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The coming hydrogen fuel cell evolution

Hydrogen cars are here. Now how long until you can actually fuel one near you?

Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

Hydrogen is not only the most common element in the universe but also the most common element here on Earth. Yet the limited availability of pure hydrogen in gaseous form has held back hydrogen fuel cells for decades.

Out in the cosmos, stars are mostly made of hydrogen. Here at home, our hydrogen is mostly bonded with oxygen to make water. To get hydrogen to use in a fuel cell to make electricity, you have to either break down a water molecule or break down a complex hydrocarbon like natural gas. When you break the natural gas molecule, you get hydrogen — but you also get carbon dioxide, which leads to global warming. Plus, you’re using a non-renewable resource. That leaves water, which is a great source except that you have to put more energy into breaking the molecule than you’ll get back out when you use the hydrogen to generate electricity.

“… What we’ve shown so far is if you can open up a hydrogen station, automakers can sell a car.”

The solution that makes hydrogen a workable fuel is this: using renewable energy to create enough excess electricity that you can break down the water and store that energy in the form of hydrogen. It’s not as elegant as it could be, but it’s pretty good if you consider what had to happen to store solar energy in the form of oil, coal, and natural gas.

That’s one side of the hydrogen conundrum. The other issues are building cars that will run on hydrogen and creating a big enough infrastructure to deliver hydrogen to those cars where and when they need it. To learn more about that, we went to San Francisco to attend SEMICON West, and we sat down with the California Fuel Cell Partnership to find out where things are today and what’s planned for the near future.

It’s About Infrastructure

Finding the funding for any infrastructure project is always a challenge. If a state funds a project to build hydrogen stations and the network to refill them, as well as hydrogen-generation facilities, that money generally comes from other projects, which has slowed the adoption rate. But now several states and national governments are deciding that hydrogen will have a place in their plans.

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“I think that really the big issue is getting the infrastructure built because what we’ve shown so far is if you can open up a hydrogen station, automakers can sell a car,” said Keith Malone, legislative outreach and communications officer for the California Fuel Cell Partnership.

Malone’s organization works with automakers and government policy makers to argue the case for hydrogen infrastructure, and they’re getting results not only in California, but around the world.

By placing hydrogen stations strategically, a few stations can effectively serve a large community of hydrogen cars.

“In the Northeast, 12 [hydrogen] stations are being built in the New York to Boston corridor,” Malone revealed. “It’s a private effort, but different regions require different approaches. In California, we had legislation back in 2013 that established the first milestone, which was 100 strategically located stations and the funding to do it. Right now, we’re at 35 stations that are open and operational. We have more than 30 stations in development. This fall we’ll have another funding cycle that will most likely get us above and beyond 100 stations.”

Right now, California has the most hydrogen stations of any state in America, but it’s still just a start.

Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

“To put this all in perspective in terms of the number of stations that are needed, right now in California, we have 8,000 gas stations,” Malone told us. “But only about 1,800 of them are providing 50% of the fuel to the consumers. The governor just said we want to get 200 hydrogen stations by 2025. Then our membership is coming out with a road map in a couple of weeks to get to 1,000 stations by 2030.”

The thinking is that by placing hydrogen stations strategically, a few stations can effectively serve a large community of hydrogen cars.

Right now, Germany and Japan actually have more hydrogen stations than we do. But we have more cars on the road.

“1,000 stations and a million cars,” Malone said. “It’s a stretch goal, but that’s the vision we have. It’s not just about passenger vehicles. You also need the medium duty/heavy duty vehicle category because with those larger vehicles and those fleets, they’re also driving volume on the hydrogen side. So, you start to see the per-unit costs go down.”

Creating demand for large amounts of hydrogen is key to making it economical, and support is coming from around the world.

“When I first started six years ago, we were talking about California, Germany, Japan, and South Korea,” Malone recalled. “In the last year, we’ve added China to the list because they will drive volume. Right now, Germany and Japan actually have more hydrogen stations than we do. But we have more cars on the road. As of July 1st, we have over 5,000 hydrogen vehicles on the road in California.”

It’s Also About Storing Energy

The advantage of fueling a car with hydrogen is that automakers can get to the magical 300-mile range between fill-ups and refilling a hydrogen fuel cell car takes no longer than getting gasoline. Like gasoline, the energy to power the car is stored in the hydrogen, as opposed to being stored entirely in a battery.

How a Hydrogen Fuel Cell Works

“The interesting thing is in California we’re kind of leading with fuel cell cars and hydrogen infrastructure,” Malone explained, “and I keep joking that California’s going to launch the model, but Texas will prove it.”

Can hydrogen fuel cell vehicles really sell in the Texas oil country?

“I think Texas will come to fuel cell vehicles through a different route because they have so much wind power, which means they have excess,” Malone pointed out. “I’m pretty sure they have excess capacity and they don’t know what to do with it. But one of the things you can do is split water to make hydrogen. In Texas, you can store that hydrogen in underground salt caverns. We’re not talking about kilowatts or gigawatts of power; we’re talking upwards of terawatts of power that can be stored. Hydrogen becomes the battery in many ways.”

“Hydrogen can become a grid balancer.”

When large amounts of energy are storable and accessible when needed, new applications are possible.

“Hydrogen can become a grid balancer,” Malone said. Grid balancers help energy distribution systems match generation to demand. Because fuel cells ramp up and down just about instantly, with stored hydrogen utilities can match output to demand on a moment-to-moment basis.

“If you look at the kind of stationary fuel cell market, it’s been kind of under the radar,” Malone said, “but it’s been very active. Telecoms are using fuel cells as backup generators because the tanks can hold the hydrogen for quite a long time. When superstorm Sandy happened on the east coast, there were about 80 fuel cell backup generators operating up and down the east coast. One of them went down, that’s it. It went down because it was under water for about four hours, and then it went back online.”

A West Coast Corridor

As California builds out its hydrogen infrastructure, the next step is to link the major west coast cities with available hydrogen stations to enable both passenger vehicles and heavy truck traffic to move up and down the coast conveniently.

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“They just opened their first state hydrogen station in Canada,” Malone told Digital Trends. “British Columbia funded a study and asked a group of companies to look at taking their renewable grid and making renewable hydrogen to export to Japan and California. Then you’ve got California and really Oregon, Washington need to come together because you can’t do one without the other.”

In the last decade, California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia committed to and built a network of electric vehicle charging stations known as the West Coast Electric Highway. This network allows EVs to travel the entire west coast from the Mexican border into Canada. A hydrogen network would likely look much the same.

The Next Steps

As of today, there are two fuel cell vehicles on sale in California. Both the Honda Clarity and the Toyota Mirai are enjoying sales success in areas where hydrogen infrastructure exists. Hyundai had a fuel cell Tucson SUV in 2017 and plans to return with the Nexo crossover in 2019.

“Tokyo is spending over $300 million to showcase this technology [at the 2020 Olympic Games].”

BMW is coming to market,” Malone said. “In about 2019, you have Mercedes-Benz with its plug-in fuel cell car. Audi is coming to market with a vehicle. It talked about a serious production run. Recently, you had Honda and GM announce a jointly owned subsidiary to build fuel cells in Michigan or Ohio. If you look at that announcement as I recall it, GM also talked about the fact that this is a power unit and reserved the right to use it for non-vehicular purposes or non-transportation purposes.”

One planned showcase for hydrogen power is the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

“Tokyo is spending over $300 million to showcase this technology,” Malone said. “We’re talking thousands of vehicles and hydrogen stations funded by Honda, Toyota, and Nissan. You will also have 100 buses and they’re going to power the athletes’ village using stationary fuel cells and hydrogen.”

Malone has some advice for people interested in the technology but not residing in areas with an active hydrogen infrastructure plan.

“I’m going to get a little political here,” he warned. “For those who want to see fuel cell vehicles in their state, you have to call your legislators and you have to start talking to them. If they don’t have the information, then connect me with them and I will talk with those legislators and their staff.”

It’s likely to be much more difficult than simply placing a phone call, but it’s a start.

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Jeff Zurschmeide
Jeff Zurschmeide is a freelance writer from Portland, Oregon. Jeff covers new cars, motor sports, and technical topics for a…
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