Fuel Cells: Vehicles

Will we see fuel cells on the road any time soon, or just moving cases around Walmart?

Carly Anderson
Aug 18, 2020 · 9 min read

Key Takeaways:

  • The total number of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) in the world today is small, roughly 25,000 — similar to the number of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) on the road in 2010.
  • Hydrogen refueling infrastructure is also still nearly non-existent. There were approximately 470 hydrogen fueling stations worldwide in 2019, compared to 25,000 EV charging stations and 120,000 gas stations in the US alone. While a nation-wide system for delivering electricity already existed to allow charging stations to be installed anywhere, the same is not true for hydrogen.
  • Efforts to build out hydrogen fueling stations and distribution systems are increasing, particularly in Europe and Asia (China, Korea, and Japan). The number of hydrogen fueling stations could double in the next two years.
  • The one area where fuel cell vehicles have gained significant traction is FORKLIFTS. You can’t have emissions in enclosed warehouses, and battery charging is time consuming and requires more space.
  • The main barriers to FCEVs becoming more economical are the need for platinum in PEMFC fuel cells (the primary type of fuel cell used in vehicles), the lack of widespread hydrogen infrastructure, improving system designs (storing hydrogen on the vehicle more efficiently), and scaling into markets where large demand may not exist.
  • Over the next ten years, FCEVs like Nikola’s semis may actually make inroads into long haul trucking and outcompete BEVs… but only if the cost and availability of distributed hydrogen improves, and there are incentives to decarbonize transportation.

Let’s start by putting the buzz over Nikola in context. Are hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) going to take over the highways any time soon? What is the status of this technology? Where else are fuel cells used? Within the fuel cell landscape, what emerging technologies are exciting? In this post and the one to follow, we will explore this corner of the hydrogen landscape: fuel cells.

But first, what is a fuel cell?

Fuel Cells Turn Fuel into Electricity

A fuel cell converts a fuel (hydrogen, natural gas, or other high-energy molecules) and oxygen into water and electricity without burning it. Think of a fuel cell like a battery cell, but with fuel and oxygen feeding into each side. Fuel cells can in theory power anything that runs on electricity — vehicles, buildings, devices, forklifts, and even spacecraft.

In fuel cell vehicles like Nikola’s proposed semi-truck, the electricity produced by the fuel cell powers the motor. Both fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) and battery electric vehicles (BEVs) use electric motors, hence why Nikola and other fuel cell vehicle makers may offer both a fuel cell and a BEV version of a truck.

Inside a fuel cell are the same basic parts as a battery:

  1. An anode, where the hydrogen (or other fuel) is separated into electrons and ions. The electrons leave the anode through a wire to go power things (like a truck).
  2. An electrolyte, which is basically a bridge that allows ions to cross but not electrons. If the electrolyte is a liquid, the fuel cell may include a spacer or support.
  3. A cathode, where electrons are returned to the system. Oxygen is consumed here.

Fuel cells ultimately make power by allowing hydrogen and oxygen to recombine and make water. (Fuel cells are basically the opposite of hydrogen electrolyzers, which start with water and use electricity to make hydrogen and oxygen).

Schematic for a typical PEM fuel cell used in vehicle applications. (Image Source)

Okay, this seems complicated. Why not just burn the H2 in an internal combustion engine (ICE) like we burn gasoline or diesel? Wouldn’t the emissions from burning hydrogen in air still just be water?

The main reason is that fuel cells turn fuel to electricity more efficiently. Fuel cells convert up to 60% or more of the energy in the fuel into power, compared to roughly 40% for diesel engines and just 20% to 35% for cars running on gasoline. In traditional car engines (ICEs) most of the energy in the fuel is wasted as heat. The fuel cell gives you 1.5 to 3 times the amount of energy (or 1.5 to 3 times the miles traveled) for the same amount of fuel! [1]

A second reason is that burning hydrogen in an ICE creates high temperatures (think of all that wasted heat), which turns some of the nitrogen and oxygen in the air into smog (NOx) in side reactions.

Overall, the potential benefits of fuel cell electric vehicles are 1) greater fuel efficiency, 2) eliminating emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants (e.g. smog, particulates), and 3) quick refueling compared to battery charging. The main downsides? Cost and hydrogen availability.

Fuel Cell Vehicles Today

So how many fuel cells are out there today? The short answer: not many.

Roughly 8,600 fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) have been sold in the US since 2014. In June 2020, 49 FCEVs were sold in the US. There are three fuel cell vehicles currently on the market in the US: the Hyundai Nexo, the Toyota Mirai, and the Honda Clarity. [2] For the moment, the United States is still the world leader in FCEVs on the roads (1 in 3 FCEVs are in the US), followed by China, Japan and the Republic of Korea.

For comparison, over 1 million plug-in battery electric vehicles (BEVs) were sold over the same time 2014–2019 period. A total of 4.7 million passenger cars (of any type) were sold in 2019 alone. FCEVs have a lot of catching up to do.

The current hydrogen fueling station infrastructure for FCEVs is also small, albeit increasing. At the end of 2019, 470 hydrogen refueling stations were in operation worldwide. This represents a 20% increase from 2018. The number of stations in operation expanded considerably in Korea (+20), Japan (+13) and Germany (+12) in 2019. Japan remains the leader with 113 refueling stations, followed by Germany with 81, and the United States with 64 stations.

Compare this to the current EV charging infrastructure. Although there are almost 25,000 charging stations in the US, there are still many would-be Tesla owners with range anxiety. (For reference, there are around 120,000 gas stations in the US.) [3] Also, it is relatively easy to establish an EV charging station, as almost every home and Whole Foods is already on the electric grid. The charging infrastructure and adapters are all that is needed. A hydrogen fueling station requires the infrastructure to handle and dispense a pressurized, flammable gas safely, plus onsite hydrogen storage capacity, and a reliable supply of hydrogen.

This lack of infrastructure can be overcome for fleet operators like city buses and refuse collection. By refueling at a central terminal with a source of hydrogen, this barrier can be eliminated. However, the higher capital and maintenance costs of fuel cell buses currently makes them unattractive without significant regulatory or other economic incentives. To illustrate, in 2019 an average conventional diesel 40-foot bus costed roughly $475,000 and an average compressed natural gas (CNG) bus costed roughly $560,000, compared to fuel cell electric bus costs of $1.3mm at the time and $850,000 predicted in 2021 (NREL blog, June 2019).

The one area where fuel cell vehicles have gained significant traction today is in forklifts and vehicles to move heavy things indoors. You can’t have emissions in enclosed warehouses, and battery charging is time consuming and requires more space. Walmart made headlines several years ago for reducing its environmental impact through hydrogen-powered forklifts; many other large companies, including Amazon and Wegman’s parent company have followed suit. Today there are over 25,000 hydrogen-powered forklifts in the US.

How Will The FCEV Landscape Evolve?

There were roughly the same number of battery electric vehicles on the road in 2010 as there are FCEVs today. Will the next ten years see growth in FCEVs similar to what we saw in plug-in electric vehicles?

If we assume a 20% per year growth in the number of hydrogen fueling stations, the US would only be at about 400 stations in 2030. Rather than attempt cover the entire US, companies hoping to build ownership in this space have announced plans for hydrogen fueling “corridors” along trucking routes. Nikola has announced plans to build 700 truck refueling stations in the US and Canada between now and 2028. Shell has been actively building hydrogen refueling stations in California in collaboration with Toyota and Honda, in addition to the 45 stations it operates worldwide (with the majority in Germany). Some governments are also subsidizing or otherwise incentivizing refueling stations for hydrogen powered vehicles.

While we can expect to see many announcements in the press of new hydrogen fueling stations opening, the hydrogen fuel station network is going to remain sparse for at least the next five to ten years. I wouldn’t place an order for the FCEV Badger just yet.

The fuel cell technology used in today’s FCEVs, primarily Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cells (PEMFCs), is fairly mature. A key cost driver of these fuel cells is the amount of platinum required to make the chemical reactions happen. Unfortunately this raw material cost is unlikely to decrease with increased manufacturing scale, although there are several DOE-sponsored research efforts to decrease the amount of platinum needed. While the lifetime and durability is expected to increase, experts do not expect the absolute cost of PEMFC fuel cells to come down to the extent that lithium-ion batteries did between 2010 and today (a ten-fold decrease).

On the other hand, the engineering design and the optimization of support systems around vehicle fuel cells (compressors, humidifiers, sensors, hydrogen tanks) are less mature. Improvements in this space usually require specialized expertise and intimate knowledge of vehicle manufacturing processes, so they are more likely to come from large automakers than garage startups (although I would love to be surprised here).

To summarize, FCEVs have some distinct advantages over other vehicle types, but are still too costly to compete without subsidies in most cases. The difficulty of building out extensive hydrogen refueling infrastructure will limit the extent of FCEV adoption in the next ten years. However, sufficient momentum is growing to build out enough hydrogen depots and “hydrogen corridors” to further prove out the durability and value of both light-duty FCEV fleets and heavy-duty fuel cell trucks. There is potential for improved fuel cell technologies and continued system optimization to reduce fuel cell costs. If one measures demand for FCEVs by Nikola pre-orders, demand is growing for the first time. Together, these effects (or upward price pressure on lithium) may bring FCEVs into the black in five years.

As ridesharing and autonomous vehicles further transform the transportation landscape, perhaps change will come sooner. Lyft could decide to lease FCEVs to all of its drivers. Hydrogen powered autonomous cars could refuel and get back on the road faster than EVs. However for the next few years, you are more likely to see a fuel cell on a forklift at Walmart than on the interstate.

Notes

  1. A helpful breakdown of where the energy in a gasoline-powered car goes can be found here. For comparison, electric motors are about 90% efficient. This article also shows where the hydrogen tank and fuel cell sits in several fuel cell passenger car models.
  2. These three fuel cell passenger cars all have a range of about 300 miles. They sadly do not meet my requirement of getting to Yosemite National Park and back, a 370 mi roundtrip from Berkeley.
  3. I estimated this from sources suggesting that there are between 107,000 and 150,000 gas stations in the US.

My sincere gratitude goes out to the scientists and hydrogen enthusiasts who helped inform this post (over zoom these days). Any mistakes are my own, and I would welcome the opportunity to correct them.

This blog post was originally published on August 18, 2020.

Prime Movers Lab invests in breakthrough scientific startups founded by Prime Movers, the inventors who transform billions of lives. We invest in seed-stage companies reinventing energy, transportation, infrastructure, manufacturing, human augmentation and computing.

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