Hydrogen Vehicles: The Dream Lives On


Toyota FCV-R ConceptHydrogen [H2] as a power source has been under on-and-off development and use in various sectors since the 1900s, but has its own special considerations when it comes to storage and use.

The high reactivity of H2 makes it an excellent fuel, but also difficult to store and deliver. Combustion of H2 also produces no carbon-dioxide [CO2]. Hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, can also be used to generate electricity directly in a hydrogen fuel cell [HFC].

Unfortunately, there are a few problems hindering the marketing of HFC vehicles. Up until recently, HFCs have been so inefficient, that the smallest vehicle they could fit in was a cargo van. Over time, though, new materials and processes have reduced the size and increased the efficiency of HFCs, meaning that they could design more mainstream vehicles to utilize them. Toyota’s current HFC stack is about half the size and weight of the version developed in 2008.

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Another problem with HFC vehicles is the storage and distribution of the H2 fuel. The infrastructure simply isn’t in place in enough locations to make an HFC fleet feasible. “There are currently no more than 280 (stations) worldwide, and many are not publicly accessible,” according to Ulrich Buenger, coördinator for H2Moves, a $25.9 million fuel-cell demonstration project funded by the European Union. Boosting their numbers will be pricey, since hydrogen filling stations cost around $1.3 million to install.”

Still, this has not dampened automakers’ enthusiasm for the technology. In light of some of the problems with current electric vehicles [EV], such as range, battery expenses, and recharging times, HFC vehicles look like they could be an excellent alternative. HFC vehicles are essentially EVs with faster refueling times, because they generate power in the vehicle, an excellent blend of the two technologies, if manufacturers can work out the kinks.

At the 2012 Paris Motor Show, a few automakers were showing off their new HFC vehicles, such as the Hyundai ix35, with a range of 365 miles. Toyota’s FCV-R concept sedan is estimated at 435 miles. Nissan hasn’t released a range estimate on its TeRRA concept SUV, but I can imagine it to be somewhere in the same ballpark.

“What is not yet ready for prime time is the fuel-cell EVs’ cost,” says Gerald Killmann, Toyota Europe’s R&D director, “the FCV-R would cost close to $130,000 to produce today.” Toyota hopes to cut costs at least in half by 2015 by developing all the components in-house—as it did with its hybrid drive.

No doubt, other automakers are struggling with making HFC technology more cost-effective and marketable. Clean, H2-fuel-running, EVs are sure to have a substantial market share in the near future.

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