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By Geoffrey Styles on Feb 21, 2014 with 23 responses

Fuel Cell Cars and the Shale Revolution


Carmakers’ Persistence with Fuel Cell Cars Could Still Pay Off

Being effectively snowed in last week gave me some time to catch up on my reading backlog, including an article in the Washington Post’s “Capitol Business” edition on “Are We Ready for Hydrogen Cars?” Published in conjunction with this year’s DC Auto Show, which I missed, it mentioned a new fuel cell model from Hyundai for the California market, while providing some background on a technology that looked much more like the next big thing a decade ago than it does to many, now.

We can’t talk sensibly about the prospects for fuel cell cars to become practical without discussing the cost of fuel cell components, the infrastructure to deliver H2 to vehicles, and the suitability of various options for storing it safely onboard. However, I was surprised the article failed to mention a new factor that might do more than anything else to improve the odds for this technology: shale gas.

Why Fuel Cells?

In the mid-1990s, when fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) first appeared on my radar, they seemed like an ideal alternative to the gasoline engines in most passenger cars, offering zero tailpipe emissions and very low lifecycle, or well-to-wheels emissions of all types. Onboard hydrogen (H2) storage, whether as a gas, liquid or chemically adsorbed in another material, enabled higher energy density than then-current batteries, giving an FCV significantly greater potential range than a comparable electric vehicle (EV). And like electric cars, they also provided a useful pathway for bringing energy from a wide variety of sources into the transportation market, which was and still is dominated by petroleum products. Cost and technology readiness were the biggest barriers, along with non-existent retail H2 infrastructure.

Energy remains the key to FCVs, because H2 is an energy carrier, not an energy source. Standing up a competitive fleet of FCV models thus requires plentiful and preferably low-cost energy sources from which sufficient H2 can be produced and distributed. As recently as just a few years ago, this looked like a very tough challenge. Most H2 used industrially is generated by chemically reforming natural gas, US production of which was in decline, resulting in high and volatile gas prices. Generating H2 from electricity looked even worse, because power prices were climbing and seemed likely to increase steadily in the future, as natural gas prices rose and higher-cost renewables were phased in. And with US electricity generation dominated by coal, H2 from electrolysis–cracking water into its components using electricity–looked more like a way to shift, rather than reduce vehicle emissions.

Like many other aspects of the North American energy scene, this picture has changed radically in the last several years, mainly due to the shale gas revolution. We now have abundant gas at reasonable prices, and it’s also holding down electricity costs. (Renewables are also reducing wholesale electricity prices, though not necessarily the full cost of electricity, because they still depend on subsidies and mandates that don’t show up in wholesale prices.)

All of this creates the potential for cheaper H2 sources than fuel cell developers expected recently. Moreover, US natural gas prices have diverged from oil prices and are now at a significant discount to oil. Wellhead gas today trades for the equivalent of $35 per barrel, compared to oil at over $100. Gas-derived H2 could end up with advantages in both cost and end-use efficiency over gasoline.

A Changing Competitive Environment for Advanced Vehicles

Of course the availability of natural gas isn’t the only thing that has changed for fuel cells in the last decade, from a competitive perspective. Automakers such as GM, Toyota and Honda have introduced various new fuel cell models. The most recent one I had an opportunity to drive was a fuel-cell version of the Chevrolet Equinox compact SUV in late 2007. It seemed like a very normal car in most respects.

Unfortunately, H2 distribution for FCVs has had a somewhat checkered history, as the Washington Post article notes. Providing fuel for FCVs is a much more involved and expensive undertaking than setting up a network of recharging points for EVs. How many H2 stations will suppliers build before FCVs appear in large numbers, but how many FCVs can carmakers sell before sufficient infrastructure is available to serve them? California still has just a handful of public H2 stations, after years of development.

Energy trade-offs dominate the competition between FCVs and EVs. The former have longer ranges between refueling than moderately-priced EVs–the Tesla Model S has excellent range–and can be refueled in much less time than even high-voltage EV recharging can achieve. However, FCVs are much more dependent on refueling infrastructure than EVs, which can recharge at home. And thanks to robust federal support for battery R&D and production, including from the 2009 stimulus, along with extremely generous federal and state EV tax credits, EVs have gained significant awareness and initial market penetration since the current administration took office and scaled back federal support for fuel cells.

Conclusions – The Race Is Far from Over

EVs may have an edge over fuel cell cars, for now, but EV sales remain disappointing and they must compete with more convenient, mainstream hybrid cars, with and without plug-in capability. They must also compete with conventional gasoline and diesel cars that become more efficient every year, reducing EVs’ advantages in operating costs and lifecycle environmental impacts. Given all that, there’s still ample time for another technology like FCVs–or natural gas vehicles (NGVs)–to scale up, if they can get costs down and overcome infrastructure hurdles. Those are big ifs.

Nor is it the case that EVs and FCVs are mutually exclusive in the automotive market. Fuel cell cars are fundamentally electric vehicles, and most will likely also be hybrids, with regenerative braking and traction batteries. So advances in EV architecture, battery capacity and cost, and safety also benefit FCVs. That makes it seem even likelier that our future vehicle mix will be quite diverse, with EVs and FCVs coexisting with NGVs, various hybrids, and much more efficient gasoline and diesel models than today’s.

  1. By Peter Thomas on February 21, 2014 at 10:40 am

    Found these interesting links on Fuel Cell Technology…
    Video below of what is happening in California at municipal wastewater treatment plants using fuel cell technology to produce 3 value streams of electricity, hydrogen and heat all from a human waste! This is pretty impressive in my opinion for hydro-refueling infrastructure.

    “New fuel cell sewage gas station in Orange County, CA may be world’s first”

    “It is here today and it is deployable today,” said Tom Mutchler of Air Products and Chemicals Inc., a sponsor and developer of the project.

    2.8MW fuel cell using biogas now operating; Largest PPA of its kind in North America

    Microsoft Backs Away From Grid

    • By ben on February 21, 2014 at 2:22 pm

      Yes, thanks, Peter. This project and its owner-operating firm point to the future. Anaergia is a Canadian (Burlington) firm with a small but strategically adroit global footprint. The senior management is top-notch with a leader who came out of Zenon (bought by GE) and who helped build GE’s water/process tech business into a solid, competitive force (now run by a capable German, Heiner Markoff). I’ve been around a number of their projects.

      These renewable applications are worth not only watching and promoting but, where feasible, investing in for the combination of decent returns and societal benefits.


  2. By Wiggletoes on February 21, 2014 at 2:25 pm

    Cost effective fuel cell tech is available for licensing
    car manufacturers just seem to require we purchase their expensive ineffective
    FC tech. Hydrogen is also reformed to
    make gasoline and diesel from crude and due too the efficiency of fuel cells we
    may be able to fuel a replacement fuel
    cell car fleet with just the hydrogen currently reformed from natural gas to
    make gasoline/diesel.

    • By Geoffrey Styles on February 24, 2014 at 9:35 am

      According to EIA data, US oil refineries produce roughly 3 billion cubic feet per day of H2, mainly for desulfurization and hydrocracking. That’s the energy equivalent of 2.7 billion gallons of gasoline per year. Assuming a 2x efficiency improvement, that would be enough to take each of the 240 million cars and light trucks/SUVs in the US about 570 miles, or around 5% of average annual usage.

  3. By ben on February 21, 2014 at 2:51 pm


    Yes, this will be happening with the current turn of the tech wheel. I have been reading into this at some length. to include some post-Tenneco R&D being nudged in Germany’s heartland along the Rhine and a few other places. To say that such a focus may have significant implications for the next generation of vehicles is to suggest that the efforts of Rudolf Diesel were a bit under-rewarded :)

    Fair winds and following seas with your writing.

    Ben (as in BG)

  4. By Forrest on February 22, 2014 at 9:30 am

    The recent improvement in cost of producing fuel cell sparked renewed interests. Automotive has often stated fuel cell will be the solution to future needs. Refueling infrastructure as you say the biggest hurdle. Back in 60′s a ASME seminar declaring the coming hydrogen economy. Giant ocean wind turbines turning out hydrogen pumping to ocean depths to liquify and send to mainland use. We may get there yet? I think, one big attribute of fuel cell generator is its ability to be at full efficiency at variable output. Very low to full capacity. This allows efficient auto transportation and off grid power solution. It’s the ultimate CHP home power plant for both heat and electricity. Current systems are as efficient, but produce more heat than required for typical homeowner. Natural gas or bio-gas reforming technology/equipment must not be a burden? At least one company is attempting to economically produce H2 from alcohol fuel to solve the infrastructure problem of fuel cell. The developing battery car and fuel cell auto technology can be dual use and help capitalize expensive equipment upon household use of power and heat. I do think it is wise to utilize NG upon transportation. The country will enjoy more economic benefit from local consumption of a very environmental fuel rather than the almost uneconomical cost of liquifying and shipping overseas. Petrol products are much easier to ship. Also, it might not be such a bright idea to burn such a valuable easy to use fuel upon our giant stationary power plants.

  5. By Russ Finley on February 22, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    The natural gas fuel cell powering an electric motor is more efficient than natural gas powering a conventional car engine, but not as much as you might think.

    The electric motor consuming the electricity will add another 10-20% loss. Burning natural gas in a car is not the most efficient way to consume it. My furnace is over 95% efficient.

    The original excitement about fuel cell cars, many decades ago, came from the idea that we could electrolyze water with electricity from low carbon sources like nuclear, solar, and wind, to make pure hydrogen to burn in the fuel cells. Reality set in as the cost of making, storing and transporting hydrogen became apparent.

    • By Geoffrey Styles on February 24, 2014 at 9:21 am

      You’re certainly right that reality set in, and not just about low-emission H2 sources. However, if you’ll follow the links in the post to the well-to-wheels lifecycle analysis, you’ll see that gas-derived H2 in an FCV is quite a bit more efficient than CNG in an ICE-based light-duty vehicle. Both pathways lose some energy in getting the fuel to the vehicle, but the thermodynamic efficiency of a fuel cell beats an ICE hands down.

      • By Russ Finley on February 24, 2014 at 6:23 pm

        So, a conventional internal combustion car getting 30 mpg using H2 would only get 37-38 mpg with a fuel cell and electric motor.

        • By Geoffrey Styles on February 26, 2014 at 10:04 am

          Maybe, though it’s hard to make an apples to apples comparison that simply, because the FCV won’t be the same car.

  6. By Keith Malone on February 24, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    [Disclosure: I work for the California Fuel Cell Partnership.] Not mentioned is the legislation that Governor Brown signed last year that will fund at least 100 hydrogen stations (hydrogen pumps at existing gasoline stations) in California. Work done by our members shows that we need 68 stations to launch the market and those stations, if strategically located in early adopter and other areas, can serve approximately 10,000 vehicles. At 100 stations, the modeling shows that there will be enough confidence in the market that all future station development and funding will come from the private sector. With regards to the opinion that setting up a fueling network for fuel cell vehicles is more expensive than a charging network for battery electrics, consideration should be given to how many cars per fueling station are served compared to a charging station.

    • By Geoffrey Styles on February 24, 2014 at 6:26 pm

      Thanks for the update on CA, which was always going to be the first US market for FCVs, given its ZEV rules. Your point about vehicles served per installation is a good one, though I’d like to see more detail on that. I.e., what’s the cost of adding an H2 pump to an existing service station forecourt, vs. a standalone high-voltage EV charging pedestal, which is not likely to be located in a gas station? What fuel margin will be necessary to pay out that investment?
      As for the comparative costs of infrastructure, the basic issue is that Tesla, for example, doesn’t need to build power plants and invest in long-distance power transmission–or induce someone else to do so–in order to set up a coast-to-coast network of Superchargers. (Powering some of them with solar panels is a choice, not a necessity, and one I suspect is mainly driven by PR and brand image.)

  7. By Portlander on February 25, 2014 at 5:37 pm

    Conventional (non-diesel) internal-combustion-engine powerred cars can very easily be tweaked to run on hydrogen, and they will burn cleaner. They will almost be ZEVs, with the exception of some trace NOX. Why wait for Fuel Cells?

    • By Geoffrey Styles on February 26, 2014 at 10:01 am

      Great question. It turns out that the emissions benefits of running ICEs on H2 are offset by the significant energy cost of producing the H2. You’re better off, at least from a lifecycle energy and greenhouse gas perspective, to run the cars on CNG or diesel than H2. That’s not the case for fuel cells only because of their much higher thermal efficiency, compared to ICEs.

  8. By Forrest on February 28, 2014 at 10:13 am

    How about a tri-fuel FCV hybrid? We know batteries alone have cost, range, and recharge problems. Fuel cell has cost, refueling, and fuel storage problems. ICE has efficiency and pollution problems. Combining these technologies is attractive and may not be as complicate or expensive as first thought. Remember, the ICE is most efficient at constant rpm and full load for a whole range of reasons. Think of twin cylinder engine generating power much like the Chevy volt, but only accomplishing 38% of auto needs. Think of the engine as only a range extender for battery power. The engine meets most of the low speed needs of car with electric assist. Were not recharging battery, as that requires a long controlled cycle to optimize battery life. For long high speed trips the engine would be at full power max efficiency with exhaust capable of heating solid oxide electrolyser cell producing h2 and O per electric and water. The exhaust heat matches well with the 500-800c temperature range for these ceramic cells. This process is more efficient and zero polluting as compare to natural gas formation of H2. No storage of H2 required as a fuel cell would immediately convert to electric which is consumed by power needs of high speed long distant drive. The efficiency of fuel cell much higher than ICE more than makes up for loss of electric to process H2. The oxygen is valuable to ICE intake to increase hp. Water can be trapped from exhaust if economical to recycle. All of the components downsized and contribute to efficiencies and range. They keep weight down and keep part count up for maximize manufacturing economies of scale. The heat past SOEC could power turbo or turbo generator or a lease a small organic cycle engine if economical.

    • By Forrest on March 2, 2014 at 8:45 am

      This is attractive and developing technology…heat engine production of hydrogen. Come to find out, ethanol is a good pure fuel to produce H2 as the fuel naturally combines with water. Both are needed to dis-associate hydrogen a similar process used with NG. The temperatures and pressures upon combustion chamber meets the needs of process. First lets step back and review alcohol/water injection for diesel, gas race engines, and piston aircraft a well used method to increase hp and efficiencies. The fuel compound is injected into intake to dramatically chill intake, which keeps temps down and increases efficiency of intake. The fuel greatly increases octane and allows increased compression and advanced timing as well. The engine can generate max hp and not destroy itself per heat, important per above post. Some of the salvage heat goes to increase cylinder pressure per steam. Also, turbo is more efficient per extra mass of exhaust. But, the efficiencies could be increased several steps by cracking the steam to hydrogen fuel and introduce an oxidizer of O2 if only a catalysis metal agent within the combustion chamber. Enter into the process a new cylinder head, one that receives a ceramic matrix with porosity and acts as a support for metal deposition of catalysis material. This would accomplish such a thing. This would convert unwanted heat to hydrogen fuel. Also, the pollution stream of NOx decreased per better control of temperature. Acetaldehyde the smog/ozone troubling pollutant of ethanol fuel can be transformed as well. CO production upon the process can be easily converted per water injection at exhaust producing another H2 source which potentially utilized by fuel cell or torched off with introduction of air to power exhaust turbine. This second process same as the second phase of NG production of H2. Also, injecting water during exhaust cycle producing steam maximizes power to exhaust turbo which essential becomes a steam turbine. This enables increase in generation of power, meaning better to utilize turbo for generation of electric power than use as air pump. The catalysist within hot zone of engine maximizes efficiency of conversion of pollutants and replaces the common troublesome and expensive catalytic converter on exhaust pipe. Engine and pollution technology is currently compromised per cold start of converter and keeping the converter at high temperatures. Just my thoughts upon process potential…interesting!

    • By Geoffrey Styles on March 5, 2014 at 12:21 pm

      The more expensive upgrades we load into one vehicle model, the fewer will be sold. This is a big reason we don’t see production diesel hybrid cars, which have been demonstrated to achieve large gains in fuel economy. However, whether you hybridize a diesel or dieselize a hybrid you are adding cost, and the incremental fuel economy gains are worth less, because the first technology already captured the most valuable savings. E.g., going from 25 mpg to 50 mpg saves 3x as much gasoline (and $) as going from 50 mpg to 75 mpg.

      • By Forrest on March 7, 2014 at 10:52 am

        Absolutely and Ford has a low cost solution to high diesel mpg; Ecoboost. it’s lighter and cheaper with efficiency near diesel, note: diesel has more BTUs per gallon so mpg ratings unfair. Also, EPA ratings and assumptions per diesel unfair, same with hybrid or EV’s. Ford can and is placing this engine with hybrid or plug in technology. Also, Ford has a soon to release bifuel that maximizes port injection of gasoline efficiencies for low hp needs upon smaller than normal Ecoboost engine for pickups. This engine beats diesel and much lighter/cheaper. It has E85 DI to control fuel mix with gasoline. More hp = more ethanol and boost, less hp = more gas and exhaust gas recirculation. Because the ethanol carries liquid O2 the engine can act like a bigger displacement engine. But, FC has the potential to quickly dominate auto sales per simplicity, reliability, and low fuel costs. They have a nano particle catalyst that is expected to have big effect on the decreasing size and lowering cost of FC. Best manufacturing cost to date $1,000. This new material will lower cost by respectable percentage.

  9. By Lyle Gentry on February 28, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    I’m curious about how a gas-turbine engine fueled by CNG or CH2 driving a generator would compare with a Fuel Cell in terms of efficiency and emissions for electricity production. I believe turbines are at their best when running at a steady rpm–which would be perfect for driving a generator. I’ve heard that they’re also not too picky about what fuel they run on so I would think they would readily accept either CNG or CH2 (or some combination of both) as a fuel.

    • By Forrest on March 2, 2014 at 7:46 am

      Micro turbine industry such as Capstone from CA have been making efficient and reliable generators for some time. They are put on buses powered by NG. It’s more efficient than diesel with NG costing less. The turbine generator has high temperature exhaust, excellent for running steam boiler or water heat, this is attractive for large buildings that need lots of hot water such as hotels or hospitals. We should maximize the use of CHP (combined heat and power) generation as the heat from electric generation is valuable. Note utilities can not use low grade heat and can not compete with home CHP production of power. Also, these system save the cost of expensive back up power and have no line loss efficiency as power generated so close to use.

  10. By Forrest on March 4, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    The Post article indicated FC vehicle is currently within mass production capability. Durability, economics, and auto character all positive and more desirable as compared to as expensive, heavy, slow charging, and short range EV. But as your blog article indicates infrastructure the biggest challenge. Nearly all auto companies are saying the near future will belong to FC and have investments within development of FC auto. The best engineers can only envision future of EV technology accomplishing little more than complementary vehicles to accomplish short daily commutes. The owner still needs a car to travel. Very expensive luxury that requires daily plug in. Natural gas process is efficient and quality is within standards of FC. NG consumed within FC vehicle is more efficient and cleaner than NG auto or using NG to charge the EV, but that can’t be as EPA and EV car manufactures claim they have a zero pollution auto? Electricity is a non polluting energy and magically appears behind the wall socket.

  11. By Forrest on March 6, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    Was listening to U-Tube conference on Global Warming Columbia University with Wallace Broecker. He’s 80 years old now and renown for career work within CO2 Global Warming. The first person to coin the phrase and considered the God Father of CO2 warming. His presentation seemed credible, by his experience and common sense ideas. He doesn’t come off as activist, nor does he sound like typical environmentalist full of bias and prejudice. I would say a pragmatist or realist and not laden with agenda’s. Bottom line tree’s won’t make much difference. Salting stratosphere with S0 to reflect 1/4 sunshine may be a emergency measure. Canadian oil sands will proceed and not that important. Cheaper to start correcting problem now than decades later. We can live with problem, but food, rainfall, and storm damage will make life more difficult. The problem need not be expensive to fix. Battery car has problems, fuel cell car the solution. Decrease annual CO2 by cutting down on emissions, increase efficiency, less polluting energy. Carbon tax may help? CO2 very stable and requires hundreds of years to decompose. Best way to reduce; artificially. Utilize sodium carbonate to bicarbonate simple process, liquify CO2 and inject underground preferably in salty areas. Columbia has patented plastic sheath that can be integrated to standing devices that absorb equivalent to 1,000 trees CO2. My opinion, this CO2 problem can be solved with cleverly applied invented technology and be done so without committing the entire economy to government control. Fuel cells and natural gas will play a big part.

    • By ben on March 7, 2014 at 2:12 pm

      Saints be praised, I found a Forrest entry that I generally agree with and care to acknowledge for his observations about Dr. Broecker. A friend of mine knows the doctor and his late wife, Grace, whom the professor was married to for over 50 years. A brilliant, down-to-earth man, Broecker has been offering no-nonsense insights for decades for those with the ears to hear. I’ve been involved with Prof. Sachs at Columbia’s Earth Institute on an initiative or two and everyone at the institute/school love Broecker and respect his contribution to the science of the carbon cycle.

      So, thanks to Forrest for pointing this particular event out. I commend the work of Dr. Broecker to the scrutiny of the ETI’s readers.


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