January 10, 2014

News & Features

Automakers get serious about a fuel-cell future

New York Times News Service

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Last summer, General Motors Vice Chairman Steve Girsky announced an agreement between GM and Honda to co-develop fuel-cell systems. (General Motors)

Like thick-rim glasses, Doc Martens and so many other things that fell out of favor only to spring back to popularity years later, fuel-cell cars have resurfaced.

This week at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Toyota announced plans to release a fuel-cell car in 2015. At the fall auto shows, Honda and Hyundai also revealed their fresh take on this headline-grabbing technology. All three have unveiled design studies intended to signal that fuel-cell vehicles, which produce zero tailpipe pollutants, are close to production.

Each concept vehicle demonstrated progress in the efficiency and packaging of their fuel-cell systems, which generate electricity onboard by combining hydrogen and oxygen and emit only water vapor.

Hydrogen fuel sources
    Most hydrogen in the United States is produced by steam reforming natural gas. Researchers are experimenting with alternative ways to produce it, including fermentation and solar and wind power. For more information on hydrogen production, visit the National Renewable Energy Laboratory website at nrel.gov.

What these automakers failed to deliver in terms of specifics they offset with lofty promises of a real and rapidly approaching hydrogen-based future.

Before you file this news with reports of the imminent arrival of flying cars, consider this: For the past four months, I have been living with fuel-cell technology, logging more than 2,500 miles at the wheel of a Toyota Highlander FCHV-adv test bed.

The technowonder that visited my driveway was based on a 2008 Highlander midsize crossover. It offered nearly 300 miles of driving range and five-minute fill-ups — a combination that no battery-electric car offers. I drove for days without tailpipe emissions and without depleting the tank.

"Toyota made a decision — the fuel-cell car is going to be a big part of our future," says John Hanson, a Toyota spokesman. "That's the direction we're going, big time."

In addition to Toyota, Honda and Hyundai, two other carmakers — General Motors and Mercedes-Benz — are also promising fuel-cell cars in the next few years.

For me, the transition from an EV to a fuel-cell car meant trading one refueling limitation for another. My Nissan Leaf offers less than a third of the range of the fuel-cell Highlander, but replenishing it at home is as easy as charging a cellphone. When the tanks in the Highlander were nearing empty, I needed to make a 15-minute drive from my home in Berkeley, Calif., to the only accessible hydrogen station in Northern California, 6 miles away in Emeryville.

A kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of hydrogen contains nearly the same amount of energy as a gallon of gasoline. To top up, I added 4 to 5 kilograms of gaseous hydrogen into tanks at a pressure of 10,000 pounds per square inch. The Highlander traveled about 55 miles on a kilogram.

I paid $12 to $13 a kilogram. Measured against a baseline of a 2008 Highlander Hybrid, which carried an EPA rating of 27 mpg in the city and 25 on the highway, that's roughly equivalent to paying $6 per gallon of gasoline.

According to Toyota, full-scale production of hydrogen is projected to drop the cost below the current price of gasoline. The main challenge facing the company's engineers, however, is the vehicle's price.

"The effort to bring this car to market is about lowering the cost while providing satisfactory performance," says Matt McClory, principal engineer of fuel-cell development for Toyota in the U.S.

Toyota executives say they believe a target price around $50,000 is needed to make the cars attractive. With developments like more efficient fuel-cell stacks, higher pressure in tanks, greater range and lower cost compared with a decade ago, fuel-cell cars are getting a second look.

Steven Chu, energy secretary in President Barack Obama's first term, summed it up this way: "I think automakers are saying, 'Look, hydrogen could be a long shot. But we're going to put a little bet on it, and we'll see.' "

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