Fuel cell vehicles back in focus

Thursday 24 March 2016
Fuel cell vehicles back in focus
Cambridge, UK

Fuel cell vehicles back in focus
By Dr Peter Harrop, Chairman, IDTechEx

The primary light display in Piccadilly Circus London has recently been promoting Hyundai fuel cell vehicles. The keynote speeches at the IDTechEx “Electric Vehicles: Everything is Changing” conference in Berlin, April 27-28, will commence with Toyota and Daimler detailing their fuel cell vehicle rollouts. None of these organisations is seeking to maximise sales in the short term: their fuel cell cars and buses are either not yet available or are on very restricted issue. For example, Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell cars have driven a total of 1,000,000 miles in California but the company has delivered only around 100 FCVs since 2014.  Toyota limited the Mirai to only 700 in 2015. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that something is stirring in the field of fuel cell vehicles. The IDTechEx Research report, “Fuel Cell Vehicles 2015-2025: Land, Water, Air” takes a balanced view.

Regional preferences

Ballard, the leading independent supplier of fuel cells into trials in vehicles, told analysts IDTechEx that the main impediments to roll out are availability of hydrogen charging stations and cost. Hyundai trumpets a three minute refuelling time but it well knows that this is meaningless if it takes an hour to get to one. Governments have, in the main, been tardy in providing the finance for such charging stations as some installed stations are said to cost up to $2 million. The governments of Japan, Korea, Germany and to some extent the UK and California are keen.

Range extender positioning

The fuel cell is the only zero emission range extender albeit the most expensive to buy and to run until volume sales and value engineering bears fruit. The problem will be fixed of almost all hydrogen used being made from natural hydrocarbons and therefore not green. For example, Toyota is now looking to also power forklifts and air conditioners with hydrogen. It will be produced with renewable energy from Fukuoka, and with Kyushu University on board. Toyota hopes to adapt the technology at its Mirai fuel cell car production plant by 2020.

The IDTechEx Research report, “Range Extenders for Electric Vehicles Land, Water & Air 2015-2025” shows that the current big move is down-sizing and down-speeding of conventional piston engines as range extenders in series hybrid powertrains, the three cylinder engines in the BMW i-series cars being excellent examples. The IDTechEx Research report, “Future Technology for Hybrid and Pure Electric Cars 2015-2025” looks closely at this.

No fuel cells for 48V mild hybrids

In something of a parallel universe, there is also considerable enthusiasm for the lowest cost way of meeting the onerous 2025 and 2030 emissions regulations – the 48V mild hybrid in the form to be launched in volume in 2017. Originally, like microhybrids, mild hybrids were not electric vehicles at all but more a public relations spin. No longer. The new forms of 48V mild hybrid car, van and truck will have up to three pure electric modes – silent take-off, creeping and active coasting called sailing. Here the internal combustion engine is still in its conventional place in the powertrain: it is not a range extender and not a candidate for replacement by a fuel cell because it still copes with considerable changes in load and speed. Fuel cells will be able to manage load variations economically and reliably but that will be in small vehicles first.

Mild Hybrid 48V Vehicles 2016-2031”, the new report from IDTechEx Research, analyses the latest situation for them. “They will take a huge bite out of the conventional and non-plug-in hybrid market, even when fuel cells succeed.” says Raghu Das, CEO of IDTechEx. “Fuel cell vehicles are an alternative to plug-in vehicles in the main, not in challenging the low cost of conventional vehicles”.

Many niche markets appear

“In classic fashion, as we await further fruits of the energetic development of fuel cell cars by Honda and others, niches are opening up. There are fuel cell drones, airships, boats, microcars, military vehicles and more being developed”, reports Das.

Horizon Energy Systems is developing a fuel cell quadcopter that could stay airborne for hours at a time. Intelligent Energy has unveiled a fuel cell/battery range extender for drones. Recharges will take only two minutes using a cartridge. Intelligent Energy's Debbie Hughes reports that flight times of drones using the system will vary depending on the size of the aircraft. "You could have more fuel on a larger drone meaning a longer flight time, but we believe in the region of two hours."

Riversimple Engineering in the UK says its fuel-cell-powered two-seater Rasa with wheel hub motors will first be seen as a prototype ready for series production being tested from autumn 2016. The company is in talks with the Welsh government aimed at building a production plant with an annual production capacity of 5,000 units.

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