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Over the years the auto market has begun to warm up to electric and hybrid vehicles, and this trend looks set to continue as people become increasingly conscious of the consequences of the continued use of fossil-powered vehicles. There are of course other alternatives, including biofuels, natural gas vehicles, and fuel cell vehicles, too, but in the race to reach the mass market, the electric vehicle has emerged to be a clear winner at this point in time.
This did not seem to be the case a decade ago, however, when there were many that were actually in the fuel cell camp, believing that hydrogen was the way forward. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the world, and its combustion produces only water vapour, seeming like the perfect solution. All we needed was a way to extract the hydrogen in a clean and economic way. Which turned out to be quite a problem unfortunately. Production via electrolysis continues to be expensive and energy intensive, and steam reforming from methane, while cheap, defeats the point of using carbon-free fuels, leaving the dream of the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle on the back-burner for many.
Hydrogen continues to get a bad rap, with Tesla CEO recently saying fuel cells should be called “fool cells” instead because they were never going to be competitive with lithium-ion batteries, claiming that “You could take best case of a fuel cell, theoretically the best case, and it does not compete with lithium-ion cells today. And lithium-ion cells are far from their optimum.” (Of course that isn’t a biased statement in any way, coming from the CEO of an EV company)
This could be about to change, with Toyota, Honda and General Motos still clinging to the hydrogen bandwagon to bring a fuel cell vehicle to the market as early as 2015. GM and Honda recently signed a long-term agreement to develop a “next-generation fuel cell vehicle powertrain”to be used by around 2020, while also working on hydrogen storage technologies and improving hydrogen refueling options. Toyota will be aiming to launch a Lexus fuel-cell model in 2015, to be price-competitive with a mid-size BMW or a Tesla Model S, at an estimated price in the region of $50,000. Ford, Nissan and Daimler AG are also holding out for fuel cell technology, having signed an agreement earlier this year with the goal of producing a mass-market fuel-cell vehicle by 2017.
One of the reasons why the push for hydrogen continues, in the US, at least, is the requirement by the state of California that automakers build zero-emission vehicles. Furthermore, the US Energy Department launched the H2USA program in May, a public-private partnership involving automakers, government, gas suppliers and the hydrogen and fuel cell industry, focused on advancing hydrogen infrastructure to provide increased alternative transportation energy options for consumers. According to the Energy Department, research has already helped to reduce fuel cell costs by over 35% since 2008, and by over 80% since 2002, while doubling fuel cell durability over the same period.
Whether or not we will see market-ready fuel cell vehicles hit the road before 2020 remains to be seen. But it is clear that major carmakers have not completely mothballed the notion that fuel cell vehicles may still become an essential component of the future of green transportation. But until a breakthrough comes along that can put them on par with electric vehicle technology, hydrogen and fuel cells will be playing catch up in a race where the EVs continue to extend their lead.