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One of about 26 hydrogen fueling pumps currently in operation in southern California. Automakers and numerous public and private entities have collaborated to create a viable hydrogen refueling network in California and plan to expand to a national footprint (image: Bill Visnic)

Wide collaborations aim to advance the fuel-cell future

For a related perspective on this topic, see this accompanying story:

Fuel cell technology has come a long way since 2003, when President George W. Bush in his State of the Union address issued a call-to-action for U.S. engineers and scientists to develop fuel-cell vehicles, “so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen and pollution free.”

Bush’s policy speech triggered significant R&D spending by automakers, suppliers and the federal government in hydrogen storage systems, H2 transportation solutions and fuel-cell stack development. At the time, Daimler AG and General Motors were already in the vanguard of stack R&D and vehicle demonstrations, GM having built a leadership position in fuel-cell-related intellectual property since its pioneering 1960s work related to the U.S. space program.

Meanwhile, Honda, Toyota and Hyundai joined the incumbents, driven by California’s zero-emission vehicle mandate. Key specialist suppliers increased their efforts to find lower-cost alternatives to precious-metal content in the stack and investigated reduced-NVH solutions for the stacks’ noisy air-delivery systems. Stack performance, durability and reliability leaped forward impressively in the next decade.

Finding lower-cost alternatives to spiral-wound composite, cylindrical pressure tanks for on-board H2 storage remains an ongoing R&D focus, according to Charlie Freese, Executive Director of GM’s global fuel cell business (with its 2017 Clarity Fuel Cell, Honda addressed this development bogey with a world's first aluminum-lined cylinder). Besides its collaboration with Honda to develop and manufacture automotive fuel cells ( GM is also working with the U.S. Army on a fuel cell demonstrator ( while emergent truck maker Nikola Motor is building a Class-8 tractor.

Mobility-industry engineers and planners realize that despite the EPA’s recent decision to re-open the Mid-Term Review of 2025 CAFE standards, California won’t budge on its ZEV standards. They reckon the industry will need alternatives to battery EVs if ZEVs are to make up roughly 15% of all California auto sales by 2025; the current share is stalled at 3%.

Sales of the Clarity Fuel Cell, the Toyota Mirai and FCVs from Hyundai and potentially GM will deliver emission credits under the California Air Resources Board’s complex credit scheme. One sale of an FCV is worth nine credits, compared to four credits currently given for each battery-electric Tesla Model S sold and three credits for each Nissan Leaf. The credits are worth thousands of dollars each, “offsets” that enable full-line OEMs to sell their combustion-engined vehicles in high volume in North America’s largest vehicle market.

“They’re hedging their bets and that’s [California] the reason,” observed Egil Juliussen, Ph.D, Director of Research at IHS Markit. “The fuel cell has made very good advancements lately, but the investments and overall momentum in the industry for improving lithium battery technology are so large, it will be very difficult for fuel cells to catch up with that.”

Nonetheless, Dr. Juliussen noted that FCV fueling times equivalent to those of liquid-fueled vehicles is a major selling point compared with battery EVs. “Fuel-cell vehicles will have some market share over time,” he asserted.

Fueling infrastructure continues to be the main hurdle for FCVs, many experts conclude. California currently has 26 operating public H2 fueling stations with 40 more scheduled to come online by the end of 2018, according to Honda. The current target is 100 stations online in the state by 2020; all will be funded by tax revenues.

Despite the infrastructure’s slow rise compared with EV charging, other industry players have recently entered the FCV arena. Nissan and Magna are investigating using hydrogen fuel cells rather than ICEs as hybrid range extenders. Nissan will soon introduce such a propulsion system, in partnership with fuel-cell maker Symbio, into the European taxi market. The Nissan e-NV200 electric van will offer three-minute refueling time for 3.8 kg of H2 at 700 bar (10,152 psi).

Magna Steyr also has developed a fuel cell range-extender concept, based on a Mercedes-Benz Viano minivan. Its downsized fuel-cell stack supplied by Proton Motor is rated at 30 kW, compared to 103 kW for the Clarity Fuel Cell. One potential customer for such a production vehicle could be urban delivery companies that don’t want to devote excess time to recharging EV batteries. With electric front-axle drive, the Magna van’s claimed range is 350 km (217 mi), about 70 km (43 mi) of which can be on battery power alone.

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