Consumers are waiting for the next big thing in clean transportation, yet nobody has a clear idea of what it may look like. While battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are a popular option in this niche market, fuel cells vehicles (FCVs) offer similar environmental benefits. Though the buzz surrounding FCVs has waned over the years, many believe that growing government incentives and advancements in the technology position this class of vehicles for a major breakout in the coming years.
Fuel cells are devices that convert chemical energy into electrical energy, much like a battery. Proton exchange membrane fuel cells (or PEMFCs) have been the leading type of fuel cell for light duty vehicles (LDVs) and buses due to their shock resistance, compact construction, and fast startup time. Toyota made headlines a few months ago with its rollout of the Mirai FCV in the United States. The fuel cell stack utilized within the car is Toyota’s proprietary stack with W.L. Gore’s polymer exchange electrolyte. Preorders well exceeded expectations, totaling just under 1,900 units by October. Toyota plans to sell 3,000 units in the United States by the end of 2017. Navigant Research documented the market for FCVs in its recently published research brief, Fuel Cell Vehicles.
New Developments in FCVs
In 2015, the Tokyo Motor Show served as a platform for auto manufacturers to showcase their efforts within the FCV space. Toyota made further news with its Lexus LF-FC Concept, which utilizes a fuel cell electric system that drives the rear wheels and also can send power to front in-wheel motors for all-wheel drive. Honda revealed its new production version of the Clarity set to go on sale early this year. The Clarity’s entire fuel cell stack and drivetrain is now packaged under the hood. This model will likely be the basis of Honda’s new BEV and plug-in hybrid electric vehicle in the next few years. Additionally, Daimler showcased its Vision Tokyo concept at the show, an autonomous-capable lounge on wheels with a plug-in hybrid fuel cell drivetrain similar to the F015 Concept shown at the Consumer Electronics Show. There is no lack of technological innovation in the transportation sector, but other issues like infrastructure and cost must be resolved before widespread FCV adoption can occur.
Research institutions, automakers, and cleantech manufacturers continue to push new developments with fuel cells, and new ways to improve them are underway. Through nanotechnology and advanced microscopy, scientists have found ways to decrease the amount of platinum used in PEMFCs by up to 84%, possibly even eliminating the need for it all together. This would translate to a significant decrease in vehicle cost if it is able to be fabricated at scale. Companies like Ballard Power Systems and Hydrogenics are frequently enlisted to have their fuel cell modules utilized in different applications (e.g., defense, aerospace, and stationary power), and have made developments to incrementally improve roundtrip efficiency. Furthermore, key partnerships (like BMW and Toyota and Daimler, Nissan, and Ford) dedicated to researching and improving fuel cells technologies will continue to be important in decreasing costs.
Electric drive is the leading opportunity to improve our transportation system’s efficiency. With fuel cells there is one more way to generate that electricity. Fuel cells also help ensure that there is an option for everyone as the push toward electrification and efficiency continues throughout the transportation sector. The years 2016 and 2017 should prove to be a breakout year for FCV announcements and deployments. Increased government, private sector, and public sector support will determine how deeply integrated FCVs will become in the global transportation fleet.
Tags: Electric Vehicles, Fuel Efficiency and Emerging Technologies, Fuel cell vehicles, Transportation Efficiencies
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