the Tesla Superchargers, they don’t publicise it, but if you ‘supercharge’ a Tesla, one supercharge takes 20 charge cycles off the end of that battery’s life. Two supercharges takes 40 charges. That’s simple chemistry; you can’t force the ions through the battery that fast without causing damage.

“With hydrogen, we’ve got something that can fill a (Toyota) Mirai, or a Highlander, or a Honda, or a Hyundai, with a 200 to 400-mile range, in three minutes. All at around $4 per gallon.”

Remarkable claims. But it’s true that Toyota is doubling down on hydrogen — planning to drop diesel options from all its new models — and recently predicting that it will be able to produce a hydrogen-powered car at the same retail price as a hybrid, starting in the early 2020s, based on its ;next-generation hydrogen fuel cell tech.

Toyota to DITCH Diesels – and deliver Hydrogen for the price of Hybrid

That breakthrough in vehicle costs is going to be needed, because the Toyota Mirai costs $57,000 in the US before subsidies and the kind of buy-in that will be achieved by those costs will keep hydrogen-infrastructure build-outs on the ‘low priority’ list for nations — especially those like the US, Canada, Australia=, Brazil, India, Russia and China with vast internal road systems.

What’s out there now in hydrogen?

The Mirai is the major player on the market now. The name means “Future” in Japanese — but it’s been available around the world since 2015 in small numbers.

Here are the impressive specs:

  • Uses hybrid and fuel cell technology
  • Powered by Toyota Fuel Cell System and PC boost convertor
  • Fuel cell stack output is 153 hp
  • 0 – 60 mph acceleration in 9.0 seconds
  • Refueling time: 3 to 5 minutes
  • Range is 312 miles
  • Contains two 10,000 psi carbon fiber polymer fuel tanks
  • NiMH rechargeable battery pack
  • 152 hp electric traction motor

Just arriving now outside of Japan is the Honda Clarity (launched in the home country with the 2017 model year). Very nice compact fuel cell system featuring 30 percent small stacks, meaning the entire fuel cell system fits under the hood, and the small car seats five comfortably, still generates 173 horsepower and has a range of 460 miles per fueling. And, for those in weather-prone areas, a bonus: you can hook your vehicle up to the house and use it as a back-up power generator, which will work for roughly seven days per fueling. Nice.

The Fuel Cell primer

Here’s what you need to know.  You load hydrogen, it is combined with oxygen from the air in the fuel cell to make water, and the reaction releases energy, which powers the vehicle. The only output is the water. Here’s the skinny on Nissan’s alternative system

A Fuel Cell Vehicle Revolution: The Digest’s Multi-Slide Guide to Nissan’s SOFC system

Why the Hydrogen Hold up?

Hydrogen? It’s been a casualty to a great extent of the drop in fossil fuel prices and crude’s stubborn “New Normal” at $50 per barrel. Just a few years back, sub-$2 per kilo costs for hydrogen looked like they would support a market — but consumers are buying lots of new cars and the rising SUV sales figures have been far outstripping climate-conscious EVs, and sales of hydrogen cars have just refused to take off.

One major issue is refueling infrastructure, with 22 public hydrogen stations at last count and 19 of them in California. That’s the major reason that when the Honda Clarity launches in the US with a $60K price tag, it will be available only in selected California locales.

But it’s true that Europe is taking hydrogen a lot more seriously. Toyota is heading up a 13-company consortium under the brand “The Hydrogen Council”, whose members include Shell and Total.

And, the Scandinavian Hydrogen Highway Partnership is aiming to establish a viable infrastructure for refueling. Which has led to Honda choosing Denmark as the test site for its upcoming Honda Clarity, it’s hydrogen-based “car of the future.”

Low-cost hydrogen from biomass? Think Proton Power

Back in 2014, in our continuing coverage of recent advances in cheap, affordable biobased hydrogen — meaning sub-$2 per kilo hydrogen gas — enough to light up the economics of fuel cell vehicles — we profiled a closely-followed yet slightly mysterious pyro company called Proton Power.

This is hydrous pyrolysis, where they utilize some of the water to create the hydrogen. As company founder Sam Weaver noted, “And, our system is dynamic, we are pulling the gas away, and we get a different equilibrium (than other developers).

Back in 2014, we related brief notes received from Jim Bierkamp, their business development manager:

“PPI has been in existence since 2009, and what we have come up with is basically a way to make inexpensive hydrogen – we can do it for less than $2/kg.  We are doing this using a patented pyrolysis process that we call CHyP (Cellulose to Hydrogen Power).  We have been flying under the radar from a publicity standpoint, but that is about to change in that we will be starting up our first electricity-generating project – a 750kw switchgrass to electricity project utilizing our CHyP technology – and we will be bringing a 1M gal/yr liquid fuels plant online in 3Q of this year at which we will be demonstrating that we can make diesel fuel, for example, for about $1.75/gal.  We currently have an order backlog of $320M in real projects.”

Fast forward to late 2017, that backlog of $320M in projects has not translated into commercial-scale project Number 1.  But here’s a look at the system:

Carbon-negative, low-cost hydrogen power: The Digest’s 2017 Multi-Slide Guide to Proton Power

Japan — the Center of the Hydrogen Universe

Within automakers, says this Lux report, the strongest relationships formed are between Japan’s big three: Toyota, Honda, and Nissan. Toyota is not only at the central point of partnerships with other carmakers but also has alliances with heavy vehicles maker Hino, specialists like FirstElement Fuel, and industrial gas incumbents like Air Liquide. After Japan, it’s South Korea, where Hyundai has been investing heavily in hydrogen vehicles.

Nissan’s ethanol-powered alternative fuel cell tech

In June, we reported that Nissan’s trials of its ethanol-powered solid oxide fuel cell vehicle showed promising results in its day-to-day testing undertaken during the past few months using hydrous ethanol in 6.6 gallon engines. The engine in the two vans used during the testing can also run on 50% water and is categorized as carbon neutral well-to-wheel. Using, ethanol and batteries, the vehicle has a 375-mile range. The e-NV200 electric vans used in the trial are made in Spain and then fitted especially with the electric engines.

Action in Hawaii

Nevertheless, we reported in August that Hawaii’s push for hydrogen got underway with groundbreaking for its first public fueling station for hydrogen vehicles located on Oahu.

Hawaii plans on selling hydrogen fueled cars, like the latest Toyota Mirai, by next year and the fueling station should be completed by early 2018. The Mirai has an estimated cost of $55,000 but can go about 312 miles before refueling and only takes a few minutes to refuel using electrolyzed water that splits into hydrogen and water. To sweeten the deal, Servco Pacific is looking into offering Mirai car owners with free fuel for three years. The only emissions from driving the hydrogen car? Water. Servco Pacific is handling the construction and Toyota is collaborating to get hydrogen vehicles to Hawaii. While the exact fueling station cost was not disclosed, Servco Pacific said they are not using any grants or public funding for the multi-million-dollar project.

R&D Horizons

In June we reported that the U.S. Department of Energy announced approximately $15.8 million for 30 new projects aimed at discovery and development of novel, low-cost materials necessary for hydrogen production and storage and for fuel cells onboard light-duty vehicles.  Selected projects will leverage national lab consortia launched under DOE’s Energy Materials Network (EMN) this past year, in support of DOE’s materials research and advanced manufacturing priorities.

More than 2,000 fuel cell vehicles have been sold or leased in the U.S. since 2015.  These consume 95% less petroleum per mile than conventional internal combustion engine vehicles, have no tailpipe emissions, and offer quiet operation.

Selections were made under the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Fuel Cell Technologies Office (FCTO) annual funding opportunity announcement (FOA) in 2017.  The 2017 FOA solicited early-stage materials research to advance the Department’s goals of enabling economic and efficient transportation via fuel cell electric vehicles that use hydrogen fuel produced from diverse domestic resources.

Concept and Prototype Hydrogen vehicles

There are 72 concept and prototype vehicles that have been developed to date, according to — from Audi, BMW, GM, Chrysler, Ford/Mazda, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Peugeot, Renault, Suzuki, Toyota and VW.

The Biofuels-Hydrogen nexus, and waste water

In May we reported that “electrical” bacteria are the key ingredient in a new process developed by the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory that recycles wastewater from biofuel production to generate hydrogen. The hydrogen can then be used to convert bio-oil into higher grade liquid fuels such as gasoline or diesel. The team’s lab-scale demonstration can produce 11.7 liters of hydrogen per day at rates that are required for industrial applications. The hydrogen generated from the microbes could displace the need for natural gas, which is used later in the production process to upgrade bio-oil into more desirable drop-in liquid fuels.

10 Top technology storylines in the Hydrogen Economy

Stanford team hits 30% record for storing solar energy in hydrogen fuel

In California, Stanford University reports that an interdisciplinary team at Stanford has made significant strides toward solving the solar energy storage issue, demonstrating the most efficient means yet of storing electricity captured from sunlight in the form of chemical bonds. As Stanford observed in a release, “that stored energy can be recovered later in different … Continue reading

Ants! Run for your lives! Or, perhaps, are ants the key players in the Hydrogen Economy?

Although they will not know it, when the world finally moves off petroleum completely, we may have the ants to thank. Formica, as ants were known by the Romans (yes, formica, but not the flooring material) — when squashed, emit a characteristic odor and that’s formic acid. That we know so much about it is thanks to … Continue reading

BP green hydrogen project needs Germany to update laws to reflect GHG savings

In Germany, BP is trying to secure legislative changes that would facilitate its work with Germany’s Uniper to produce “green hydrogen” at the oil major’s refinery in Lingen. Produced when renewable energy meets hydrolyzing water, the gas produced has 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to its fossil fuel-based counterpart but the law doesn’t yet … Continue reading

Short on sustainable hydrogen? Here comes new water-splitting tech to save the day

You may not know it, but you are short on hydrogen. Right now. We live in a hydrogen-starved world, and it’s expensive to make. And most of what we make is unsustainable, produced from fossil sources. All that might be ready to change. The Digest investigates. Making syngas for efficient production of fuels? Need hydrogen. Fuel-cell … Continue reading

Indiana University researchers use bio-catalysts to produce hydrogen

In Indiana, scientists at Indiana University have created a highly efficient biomaterial that catalyzes the formation of hydrogen—one half of the “holy grail” of splitting H2O to make hydrogen and oxygen for fueling cheap and efficient cars that run on water. A modified enzyme that gains strength from being protected within the protein shell—or “capsid”—of … Continue reading

Danish researchers look to make hydrogen fuel cells bio

In Denmark, researchers at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) have embarked upon research looking at biomaterials for use in hydrogen fuel cells to replace toxic materials such as platinum. Developing a 100% organic biocatalyst for a fuel cell is the goal of the Danish Council for Independent Research-funded project. By mixing enzymes with graphene … Continue reading

Sierra Energy Awarded Grant For Hydrogen Fuel Research

In California, the Defense Logistics Agency awarded Sierra Energy a $100,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant $100,000 grant to further explore the production of hydrogen fuel from waste. Sierra Energy’s patented FastOx gasifier converts waste into an energy-dense gas with high hydrogen content. The system’s operational efficiency will be able to produce hydrogen at a … Continue reading

Fuel Cell Energy’s hydrogen delivery system now available to support fuels cells for road transport

In Connecticut, FuelCell Energy said that its megawatt-scale FuelCell Energy hydrogen delivery system is now available and can generate more than 1,200 kilograms of hydrogen per day, suitable for larger industrial applications or adequate to power a fleet of more than 1,500 fuel cell cars while also producing two megawatts of ultra-clean electricity. According to … Continue reading

Centre for Process Innovation leads EU project to convert food waste into hydrogen

In the UK, the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) is leading a European collaborative project that aims to transform food waste into a sustainable source of significant economic added value, namely graphene and renewable hydrogen. The project titled ‘PlasCarb’ will transform biogas generated by the anaerobic digestion of food waste using an innovative low energy … Continue reading

Virginia Tech researchers develop method to produce cellulosic hydrogen

In Virginia, a team of Virginia Tech researchers discovered a way to create hydrogen fuel using a biological method that greatly reduces the time and money it takes to produce the zero-emissions fuel. This method uses abundantly available corn stover to produce the hydrogen. Unlike other hydrogen fuel production methods that rely on highly processed … Continue reading


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