Fuel cells are one of those technologies we have covered before, usually citing some manufacturer who is fan-faring a new technology purported to be game-changing for the cost structure of the hydrogen fuel cell market. So far, fuel cells are used predominantly in specialist applications such as submarines and space vehicles, or in remote areas where power requirements are low yet refuelling is expensive or difficult — or both.
The breakthrough application would be an economically viable application in automobiles, but according to the FT, carmakers have sunk large amounts of money into hydrogen research programs with little to show for it so far, in terms of cars on the road. General Motors says it has invested $2 billion in the technology to date. But although it says it has a test fleet of 100 fuel-cell vehicles on the road in Europe and the US, which will be ready for market introduction by 2016, there is not a viable business model for providing a refuelling infrastructure or firm details of what models will be powered by fuel cells.
The reality is as attractive as zero-carbon-emission vehicles are: if the vehicles are prohibitively expensive in the first place and there is not a robust, widespread refuelling infrastructure in place, the public will not buy. Just witness sales of all electric vehicles — barely 1,000 plug-in vehicles were registered in Britain last year out of a market for some 2 million cars.
So the British government’s launch of two initiatives (backed, it must be said, by hard cash) sounds like something of a leap of faith if it wasn’t for the parties involved and some interesting technological developments. The first is a bringing-together of industry firms, including Air Liquide, Johnson Matthey, Daimler, GM, Shell, Total and others in a program called H2 Mobility, as part of a US and European-wide drive to map out the steps necessary to make the technology commercially viable by 2015.
In itself this could be yet another taxpayer-funded talking shop, but one hopes the presence of the oil companies may ensure that any resulting road map has sufficient critical thinking into the refuelling infrastructure, which is seen as a make-or-break issue in widespread adoption. Oil firms cannot be said to have embraced the re-charging requirements of electric cars to date, probably because the technology still requires lengthy re-charging times incompatible with current gasoline forecourt layouts or power supply options.
The second initiative follows on neatly from this issue: the UK government is backing two firms in a joint effort to develop self-contained hydrogen refuelling stations that could be introduced to just about any contemporary gas station, along with a liquid catalyst fuel cell that would bring down the up-front cost of the fuel cell, so that jointly, the power cost would drop to $37 per kW generated, making it competitive with conventional engines, say backers of the project, the Carbon Trust.
The Costliness of Catalysts
To date, the use of PGM catalysts have made the up-front cost of fuel cells and the refurbishment of the devices over their life far too expensive to be widely adopted, but Acal Energy in the UK has developed a low-cost liquid catalyst that can be continuously regenerated, dramatically reducing the up-front and life-cycle costs.
Meanwhile, ITM Power has developed a hydrogen-fuel-generating unit that is entirely safe contained except for a supply of electricity and water. Ben Graziano, technology commercialization manager at the Carbon Trust, said between them the two technologies could help the industry be worth up to $1 billion in the UK and $26 billion globally by 2020, and up to $19 billion in the UK and $180 billion globally by 2050.
Grandstanding? Yes, probably, but the prize of affordable, low-emissions power is so valuable, maybe we can forgive the hyperbole. Fuel-cell automobiles and power generators for homes and businesses have far greater credibility than electric cars and windmills — if they can be brought to market at comparable cost.
I, for one, would sooner see my hard-earned tax receipts spent subsidizing (if they have to be spent in such a way) fuel cells that will allow me to travel longer distances, quietly, without emitting more than heat and water vapour, and with the prospect of 5-minute-stop refuelling stations at the same location as current filling stations, rather than subsidizing electric cars that can’t do more than about 80 miles between re-charges and precious few charging points being available — even within cities, never mind in the countryside.
The numbers have yet to support the hype, but although we’re metals nerds, we say that if replacing PGMs by non-metallic compounds is the step that finally brings fuel cells to commercial reality, then we’ll see that as a welcome outcome.
By. Stuart Burns