Re-Fueling the Future - Energy Week

By Jess Goulart

Photo by Tabercil.

When electric cars (plug-ins) first hit the market in the ’90s, their reception was lukewarm. Global warming? What global warming?! But recent rising sea levels, dramatic weather shifts, and dying polar bears push us to re-examine the issue. Couple that with the finite nature of resources like petroleum and zero emission, alternatively fueled autos suddenly seem much more important. Tesla and other plug-in manufacturers may be reporting sales growth, but a new, possibly superior competitor is poised to hit the market – hydrogen fuel cells.

As Michael Ware points out in his award-winning essay for Spectator, the shift to plug-ins was not without consequence. Most notably, the global costs in the amount of energy needed to power them is astronomical, the deficit in funds often made up for by tax payers who are unable to make the switch. In cities, for example, people take public transportation or ride bikes, none of which is harmful to the environment, and yet their tax dollars still go to funding energy for other people’s plug-ins.

Besides energy costs, owning an electric car means remembering to charge it nightly. The number of plug-in stations in the States may be proliferating rapidly, but even at the most powerful stations it will still take twenty minutes to charge for an additional 50 to 60 miles. Basically, if you forget to plug in at night, you’re not going anywhere. To avoid that, people often purchase plug-ins as second or third cars, a fact that is greatly underreported and masks the inconvenience of remembering to charge.

Even if you subscribe to the notion that people can adapt to increased taxes for the environments sake, a more practical and troublesome issue is the size of those battery packs. Though Tesla has developed smaller batteries with a novel design that places them underneath the car, thereby allowing it to retain as much carrying capacity and space as possible, bigger companies like Nissan and Toyota use battery packs that are much larger. Beyond aesthetics, those batteries weigh the car down, which equates to slower speed capabilities and therefore less mileage before needing a recharge.

So what to do? In the past decade, auto manufacturers have been developing alternatives to electric and gas cars, and recently it appears they’ve found their winner — hydrogen fuel cells. Toyota, Honda, and General Motors are reportedly leading the race to develop the technology that may beat out plug-ins.

Hydrogen fuel cells are powered by the electricity that is generated when hydrogen molecules are stripped of electrons. The technology is safe, clean, and engineers keep discovering new, cheaper ways to build the cells. Toyota’s president Satoshi Ogiso tells The Truth About Cars his biggest concern is affordability, comparing the situation to the challenge he faced in the 90s when launching the Prius electro-gas hybrid. However, the company is promising a hydrogen car by 2015, indicating they have already found a cost effective technology.

“Hydrogen cars successfully solve a lot of problems facing electric and gas cars,” the founder of and auto-aficionado Jason Lancaster tells BTR. “I think there is a strong likelihood that fuel cells will replace, or at least significantly compete on the market against battery electric cars.”

The biggest advantages are that hydrogen fuel cells are much lighter, can recharge in minutes, and have a much longer range than plug-ins. They are also pollution free, their only exhaust comprising of water and heat.

“For a long time the issue with the fuel cells was cost. For years we read about and heard about fuel cells in the 80s and, just like fusion and the cure for cancer, it was always just ‘right around the corner.’ But in the last few years a few major things have happened to really indicate fuel cells are in fact approaching a usable alternative,” Lancaster notes. “If you look at lithium ion batteries there’s already been a ton of development, so it’s a fairly mature technology. With fuel cells as well-known as they are, they’re still not that popular, so there are tremendous opportunities to improve them. That’s what’s enticing about the announcements from Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai, it seems that they have discovered a way to build fuel cells that is much cheaper.”

The Japanese media, which is extremely conservative and reluctant to embellish, repeatedly mentions that auto makers at Toyota and Honda have fuel cells developed in the last few months, and at the latest car shows in LA and Tokyo, hydrogen cars were actually on display. Honda just announced you can officially lease their FXC Clarity, the first hydrogen powered vehicle to hit market. Three hundred models will be released over the next few years, particularly in Southern California. John Krafcik, Hyundai’s North American CEO, recently told the Associated Press that hydrogen cars are “now ready for prime time.”

Lancaster says one niche where hydrogen fuel cells will definitely outperform plug-ins is trucks and SUVs. With an electric truck, you can have either carrying capacity or range, but it’s impossible to have both. The size of the battery pack needed to power a vehicle that can tow is too heavy to allow for long treks. With hydrogen fuel cells as small and light as they are, this would no longer be a factor.

One possibility that no one seems to be considering, at least publicly, is a hydrogen-electric hybrid. Because sometimes you just want to listen to your car radio or turn on some AC without actually engaging the hydrogen reactor, the addition of a Tesla sized battery pack for those situations or emergencies might prove useful.

“The issue with hybrids,” explains Lancaster,“is it’s two power trains for the price of two power trains. You pay a lot of money for that extra one. And for gas engines it makes sense because gas engines are so inexpensive to build, but a diesel-electric hybrid, which there’s a lot of buzz about in the industry right now, there’s really no way to do it cost effectively. Let alone a gas-hydrogen-electric car. That would be just astronomically expensive.”

Between the two alternate fuel forms, hydrogen cars do seem to have the edge, though if the Prius is any indication public interest in them will be slow at first. As engineers develop cheaper ways to build fuel cells and continue to lower consumer costs, it appears likely we will drive hydrogen cars into a greener future, leaving inconvenient plug-ins behind in the dust.