Some of the brightest minds, and best ideas, come from the world of automotive design. We traveled to three mega-shows recently to seek out the coolest concept cars, and hear experts pontificate about how we’ll be moving in the decades to come. Read more
Americans love choice. Whether it’s deciding what kind of car we drive, what type of food we eat for dinner, or which smartphone we use, there’s an abundance of choices. In fact, our country was even built on the premise of being able to choose what religion you practiced.
Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles might be the cars of the future. In fact, to recycle an old joke (because here at Fuel Freedom we’re big on recycling), FCVs might forever be the cars of the future.
In his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 2003, President George W. Bush proposed $1.2 billion in research funding so that America “can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles.”
“With a new national commitment,” the president added, “our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom, so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free.”
That child, now an adolescent, still has another 4 and a half years before obtaining a driver’s license, so that dream of his or her first car being hydrogen-powered is well within reach. After almost a decade of talk and promises, the first hydrogen cars are now making it from the drawing boards into showrooms.
Hyundai was first out of the box last spring with the introduction of the hydrogen fuel-cell Tucson. The company now claims to have 71 cars on the road, all of them in California. But it will be soon joined by Toyota, which is treating the introduction of its Mirai (the word means “future” in Japanese) like the arrival of a new baby. Only 3,000 are to be sold during the first year, only in California, and potential buyers are being screened like 3-year-olds applying to an exclusive preschool. “To buy Toyota’s new hydrogen car you’ll need to pass an interview,” read one headline. Deliveries will start in October.
“We’re looking for the bold and the few,” Toyota says on its marketing video, making ownership sound like joining the Marines. Potential buyers are being vetted very seriously to make sure they are prepared for the challenges and not just seeking novelty. And there will be challenges: The car will only be sold at eight dealerships in California. The $57,000 car has a driving range of 320 miles, putting it right next to gasoline engines and well ahead of the 200-mile range of electric vehicles. Its 67 miles-per-gallon puts it in a class by itself. Refueling takes no longer than an ordinary gasoline car. BMW, Honda and Mercedes will also have entries in the next few years.
But refueling stations will be few and far between. There are only eight in the state right now, with 48 more in development, according to this locator operated by the California Fuel Cell Partnership. Toyota has pledged to build more, including a bunch in Connecticut, but that is still far in the future. “Marketing this car is the reverse of selling,” says Mike Sullivan of Toyota Santa Monica, one of the exclusive outlets. “We’re going to turn people down if this car isn’t for you.”
Hydrogen cars run on fuel cells, which are entirely different from the combustion process. The hydrogen is fed into a “polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM),” which separates the molecule’s electron from its proton. The proton passes through the membrane, but the electron is routed around it in a way that creates an electric current. The electron is then reunited with the proton on the opposite side, where it joins oxygen from the air to produce the fuel cell’s only “exhaust” — water vapor. No carbon dioxide is emitted during the process.
The process is ideal for replacing traditional auto exhausts from the combustion process. The only trick is producing the hydrogen, which does not exist freely in nature. Most hydrogen is now being derived from natural gas (methane), although that process produces carbon dioxide. (Toyota shows that livestock manure is one source of the hydrogen that can power the Mirai.) Various experiments have been tried in producing hydrogen from food wastes and other organic materials, but the carbon dioxide remains. The other method is splitting the water molecule through electrolysis, but this is very energy-intensive and expensive. (Fuel cells are often described as reversing electrolysis.)
Although fuel cells have been slow in coming in the automotive sector, they have been making rapid progress in other uses. A good portion of the nation’s forklifts now run on hydrogen, since it is relatively easy to keep a refueling station on-site. A company called Plug Power in upstate New York has had success in selling fuel cells as backup power in businesses and residences. And Bloom Energy, a California company, has made a business of selling fuel cell systems — the “Bloom Box” — to power data centers.
Setting up a network of fueling stations around California and the rest of the country may prove to be more of a challenge, however. A story in Green Car Reports last month said complaints are mounting among hydrogen car owners that even the few refueling stations around California are not working properly. “The stations are frequently inoperative, drivers say, closed for days or weeks at a time,” wrote reporter John Voelcker. “Moreover, even when the stations are functioning properly, there is often an hour-long wait after the first one or two cars – and some stations can only fuel cars to half-full.”
An entire Facebook group of disappointed owners has emerged, and the caustic comments are abundant. “The expectations that were being portrayed — 15 stations being up by the end of 2014 — fell woefully short,” wrote one Hyundai Tucson owner. “There are eight so-called active consumer stations, with three currently working. I would say my wife and I are HUGELY disappointed as we firmly believe in this technology. … But if someone does not plant a huge boot in the behind of the people who are in control of delivering the fueling infrastructure, this will be an epic fail.”
This will be the problem that Toyota and the others will be facing as they prepare to enter the hydrogen race.
More William Tucker posts about alternative vehicles:
- Toyota, California go for hydrogen
- U.S. is trailing the rest of the world on EVs
- Tesla continues to walk the tightrope
- Audi tries synthesizing fuel
- Is this golf cart more disruptive than Teslas?
Visitors to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this week likely were awe-struck, along with critics, at the sight of the new high-powered Acura NSX and the Ford GT.
But this might be the show where hydrogen-powered vehicles finally graduated from the drawing board to the public consciousness.
Much buzz was created in the Motor City when Honda unveiled its FCV (for fuel-cell vehicle) concept car, which is expected to go on sale in the United States in 2016. The car is an answer to Toyota’s Mirai FCV, which is expected to be available in the U.S. later this year (Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe became the first person in the world to get one last week.)
The cars join the Hyundai Tucson and the Mercedes F-Cell in the hydrogen ranks. Hyundai reportedly has decided to lower the price of its vehicle (said to be about $139,000) to increase its competitiveness with its rivals.
Cost could be a big issue with consumers: The Mirai costs about $62,000, roughly the same as the Honda FCV.
Refueling access is another issue: There are only 13 hydrogen stations in the U.S., 11 of them in California. But the state is investing more than $46 million to build 28 new stations.
FCVs combine hydrogen, from a tank or cell, with oxygen that powers an electric motor. The key benefit is the short refueling time: Honda said its FCV could be fueled in about 3 minutes (at about 10,00 pounds per square inch). The vehicle has a range of roughly 300 miles, an improvement over the 240 achieved by Honda’s first-generation fuel-cell vehicle, the FCX Clarity. The Mirai also has about a 300-mile range.
One person unimpressed with all the attention hydrogen-powered cars were getting in Detroit was Tesla founder Elon Musk. As MLive reported:
“I just think they’re extremely silly,” he told reporters at Automotive News’ annual World Congress.
Musk argued that hydrogen acts as an energy storage unit, not a source of it, making it impractical for powering vehicles. He called drawing hydrogen from water “an extremely inefficient” process.
“If you’re going to pick an energy storage mechanism, hydrogen is just an extremely dumb one to pick,” Musk said.
Toyota is undaunted, saying it will share the 5,680 patents that went into its hydrogen fuel cells. Musk announced last year that Tesla would make its patents available to other carmakers.
“Hopefully by sharing these patents with others, these new fuel systems can be refined and improved,” said Toyota Senior Vice President Bob Carter, “to attract a larger market of buyers.”
The Mirai is starting with a small batch of 700 vehicles in 2014 with the goal of growing to tens of thousands by the 2020s. “We believe hydrogen electric will be the primary fuel for the next 100 years,” Carter said.
(Photo: Honda FCV, via Honda.com)
Let’s apply a bit of Talmudic dialect to the visible dialogue now going on in the nation concerning decisions to drill for more natural gas and related considerations concerning the effect that using natural gas as a transportation fuel will have on the environment.
Now on the one hand, the price of natural gas, like gasoline, has significantly decreased over the past months and some producers seem to be abandoning or limiting production at least for a time. To many, drilling in shale seems too costly for so little revenue per thousands of cubic feet. Besides, they say there is now too much natural gas on the market for too little demand and available infrastructure to get it where it’s supposed to be. “After so much hype and billions of dollars of investment, the nation is deluged with gas and not enough pipelines…One energy company after another, year after year, has written down its investments in Arkansas and in Texas and Louisiana,” said Clifford Kraus in The New York Times.
So far, the Times’ description of the gas market is relatively similar to the analyses of most experts. But don’t despair; lately, the definition of “expert” has taken a beating in light of the lack of confidence in the stability and the almost weekly amendments to projections of natural gas supply and demand. However, because the national unemployment rate will go up significantly if we abandon experts, let’s not abandon them, for the time being. Let’s, however, not grant them grace, adoration and pedestal-like obedience. They need to do better concerning use of data and methodologies. Our knowledge concerning the natural gas profile is at best uneven and at worst…well, you insert the word.
Try looking on the other hand of iconoclast Steven Mueller, CEO of Southwestern Energy. Mueller does not believe that current data concerning the relatively depressed condition of the natural gas market should predetermine his own and his company’s decisions. His actions, some time ago, in buying shale fields cheap and in discovering new fields have turned Southwestern Energy into one of the top natural gas producers.
Mueller shares the view that the natural gas market is now down and that some companies are pulling out, at least temporarily, or reducing production. But where other producers and analysts see problems, he sees opportunities. According to The Times, Southwestern just put $5 billion down to develop 413,000 acres of reserves in the Marcellus and Utica shale fields of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Similarly, he acquired another gas play in Pennsylvania for $300 million.
According to Mueller, gas will soon be moving up in price because of demand. He notes, “The situation is not as bad as the industry thinks it is….I am looking at it from a different angle and I think the odds are in my favor.”
Mueller seems like he is out of place using the other hand in the oil and gasoline industry. While his company’s activities are not without environmental problems and critics, he is unusual in that he has taken the lead among companies in searching for international and national solutions to methane leakage as well as extensive water usage with respect to fracking. Significantly, he has also seen benefits, where other natural gas industry titans have stayed mum, concerning the long-term use of natural gas for fueling hydrogen-fuel cars and for other transportation fuels. Additionally, Mueller views the continued conversion of coal-fired electric plants to natural gas as a done deal and a deal that will help sustain the industry and the environment.
Checking Google for recent stories about Mueller and other CEOs in the natural gas industry suggests that Mueller, contrary to most of the others, will soon be ripe either for sainthood or tenure at Mad Magazine. What? Me worry?
Sure, he has some critics who indicate his bet on natural gas is risky and a few, implicitly, suggest he will fail (some pundits and competitors no doubt would not be too sad if he does). Most Google entries, however, view him as somewhat of an outlier in the industry, whose commitment to growth has saved his company. They grant him the benefit of their respective doubts about his imperialism concerning acquisition of natural gas plays. Some view his environmental and GHG sensitivities as necessary in helping the industry move forward as a good or reasonably good citizen. Whatever he is or will be, Mueller will not be one to devote lots of time to the thought processes associated with on the one hand, on the other hand. He seems to like being a permanent on the other hand.
The Southeast Alternative Fuel Conference & Expo is set for Oct. 22-24 at the Raleigh Convention Center in Raleigh, NC. Hosted by the N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center, the event will feature plenary and breakout sessions with national and regional leaders.