Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Techy Tuesday - Will Fuel Cell Cars Ever Be Practical?

Design News editor Charles Murray opined this week that for fuel cell vehicles to be successful, cost-cutting will be critical.  While I know that there's such a thing as a cost curve, and that the lower the cost of any new technology, the more adopters there will be, I'm not convinced that's a good answer.  I think the situation is more complex than that.  Murray writes:
Industry analysts who’ve studied the new breed of cars from Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai say that fuel cell stacks, even those built in-house by automakers, are still exorbitantly expensive. Outside suppliers are selling stacks for prices ranging from $90,000 to $150,000, and automakers’ in-house stacks are estimated to cost between $50,000 and $100,000, says Lux Research. For automakers, the bottom line on fuel cell cars is likely to be written in red ink until those costs go down. 
Then goes on to the real message, the real arrow through the heart of anyone with half a brain:
"The price of the cars can only be reasonable with a lot of government support,” Christopher Robinson, an energy storage analyst at Lux Research, told Design News. “And even then, the automakers are probably taking losses on every car they sell right now.”
And there you have it.  The market will never go for the costs of a fuel cell vehicle, only with the government buying some - or most - of the car will those cars ever sell in any kind of number.  The fed.gov is using your money and mine to do this right now.  Why?  I think the theory is that they'll boot the fuel cell industry volumes and get cells to a low enough cost that fuel cell car sales will take off on their own.  Did you get a voice in that decision?  I sure didn't.  Besides, look how well they did that with Solyndra and the other green companies they spent our money on.  Commenter patb2009 put it this way:
"Fuel Cell Cars $100K per, $2 Million dollar fueling station and a $40 fillup that takes you 120 miles, plus all the systems of an electric car anyways.

If the Feds throw $50K into each FCV they might sell for under $40K..."
But let's pretend that someone develops an unobtanium fuel cell, and they come closer to conventional car prices.  FC cars become attractive even without you buying them for people you don't even know.  Is the world likely to shift over to them?  That's when you need to consider the infrastructure costs and the basic technology itself.  Commenter Trenth has lots of data on that:
Hydrogen production is too inefficient, though I keep hearing rumors of better systems. Hydrogen storage is expensive, heavy and dangerous.  It is the super high pressure storage danger that dominates my negative view of hydrogen power.

The math for a hydrogen air explosion in the 11 lb tanks Toyota is talking about. Assume that about half the hydrogen is replaced with air, that is a nice explosive mixture at 10,000 psi! That's an energy of around 300 MJ! that's the equivalent of about 300 sticks of dynamite! nearly 80 lbs of TNT. Tanks over 11,000 MJ are being planned for trucks.
I'm pretty sure 10k psi leaks would cut through flesh like butter too. Wait till those hydrogen filling stations spring a leak on someone. It will fly around like a fire hose. Even shop air at 80psi has killed people by injecting gas into the blood stream.
10,000 PSI hydrogen will never be safe. Even the experts have explosions and deaths.
I don't think it's going to work out, regardless of the cost of the car.  There are too many fundamental obstacles. 
Honda Clarity, fuel cell vehicle.  I'm not suggesting that nobody works on these things, that's how big breakthroughs happen, I'm just suggesting the odds for that aren't very good and that those R&D projects should not get funded out of tax money.


  1. Hmmmmm. "practical". Hmmmmmm! It all depends on what the meaning if 'is' is. It will most likely always cost more in actual energy expended to manufacture and drive and recycle them BUT with enough razzle dazzle and federal state and other subsidies I think...... Hmmmmmm. Nope. It still won't be practical but our government and MSM will try to convince us it is.

  2. You are being so negative! I certainly hope that there is hope for fuel cell vehicles in the future - for the sake of the planet and for the betterment of the fuel economy of our vehicles at home!

    1. I don't think I'm being negative - I think I'm being realistic. Right now, there are large technical obstacles and the economics just aren't there.

      That may change some day, but right now people who buy a fuel cell car are having their neighbors pay for half to 2/3 of it. We can have the debate if it's right for the government to take our tax money and subsidize that much of the cost of every fuel cell car to - possibly - lower the cost of fuel cells, but we haven't had that debate. They just do it.