Hydrogen Fuel Cell Refill

You Read it Here: Fuel Cell is a Technological Bookmark

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Refill

Over the past 7 years we in the U.S. of A. have been hit with a lot of different fuel technology.  Hybrid, electric, clean diesel, solar, and hydrogen fuel cell.

Today, Wards Auto.com wrote a story about VW announcement to increase their commitment to sustainable fuels, including a fuel cell vehicle.  From Wards:

 Volkswagen is developing fuel-cell vehicles for the market, although it has not always believed in them.

“We are following the path,” says Oliver Schmidt, general manager-Engineering and Environmental Office at Volkswagen Group of America.

California’s support for a growing infrastructure, and the fact Toyota has made great progress in fuel cells, has encouraged the Wolfsburg manufacturer to put test cars on the road.

While there is no commitment to a launch year, work is advancing in the laboratory.

Hydrogen fuel cell is the most interesting of all of the alternatives to gasoline.  Different makers have tested hydrogen car prototypes, some are in very limited production, and you can fill one up in California (no surprise).  In June, a Washington Post.com correspondent drove a Toyota Highlander FCHV to a dentist’s appointment.  Here are some of his takeaways:

The first thing you notice about Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell SUV is that you hardly feel like you’re driving. It’s more like you’re floating. When the engine kicks in, you don’t get the jolt that you do with a car that runs on gasoline. It’s not even like a typical hybrid, which starts you off on battery power before handing you off to the fossil-fuel engine.

I’m glad he provides an overview on how a hydrogen fuel cell engine works, because it saves me the time:

Toyota Highlander HFCV display

Unlike with ordinary cars, the fuel isn’t burned. It’s passed through a membrane that turns the hydrogen gas into water — a process that draws on outside air to create electricity for the engine. Fuel cell technology sounds like science fiction. But it’s coming very soon to the mass market: Toyota will debut its hydrogen-powered car in 2015.

A few years ago, BMW introduced the BMW Hydrogen 7.  The New York Times.com Automobile section did a really nice story on it back in 2007.  Here are some of their takeaways:

BMW Hydrogen 7

But one (driving) prohibition placed on the BMW Hydrogen 7, a 760Li luxury liner modified to run on hydrogen in addition to its normal gasoline diet, was an eye-opener: The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey would not permit the car to be driven through the Lincoln or Holland Tunnels or on the lower level of the George Washington Bridge.

It seems that BMW drew the Port Authority’s attention when it began pumping liquid hydrogen into its small test fleet of dual-fuel sedans in Port Jersey, not far from the docks where BMWs disembark after their voyage from Germany. And historically speaking, it’s fair to say that the last hydrogen-dependent German flagship that docked in New Jersey left a lasting impression.

So while BMW designed the Hydrogen 7 to be as explosion-resistant as any gasoline car, memories of the Hindenburg zeppelin cause misunderstandings among consumers and bureaucrats, a company spokesman acknowledged.

Sorry, couldn’t resist.  I remembered that from back then, had to get it in now.  Here’s something normal:

BMW’s Hydrogen 7 is powered by the same 6-liter V-12 found in the 760Li, re-engineered to handle the special qualities of hydrogen, including separate injection systems for each fuel. But the real gee-whiz factor is at the rear, where tanks hold 17.5 pounds of hydrogen and 16 gallons of gasoline.

Inside that hydrogen tank is nature’s lightest element, super-chilled to 423 degrees below zero. At that temperature, nearing the frigid cold of outer space, hydrogen becomes a liquid and shrinks to about one-thousandth the volume, allowing the tank to pack in more fuel. Yet the vacuum-insulated tank felt room temperature to the touch, so well sealed that a block of ice inside would take 13 years to fully melt, BMW engineers say, and a fill-up of coffee would remain hot enough to drink three months later.

Redundant safety systems abound. If the pressure inside the tank rises too high, a vent in the roof can release gaseous hydrogen directly. And if the car happened to roll over and block the roof opening, hydrogen would reroute through the underbody. A hydrogen detection system makes the car’s four door locks glow red to warn of leaking fuel in the trunk, fuel nozzle area or under the hood; windows automatically open if hydrogen should enter the cabin.

Lots of technology going on there.

But I can’t get on board with the fuel cell.  Automakers are completely retooling plants and logistics in order to ramp up more hybrids, electrics and diesels.  I don’t see fuel cell being part of that mix.  Not to take anything away from the technology; it is better than any of the others.  But momentum is not with fuel cell.

What I believe will probably happen is that carmakers will develop the technology to the point where they could put it into broad production, and then wait.  Consumers don’t know much of anything about it, and given the reception of the BMW Hydrogen 7 above, there’s a lot of education to do.  There are no tax credits out there to help buyers make the switch.  There’s no network of fueling stations, and no one is talking about seriously developing one.  From the WaPo article cited above:

Of course, it doesn’t matter how far you can go on a single tank if you have nowhere to refuel. As critics will point out, hydrogen vehicles are limited by the infrastructure that supports them. So far, California has been the most active in building hydrogen stations. There are nine available for public use right now around San Francisco and Los Angeles, with dozens more on the way. South Carolina is the only other state with a hydrogen refueling station, according to the Department of Energy.

Sadly there’s no Elon Musk driving fuel cell technology and adoption.

So fuel cell, despite it’s advantages, is a technological bookmark.  When the right time comes we’ll get back to it just like we do that good book or magazine.  I’m not being flippant, I do believe that we will.  If BMW finds that it can steal market share from Toyota with fuel cell vehicles in a few verticals, they will.  So will the others.  But right now, the competition is with what consumers know.



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Sebastian James


Accept no substitutes

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