Hydrogen+Fuel Cells 2011 Conference. Click image to enlarge
Article and photos by Gerry Frechette
For several years now, the world’s hydrogen fuel cell industry, which includes automotive manufacturers, has converged on Vancouver for conferences to explore the latest state of the technology and the prospects for actual hydrogen fuel cell cars being available for sale. The latest such gathering was the Hydrogen+Fuel Cells 2011 Conference in May.
As always, there have been significant advances in the technology of fuel cells. Daimler pointed out that, in the past five years, its compact fuel cell car had achieved significant improvements in range, durability, power and top speed, with concurrent reductions in fuel consumption and size. Production costs have been reduced, too. However, it is an accepted fact in the business that a fuel cell unit big enough to power a vehicle is still a costly proposition compared to an internal combustion engine powered by carbon fuel. Fuel cell production has not yet reached the stage of benefiting from economies of scale.
The other stumbling block is the one always mentioned at these confabs, and that is the virtual non-existence of any hydrogen filling infrastructure beyond the much-ballyhooed “hydrogen highway” on the West Coast. With the oil companies currently showing little interest in getting into the hydrogen business, and the industrial suppliers of the gas not wishing to diversify much beyond their present distribution model, it is left to governments and new business entities to develop infrastructure, if only on a relatively small introductory scale.
BC Transit hydrogen fuel-cell bus (top); Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL. Click image to enlarge
Such is the case with a new initiative announced at the Conference, with Hydrogen Technology & Energy Corporation (HTEC) and Air Liquide Corporation announcing a partnership to develop a small-scale hydrogen liquefaction plant in B.C., to provide a local supply of hydrogen for initial fuel cell vehicle deployments, in particular the fleet of 20 fuel cell buses currently in service at Whistler, the fuel for which is currently trucked in from Quebec. This hydrogen gas that is to be liquefied is a by-product of electrochemical plants in North Vancouver, and the 1,200 kg/day output, enough to fuel a fleet of over 1,500 fuel cell cars, will be generated from no more than just three per cent of that currently wasted gas. So, the pure hydrogen gas available is plentiful and would be more than enough for the initial few years of FCEVs in the Vancouver area, if its distribution can be made cost effective for the suppliers, and convenient for the vehicle owners.
Back to the Conference, and the session of most importance and interest to motorists was entitled “The View From the Automakers.” On hand were senior fuel cell engineers from Daimler AG, General Motors, Toyota Motor Company, and Hyundai Motor Group, and as expected, their presentations gave new insights into the future for fuel cells on our roads.
Daimler began by looking back at its fuel cell development programs, which began some 20 years ago, and described its current B-Class F-CELL car, of which there are some 200 in testing at the moment, and one of which was made available for journalists to drive. We can report that owners of this car would be very pleased with its performance, as it demands no compromises in normal operation. Daimler says that production costs will see significant reduction in the near future, and the goal is a total cost of ownership to equal that of a current hybrid car. The concluding message was that it is essential to realize a synchronized commercialization of FCVs and build-up of hydrogen infrastructure.