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Hydrogen Highway?

January 28th, 2010 · 2 Comments

Interesting. Someone had to do this to get some momentum going..

Just as the future looks increasingly dim for hydrogen, the industry gets a boost

Prospects of seeing hydrogen vehicles available commercially anytime soon have looked increasingly bleak.  U.S. President Barack Obama has refused to provide significant federal funding to hydrogen vehicle development, supporting battery electric vehicles instead.  In addition, recent research reports indicate that hydrogen would actually release more net greenhouse gas emissions than traditional gasoline, when analyzed over the entire life cycle.

However, there’s a ray of light for the hydrogen industry amid the darkness.  Connecticut-based SunHydro has announced plans to transform Interstate 95 into a hydrogen highway.  Those who live in the U.S. East Coast know that I-95 stretches from Maine to Florida and is one of the nation’s busiest interstate highways.

SunHydro will construct 11 stations on the highway.  Each station will be a self-contained hydrolysis unit with solar power collectors attached.  The solar power will provide energy to create hydrogen from water via hydrolysis.  The hydrogen production system will come from an Proton Energy, an alternative energy start-up.  The net process is expected to be much more carbon friendly than transporting hydrogen by truck to fueling stations.

The plan is ambitious.  Explains company president Michael Grey, “Our goal is to make it possible for hydrogen car to drive from Maine to Miami strictly on sun and water.  Having talked to several of the auto manufacturers, the indication that we’ve received is that there has to be a network of stations on the east coast for them to bring the cars here.  They want to bring the cars here, but there’s nowhere to fuel them.”

Currently, the hydrogen industry is stuck in a chicken and egg dilemma of sorts.  Lack of vehicles makes stations a poor business investment, while lack of stations make developing hydrogen vehicles problematic.  Paul Williamson of the University of Montana College of Technology, notes,”There’s no sense having hydrogen cars if there’s no place to refuel them. Most of the development is happening in California. Why? Because they have refueling stations.”

The initial SunHydro station aim for a gradual build up, initially producing enough fuel to fill up 10 to 15 vehicles a day.  The stations will be located in Portland, Maine; Braintree, Massachusetts; Wallingford, Connecticut; South Hackensack, New Jersey; Claymont, Delaware; Richmond, Virginia; Charlotte, North Carolina; Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia; and Orlando and Miami, Florida.

The stations may cost up to $3M USD a piece in private investment.  Mr. Grey says his company is taking a bold risk shouldering these high costs in order to bolster the market.  He states, “We’ve just decided that somebody needed to start this process. You have a lot of the big companies talk about it, but nobody’s stepped up to the plate and made it happen. You’ve got to have some visionary risk taking if you want to be a company of the future. Otherwise, you’ll fall by the wayside.”

Currently, several companies still have hydrogen plans despite the cold reception by the research community and government.  GM has worked for several years on fuel cell-powered Equinox SUVs.  Honda has its FCX fuel cell test vehicle that has seen limited U.S. deployment.  And Mercedes-Benz plans to release F-Cell, a limited edition fuel cell vehicle to “selected customers” in Europe and the United States this spring.  Mazda and Volkswagen are also eying hydrogen plans.

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Here, you’ll see why this can be a significant development:

Despite a strong push for electric, GM isn’t skimping on hydrogen, another popular “green” vehicle technology

Hydrogen is an attractive alternative fuel for the auto industry in some respects.  The technology to produce it with electricity already exists, and it would provide an ideal way to store energy from alternative energy sources such as clean nuclear fission, wind, solar, and (eventually) nuclear fusion.


However, many obstacles remain to its commercial deployment.  One challenge is developing a production, delivery, and fueling station network capable of sustaining commercial numbers of hydrogen vehicles.  Thanks largely to Toyota and Honda, the roots of such a network have been planted in America’s largest urban centers: Los Angeles, California and New York, New York.

Now one of the American automakers is preparing to step up its efforts to solve the other key challenge — designing vehicles capable of using hydrogen efficiently.  GM has announced plans to bring vehicles powered by the universe’s most abundant gas to the market in only six years.  GM is targeting the 2016 model year for a commercial deployment of its fifth generation fuel cell system.  By the time the fifth generation lands, GM believes the system’s size, cost, reliability, and capabilities will be ready for viable mass produced vehicles.

Currently, GM is wrapping up testing its second generation fuel cells.  These cells feature impressive advances over GM’s first generation cells.  In total, GM’s second generation fuel cell system is 220 pounds lighter than the previous generation, half the size, and uses half the precious metals, while delivering comparable power.

States Charles Freese, executive director of GM Fuel Cell Activities, “The improvements the team has been able to achieve are remarkable.  Hardware mechanization has been dramatically simplified, which will help reduce cost, simplify manufacturing and improve durability.”

GM says that it has spent $1.5B USD of its own money on fuel cell vehicles, but it warns it won’t be able to deploy the vehicle’s commercially without government and industry-wide support.  Mr. Freese adds, “GM has invested more than $1.5 billion in fuel cell technology and we are committed to continuing to invest, but we no longer can go it alone.  As we approach a costly part of the program, we will require government and industry partnerships to install a hydrogen infrastructure and help create a customer pull for the products.”

To drum up interest in fuel cell vehicles, GM has deployed 100 hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric Chevrolet Equinox midsize crossovers powered by its first generation cells.  The vehicles have been driven over 1 million miles by ordinary citizens and celebrities, since 2007.  Two DailyTech staffers drove one of these vehicles at the Consumer Electronics Show in early 2008, and came away with favorable impressions.

GM and its competitors Toyota and Honda are hoping that fuel distributors and the U.S. government support a greater U.S. deployment over the next several years.  The German government just announced plans to build 1,000 hydrogen fueling stations by 2015.  In Japan, 13 oil and gas companies have announced similar plans.  That leaves the U.S., which only has 73 existing and 44 planned stations, far behind these foreign competitors [Source].  GM has high hopes, though, that the U.S. deployment will pick up and it will catch up before 2015.

GM is also aggressively pursuing commercial electric vehicle deployment – next year it will deliver the 2011 Chevy Volt EV.

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One has to realize not everybody believes in lithium-ion batteries for electric cars:

From battery chemistry, to electric vehicle adoption, Toyota isn’t going with the flow

If you used industry-wide levels of interest in lithium-ion battery technology and electric vehicles as a barometer, both of these fields are at record highs.  In the U.S., the former “Big Three” — GM, Chrysler, and Ford — all have electric vehicles planned for release, with the GM’s 2011 Chevy Volt being perhaps the biggest attraction.  In Germany, Daimler and child company Mercedes-Benz have both concepts and planned market EVs.  And in Japan, Nissan is gearing up to debut the electric-only 2011 Leaf EV.  All of these companies’ electric efforts are driven by lithium-ion batteries, and these batteries are going in their hybrids as well.

The world’s most successful vendor of electric vehicle technology, albeit in the form of mild hybrids, Toyota is going against the current on both of these trends, though.  In a new Bloomberg report aired concurrent with the Frankfurt Auto Show, it is revealed that Toyota extensively tested lithium-ion batteries as a potential replacement for the nickel-metal hydride batteries in its Prius and other mild hybrids.

What it found was that while the batteries were extremely efficient and didn’t raise serious reliability or safety concerns, they were overly expensive for the gains they provided.  For that reason, Toyota reportedly concluded that the market wasn’t ready for lithium and has decided to primarily continue with its nickel-based batteries for most of its hybrid cars.

Toyota also concluded that electric vehicles were too expensive to succeed in the current market.  Toyota Executive Vice President Takeshi Uchiyamada stated at a Frankfurt Auto Show press conference, “Electric vehicles of today are less costly than in 1990s, but if you compare them with the other vehicles out there they are still too expensive.  Unless there is a very big breakthrough in battery costs I don’t think electric vehicles can take a large market share.”

Toyota indicated that it will likely stay out of the electric vehicle market for close to a decade, the time it believes it will take for EVs to become profitable and affordable enough for the masses.

So is Toyota right?  It’s hard to say.  Toyota’s demonstration of business acumen over the last several years is hard to argue, given its ability to produce the first profitable mass-production hybrid, the Prius, which leads worldwide hybrid sales to date.  Furthermore, there are a handful of competitors, such as Germany’s Audi, whose management are split on the viability of electric vehicles (Audi’s North American president recently called buyers of the Chevy Volt EV “idiots”).

On the other hand, the vast majority of the industry is shifting towards all electrics, and if Toyota counts on its competitors to lower production costs, it may find itself in a foreign hole when it finally decides to enter the market.  While some of the German automakers are pushing for clean diesel as a supplement or alternative to hybrids, Toyota is pushing hydrogen as a long term solution, a technology that faces significant production, transport, and storage obstacles — all of which raise the price.  Toyota may release a fuel cell (hydrogen) car by 2015, according to recent reports.

So for now Toyota is opting for one of the least expensive and most proven solutions (mild hybrids), while its mid-to-long term efforts focus on what is currently the most expensive and least proven solution of them all — hydrogen.

Tags: Alternative energy · Car Market

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Darcy Patten // Jan 29, 2010 at 3:44 am

    Interesting article. Two years ago before the market crash and the housing crisis, a friend and I were looking into partnering up and forming a housing company. Initially we would build normal houses, but I wanted to take them off the grid using a solar/hydrogen fuel cell technology.

    Fortunately we never got things rolling before the crash as I think this would have bankrupted the company. The idea and technology are sound though, I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone doing it today.

  • 2 admin // Jan 29, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    Yes, it’s now all about batteries, but not everybody is convinced these are ready. We still think your business idea might be sound