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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Fuel Cell Future Unlikely or Inevitable? Part 1

Recently, Elon Musk, co-founder and CEO of Tesla Motors, said that Hydrogen fuel cell cars are "bullshit". This is in stark contrast to car giants like Toyota, Hyundai, and Honda that are betting big on hydrogen (H2) fuel cells. So who is right?

Fuel Cells make the promise that they will be the long range, fast fill up, alternative to gasoline. They have long been heralded as the fuel of the future, with critics being quick to add that it'll always be the fuel of the future.

Since Elon didn't elaborate on the challenges that he saw for fuel cells, let's examine the challenges that others have listed. Back in 2009, then Secretary of Energy, Dr. Chu, explained that the DOE had cut funding for fuel cell R&D because they were longshot and they required four technological breakthroughs to happen all at once.
I always was somewhat skeptical of it because, right now, the way we get hydrogen primarily is from reforming [natural] gas. That’s not an ideal source of hydrogen. You’re giving away some of the energy content of natural gas, which is a very valuable fuel. So that’s one problem. The other problem is, if it’s for transportation, we don’t have a good storage mechanism yet. Compressed hydrogen is the best mechanism [but it requires] a large volume. We haven’t figured out how to store it with high density. What else? The fuel cells aren’t there yet, and the distribution infrastructure isn’t there yet. So you have four things that have to happen all at once. And so it always looked like it was going to be [a technology for] the distant future. In order to get significant deployment, you need four significant technological breakthroughs. That makes it unlikely.
So the challenges are:
  1. Sourcing Hydrogen (H2)
  2. H2 Storage 
  3. Fuel Cell Cost & Lifespan
  4. H2 Distribution/Infrastructure 
This list of challenges has been described with the quip "fuel cells only need four miracles to happen".
Let's examine what it would take to overcome each of these and make a hydrogen future. How many are miracles and how much is technological advancement?

In this multi-part post, we'll examine the viability of H2 fuel cell vehicles and compare them to the emerging plug-in vehicles.

Part 2 - H2 From Natural Gas