Automotive companies have been showing increasing numbers of fuel cell concept vehicles. At the same time, major automakers have announced plans to introduce production vehicles in the 2014, 2015 time frame.
The reasons are simple. First, automakers are under pressure to build lower emission and emission-free vehicles and second, fuel cell vehicles don’t have the severe range limitations that plague battery electric vehicles.
Production ready fuel cells for automobiles are in their early days, and dramatic improvements in size, weight and cost are still ahead of us. Just this week Nissan (OTCPK:NSANF) announced a new fuel cell module that features a 75% weight reduction, half the weight, and one-sixth the cost of its earlier model.
The potential advantage of replacing a 660 pound Leaf battery pack with a 90 lb fuel cell module and 12 lbs of hydrogen (plus the tank) is quite attractive.
Toyota (NYSE:TM) showed its FCV-R at the Tokyo Auto Show last week. The hydrogen-powered vehicle is expected to launch as a production vehicle in 2015.
Daimler (DDAIY.PK) claims the Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL is “The first fuel-cell automobile in series production”. It started production in 2009. It has a claimed operating range of 400 kilometers and the power rating of a two-liter gasoline engine. From a Daimler web source:
Construction of a facility designed for the production of stacks for fuel cell vehicles will begin immediately in a 2000 square metre space in a new Burnaby location. Completion of the production facilities is scheduled for early 2012. Following a graduated test and commissioning phase, small-series production of next-generation fuel cell stacks will commence as of 2013. Apart from delivering a higher output and efficiency, these fuel cell stacks excel with their compact construction. This next generation fuel cell stack will also be suitable for use in sedans such as the Mercedes-Benz C-Class or E-Class.
This week Nissan announced that it plans to release a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle by 2015. Nissan has created a fuel stack that is lighter and smaller than the current version. The new model is only 90lbs, compared with 265lbs for the earlier version. Nissan states that this third-generation fuel cell stack uses an improved Membrane Electrode Assembly (MEA) that reduces the size by 50%. It also uses much less platinum, which reduces the cost to 1/6 of its previous cost.
Honda (NYSE:HMC) introduced the first fuel cell FCX concept vehicle in 1999, followed by the FCX Clarity. On 23 November, carmakers Daimler, Honda, Opel and Toyota have organized for the fourth time their Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle Drive 'n' Ride in Brussels. However at this time Honda does not appear to have any firm plans to introduce a production vehicle.
Advantage of Fuel Cells
- Toyota claims its FCV-R will have a 700km range with its high-pressure fuel tank. Compare this with battery vehicles like the Nissan Leaf with a 73 mile EPA range. Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) claims a 300 mile range is an option, using its mega battery pack option.
- As mentioned, fuel cell vehicles have the potential to be quite light. With less mass to push around, the cars have a built-in efficiency, and possibly public safety advantage.
- A hydrogen-based car can be filled at a filling station in 2 or 3 minutes, whereas a battery car can take several hours to be charged. “Fast” 45 minute charging of battery cars is promised for the future, however this requires special charging equipment and could be detrimental to the life of the batteries.
- With decreasing size, the amount of metals consumed to build a fuel cell vehicle is potentially quite modest, and there is progress being made to eliminate the need for expensive platinum in their construction.
Widespread hydrogen implementation for vehicles has many obstacles to overcome. The cost of production, distribution and storage of hydrogen is still high, the cost of the cars is still high, and the availability of filling stations is just getting started. We are not trying to underplay the importance or difficulty overcoming these challenges. On the bright side, the potential advantages of fuel cells are so high, that the motivation to tackle the challenges is strong.
Fuel Cell cars have yet to be proven in a production environment. Long-term reliability in the real world of potholes, poor maintenance, and temperature extremes won’t be established until the rest of this decade. For that, we’ll need another six or seven years.
BATTERY CARS ARE PAVING THE WAY TO FUEL CELLS
Battery car and fuel cells cars are both electric cars. The platforms and much of the engineering that goes into them can be reused for fuel cell cars. It is quite possible, for example, that a future Tesla could be built with a fuel cell, saving several hundred pounds of weight, and giving the Tesla much longer range.
AND THE WINNER IS ….
Who will win the green car race, Fuel Cells or Batteries? For the next several years ... Neither!
Although electric vehicle enthusiasts will have great variety of choices to play with, good old internal combustion engine (ICE) cars will dominate the lion’s share of the existing fleet for at least 10 years, and likely 20 years. Incremental improvements of ICE technologies will slow the acceptance of new technologies, as will the practical issues of implementing both battery electric and fuel cell electric vehicles. There will also be lots of healthy competition from hybrid electric vehicles and natural gas vehicles.
Investors looking for near-term opportunities in fuel cells will not find many in the automotive space. The action is being dominated by mega car companies like Toyota and Daimler. Fuel cells targeted at some specific applications like quiet generators for RVs, motive power for fork lift trucks and buses, equipment to manufacturer hydrogen from natural gas, backup power for cell phone towers, tiny fuel cells for military use, and natural gas powered homes and businesses may become prime sooner. Some will come from smaller companies that can be a pure play investment for fuel cells. Current examples on US exchanges include Plug Power (NASDAQ:PLUG), Ballard Power (NASDAQ:BLDP), Hydrogenics (NASDAQ:HYGS) and FuelCell Energy (NASDAQ:FCEL). Over the next few years we expect several new companies to go public and emerge from the development stage into profitability.
Disclosure: I am long PLUG.