Fuel Cell Power: The Future of Zero Emissions Vehicles

CARB Hosts National Fuel Cell Symposium

Hyundai ix35 fuel cellSacramento, CA. – Move over Elon Musk with your heavily taxpayer supported battery operated Tesla. Westport Cummins, builders of a combustion natural gas engine for trucks, they might need to think about going into the boat anchor business instead. A technology that’s been around for a long time but hasn’t been commercially viable is starting to gain acceptance and market share – the fuel cell powered vehicle.

On May 6-7, 2015 the California Air Resources Board hosted the second annual National Fuel Cell Symposium sponsored by the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California – Irvine. The title of the symposium was “The Future is Here” and for those in attendance only one stark conclusion could be made: California is further along in developing a transportation system no longer reliant on the internal combustion engine than many might think. Production models of cars utilizing fuel cell technology are increasingly being sold in California by three manufacturers.

While many in the trucking media have been ogling over Clean Energy Fuels Corp. (NASDAQ: CLNE) and their effort to expand use of natural gas in the nation’s trucking fleet, its future isn’t likely to be as many envision it currently. The internal combustion engine and its reliance on fossil fuels is going to be further restricted by policy planners in California.

SB 350 (De Leon)

California already has mandates for manufacturers to meet in the next couple of years that requires a percentage of the cars they sell in the state to be zero emissions vehicles. Governor Brown has decided the state needs to cut its use of fossil fuels by 50 percent by the year 2030 to save the planet from the catastrophe of climate change (basically his words, not mine).

California State Senator Kevin De Leon (D-24th) and Senate Pro Tem quickly introduced legislation (SB 350) to make the governors dream a reality. On July 6, 2015 the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee held a hearing to advance the cause (a bill strongly opposed by the association and about every right minded association in the state). While the bill has significant opposition, crap through a goose is the best metaphor to describe the greased process of how this bill will soon become law.

Once California politicians firmly decide to move down this road of reducing fossil fuel use, other than fuel cell technology, the only other technologically viable alternative is battery power vehicles with their limited range and recharging interval that makes their usability in a highly mobile society questionable (other alternatives include walking and riding a bike). For commercial vehicles, you can certainly power one now with battery power – you just wouldn’t have any range of travel or capacity to carry anything on-board other than “sail-boat” fuel (air) because of the weight of the batteries.

Fuel Cell 101:

As have so many of the products we take for granted today, from microwave ovens to computer chip technology, fuel cell technology came into its own out of necessity to help propel astronauts to the moon. NASA in the 1960’s developed fuel cells to produce both power and water for the Apollo moon program (no, astronauts did not exclusively drink their “recycled” pee as many have believed). Fuel cells were actually invented in 1838!

A fuel cell called the Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) in its simplest form takes hydrogen gas (H2) and air and puts them through an electrochemical process (no internal combustion required) that can make electricity on demand producing a tailpipe emission called H20 (water). There are zero criteria pollutants (NOx, PM2.5, etc.) and depending on how the hydrogen is produced, minimal GHG is produced. The electricity produced can then be used for any purpose including powering an electric drive motor for any vehicle.

Where to get hydrogen?

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe (e.g. water is made up of two molecules of hydrogen for each molecule of oxygen). Many students have performed a simple experiment in high school of putting water in a test tube and then running an electric current through the water. The process produces hydrogen which is then ignited with a little spark. Water conceivably can still be the primary source of hydrogen but the need for significant energy input in the form of electricity to complete the process makes that process economically impractical (unless one uses electricity produced by wind or solar power).

Most commercially produced hydrogen today does come from a process called natural gas reforming – yes, a fossil fuel is still required to be utilized; natural gas is the key ingredient to mass producing hydrogen for use in transportation. This is why T. Boone Pickens and his Clean Energy Fuels Corp. probably will not have a lot to worry about.

There are many other ingenious ways to get hydrogen and there are numerous fully scaled projects already well advanced in California. In Orange County, one waste water treatment plant has already been adapted to capture methane produced from sewage and ultimately converts the gas into hydrogen that is used right now to power private cars and city buses. Another project highlighted at the symposium involved an entire community going “off-the-grid” by using wind and solar to generate electricity, save the excess electricity produced via batteries and then produce hydrogen from water to produce electricity when wind and solar are not producing.

How expensive is a fuel cell powered car? Is one even available?

The answer to both questions is about $58,000 or $499 per month (all fuel included in monthly payment) and “only in California.” Two manufacturers have entered the California marketplace, Toyota with their Mirai, and Hyundai with their Tucson. Honda had entered the marketplace with a vehicle and will reenter the California market next year.

With visions of the Hindenburg airship burning, our government assures buyers that the hydrogen storage on all cars meets SAE specs and NHTSA requirements. We’ll see about that. I’m not sure I’d want to be a first responder at a crash scene approaching a fuel cell powered car on fire.

What about trucks?

Technologically, it is feasible to build a fuel cell powered truck. The blueprints exist to build a fuel cell system designed to power locomotives over Cajon Summit coming out of the L.A. Basin. Manufacturers are focused right now on commercial scalability within the automotive marketplace. OEM’s think greater market penetration will ultimately lower prices making fuel cell powered vehicles an easy alternative to vehicles powered with an internal combustion engine.

As acceptance to the technology grows and California mandates for zero or near zero emissions vehicles matures, it’s easy to envision smaller classes of commercial vehicles being the first to be marketed with fuel cells (local pick-up/delivery, waste trucks). Heavier-duty trucks being operated with fuel cells has a long way to go – but it could happen much sooner if CARB and U.S. EPA toss money at pilot programs to encourage a manufacturer to begin producing one, something they are prone to do.

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