Debunking the myths—Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) can work for the mass market

by Dr. Henri Winand, CEO of Intelligent Energy.

In 2014 the fuel cell market expanded rapidly across the globe. The United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France and Japan all saw significant growth. Several forces have combined to ensure ongoing adoption of fuel cell technology: public-private investment initiatives, government funding for infrastructure and consumer subsidies and falling production costs included. Most notable, however, is the commitment to future OEM launches of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs).

Toyota, Honda and Hyundai all recently announced plans to make FCEVs available to consumers. A hydrogen-powered version of Hyundai’s Tucson sport utility vehicle has already appeared in Southern California showrooms. In August 2014, Hyundai’s ix35 fuel cell model was driven a record distance for a hydrogen-powered production car on a single tank, covering 435 miles across three Scandinavian countries. Honda next year will offer Californians futuristic sedans that can travel 300 miles or more on a tank of hydrogen gas while emitting nothing but pure water vapor. And, Toyota’s FCEV the Mirai, already available in Japan, will become available in the U.S., UK, Germany and Denmark in summer 2015.

These FCEV developments have all occurred in the midst of the lowest oil prices in years. Questions have lingered has to how the drop in oil prices will affect natural gas and hydrogen, and there aren’t clear answers. But one thing does remain certain: oil prices will always be volatile (and are perhaps bouncing back already), and having alternative fuels available is necessary for energy security, economic and environmental purposes.

Despite progress on FCEVs, their environmental advantage of zero tailpipe emissions, and their ability to run without dependence on oil, misconceptions about fuel cells’ power, efficiency and cost persist.

It’s time to debunk some myths.

Myth #1: Hydrogen power isn’t efficient

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but accessing it for use requires extracting it from water or organic compounds. We produce diesel fuel and gasoline similarly, by refining and cleaning crude oil, a process we know harms the environment. While hydrogen comes in large part from natural gas, we can also extract it from renewable resources—making it not only efficient but also sustainable. Hydrogen can come from solar power, wind turbines and biogas without using any fossil fuels. As the energy market shifts more and more toward renewables, hydrogen remains a viable, “green” resource.

Also highlighting hydrogen’s efficiency, FCEVs emit zero carbon from their tailpipes. According to a report by the California Fuel Cell Partnership, even FCEVs that run on hydrogen derived from natural gas outshine gasoline-powered vehicles in efficiency and environmental impact, emitting 55 to 65 percent less carbon. Fuel cells also perform more efficiently than internal combustion engines, whether or not the hydrogen for the fuel cells comes from natural gas or renewables.

Myth #2: Hydrogen gas is dangerous

Hydrogen is just another fuel, it is no more dangerous or safer than other fuels such as gasoline, propane or natural gas, like all fuels it has a particular hazard set which must be respected.

Hydrogen in fact has a rapid diffusivity (3.8 times faster than natural gas), which means that when released, it dilutes quickly into a non-flammable concentration. The gasoline currently used poses an ignitable hazard for long after it’s been released, and when it catches fire the heat it generates can cause secondary fires. Conversely, hydrogen, because of its low emissivity, burns cooler—a person can put his/her hand next to a hydrogen flame and not get burned.

And, to assure the safety of using hydrogen on board vehicles using storage tanks, Toyota reported that they fired bullets at their carbon-fiber fuel tanks, and the bullets did little more than bounce off or make small dents.

Myth #3: FCEVs are too expensive to build so they aren’t a mass-market solution

Advances in fuel cell manufacturing and catalyst performance recently decreased the cost of fuel cell production dramatically. Gil Castillo, senior group manager of advanced vehicles for Hyundai in California, said costs have dropped 70% since the company began working on fuel cells in the late 1990s. Production has become so much less expensive that Hyundai has also announced it is leasing its hydrogen SUV for $499 a month, with fuel thrown in for free.

Manufacturers are working hard to further reduce the cost of FCEVs, and as they scale production for mass market, standard volume manufacturing and product engineering forces will help. In fact, Toyota recently mentioned that it has been able to streamline its FCEV manufacturing process by gaining Japanese government approval to build and inspect hydrogen tanks, which is expected to help reduce the enabling costs of installing fuel cells into electric vehicles.

Government funding initiatives and subsidies help too. On May 1, 2014, the California Energy Commission announced that it will invest $46.6 million to accelerate the development of publicly accessible hydrogen refueling stations in California in order to promote a consumer market for zero-emission fuel cell vehicles. Furthermore, in 2013, the Obama administration had already launched the U.S.’s hydrogen strategy nationwide through the launch of H2USA—a public-private partnership focused on advancing hydrogen infrastructure to support more transportation energy options for US consumers, including fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs).

Myth #4: Filling FCEV tanks with hydrogen will be difficult and slow

Drivers don’t have to make significant changes to their refueling behaviors to fill up their FCEV with hydrogen. A similar ‘nozzle-to-car’ method is the norm and unlike many other alternative fuel vehicles, standards already exist. The fuel cell electric vehicles manufactured by Toyota, Hyundai and Honda already allow an ‘at-pump’ refuel that will take only a few minutes, and drivers do not have to fill up again for several hundred miles.

Myth #5: FCEVs can’t handle long journeys

FCEVs offer zero tailpipe emission motoring without compromising on performance and range. The ability to carry more energy on-board the fuel cell vehicle in comparison to a battery powered car means that the fuel cell vehicles have greater range. And performance has improved over time. An FCEV can now achieve a much longer range with an on-board hydrogen gas tank, making it competitive with conventional and hybrid vehicles. In a real-world test on California roads, National Renewable Energy Laboratory researchers demonstrated that a fuel cell-powered Toyota Highlander SUV can travel more than 400 miles and achieve a fuel economy of 69 miles per gallon equivalent. In fact, hydrogen cars now coming onto the market have triple the range of most battery-powered electric cars.

With the advancement of fuel cell technology, the adoption of FCEVs becomes easier and more advantageous. Ever tightening global policies on carbon emissions will make their adoption necessary. Industry partners from OEMs to governments and fuel cell technology providers need to continue to work together to deliver hydrogen as a highly scalable and viable emission-free, mass-market energy alternative.

We’re excited about the opportunity that fuel cell technology offers to the automotive industry and beyond, and we look forward to welcoming further market advancements in the next few years as the technology and the vehicles enter the mainstream.