Fuel-cell vehicles may finally be moving from the laboratory to the showroom. Premium-priced cars running on hydrogen could arrive in dealerships in 2005, and researchers say advances in technology could speed the vehicles toward becoming cost-competitive.
Fuel-cell vehicles, which generate power by converting hydrogen into electricity and water, have been in development for more than 20 years as replacements for petroleum-powered cars. This month, vehicle manufacturer Zap said it would begin selling fuel-cell vehicles to consumers in the second half of 2005.
The company will convert Smart Cars , which are currently sold in Europe, to run on fuel cells, according to Zap spokesman Alex Campbell. “People have been skeptical about fuel-cell vehicles, but our involvement is getting people to believe it will happen,” he said.
The cars will likely be first available in areas that already have hydrogen fueling stations such as Sacramento, California (.pdf), according to Campbell. He declined to give specifics about pricing, distribution or production volumes for the cars.
Zap would become the first company to offer fuel-cell vehicles to consumers, according to ABI Research principal analyst Atakan Ozbek. However, Ozbek said fuel cells could not be considered a consumer technology until they are available in volume.
“Will everyone who wants one be able to buy one? Fuel-cell vehicles have to be available from one of the big automakers or they are not really available to consumers,” Ozbek said.
Ozbek said the growing number of fuel-cell vehicles undergoing real-world testing shows that the technology is getting closer to commercialization. Automakers are leasing the fuel-cell vehicles to municipalities and private companies to evaluate their performance under typical conditions. “Are we in a better place now than at the beginning of 2004? Certainly,” Ozbek said.
According to news website Fuel Cell Today , the number of fuel-cell vehicles being tested on roadways around the world from 600 to 800 vehicles in 2004. Earlier this month, DaimlerChrysler announced it would test 100 fuel-cell vehicles by the end of the year. Also in December, Honda said it would begin testing them in locations with challenging winter climates, including Japan and New York.
Ozbek said the price of producing a fuel-cell vehicle must be reduced by a factor of 10 before the autos will become cost-competitive. The majority of the fuel cell cost comes from the membranes (30 percent to 35 percent) and the catalyst materials (40 percent) that are stacked in layers, Ozbek said. Several companies are attempting to develop alternatives to platinum, the costly precious metal used as a catalyst in many fuel cells, according to Ozbek. “It would be a significant event if an alternative to platinum was discovered,” he said.
QuantumSphere, one of several companies investigating materials that could become alternatives to platinum, has developed a nano nickel material that costs only a quarter as much as platinum, according to the company’s chief scientific officer, Douglas Carpenter. Platinum costs about $10,000 per pound, while nano nickel can be mass-produced for a fraction of that, according to Carpenter.
Carpenter said the nano nickel can be created by boiling nickel and then re-condensing it into droplets smaller than 20 nanometers. “Nano nickel acts more like platinum than nickel,” Carpenter said, in describing the material’s physical properties. Carpenter said the company has applied for three patents for its production technology. “Nano nickel has the potential to replace platinum as the main catalytic material in a variety of hydrogen fuel cells,” Carpenter said. “In 10 years, (nano nickel) will become commoditized.”
Carpenter said his company’s nano nickel is currently being tested at the California Institute of Technology, and he hopes to have a fuel cell large enough to power a vehicle within a year. Carpenter said nano nickel could also be used to construct fuel-cell membranes, the thin layers that allow protons to flow through while redirecting electrons to an external circuit. QuantumSphere recently constructed two nano nickel production facilities and will begin selling the material, which can also be used in military applications and consumer electronics, during the first quarter of 2005.
“There needs to be significant cost reductions in all of the elements for fuel-cell vehicles to be commercially viable,” according to John Boesel, president and CEO of WestStart-CalStart , a nonprofit organization advocating the use of clean fuels. Boesel said the federal government needs to provide additional financial support, but the Department of Energy is waiting for some breakthroughs in the industry before expanding investment in hydrogen research.
Current fuel-cell membranes are not ready for consumers because they are too costly and they have difficulty operating at extreme temperatures, according to Jim Balcom, CEO of PolyFuel . Balcom said Honda and his company are each developing membranes based on hydrocarbons that would cost less and perform better than the perfluorinated membranes currently used in many fuel-cell vehicles.
Balcom said his company has developed a polymer membrane that enables fuel cells to operate at up to 95 degrees Celsius, whereas other membranes can have problems above 80 degrees Celsius and below freezing. “Fuel cells are limited by the characteristics of their membranes, much like computers are limited to the performance of their CPU,” he said.
The advantages of hydrocarbon-membrane technology will make it easier for fuel cells to meet consumer expectations, according to Balcom. He said given recent advances in technology, fuel-cell vehicles are likely to become commercially viable within the next five to 10 years.