Is hydrogen transportation gaining momentum?

A recent spate of news in the US, EU, and Japan about commitments to expand hydrogen infrastructure and provide more funding for fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) research and development has renewed optimism for hydrogen transportation.

In September, the six partners involved in the H2 mobility initiative in Germany (Air Liquide, Daimler, Linde, OMV, Shell and Total) agreed to expand the hydrogen infrastructure from the current 15 hydrogen filling stations to 100 filling stations by 2017 and to 400 filling stations by 2023. The infrastructure expansion project will cost $474 million and will provide at least 10 filling stations for each metropolitan area in Germany by 2023. In addition to Germany, H2 mobility initiatives have started in other European countries – the UK, France, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Portugal.

Equally significant is the announcement of the second phase of Europe’s ‘Fuel Cells and Hydrogen (FCH) Joint Technology Initiative’ (JTI), a public-private partnership between the European Commission and EU industry. This initiative will invest $1.8 billion in the next 10 years to develop market-ready fuel cell and hydrogen technologies. The initiative aims to reduce fuel cell costs by 90%, increase fuel cell efficiency by 10%, and demonstrate the feasibility of large-scale renewable hydrogen production.

On the other side of the Atlantic, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a new hydrogen plan into law in September 2013 that will see 100 new fueling stations constructed in California by 2024. At the same time, the California Energy Commission has approved $18.7 million in grants to expand hydrogen infrastructure in California. The grants will go towards testing and upgrading existing fueling stations and the installation of new fueling stations. Currently California has 9 public fueling stations and about a dozen more are being developed. At the federal level in the U.S., there is a private-public partnership called H2USA led by US Department of Energy (DOE) to support hydrogen infrastructure in the USA. The partnership includes members from car manufacturers, fuel associations and transportation associations. Also, just a few weeks ago, eight states in the US signed a memorandum of understanding to deploy 3.3 million zero emission vehicles, including FCVs, by 2025.

In Japan meanwhile, Air Liquide Japan and Toyota Susho Corporation have formed a joint venture to set up 100 hydrogen filling stations by 2015. Earlier in 2013, it was announced that JX Nippon Oil & Energy Corp., a major fuel supplier, would install 40 filling stations by 2015. In addition, there are reports that the Japanese government will provide subsidies for constructing hydrogen filling stations. Japan’s neighbor, South Korea, is currently in the second phase of its hydrogen and fuel cell R&D program [.pdf], and already had 13 fueling stations in 2012. Its hydrogen infrastructure roadmap aims to increase the number of hydrogen fueling stations to 168 by 2020.

All of this is welcome news for hydrogen fuel cells at a time when a number of manufacturers including Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes have announced plans to produce fuel cell vehicles starting in 2014-17, aiming for sales of over a thousand vehicles per year each. There has been a concern that there will not be sufficient infrastructure to support the market for the first FCVs, and this infrastructure problem has been often cited as one of the major bottlenecks in the transition to the hydrogen economy. These infrastructure projects will go a great way toward answering that concern.

There are still challenges on the vehicle technology side; fuel cell costs; fuel cell durability; and onboard hydrogen storage capacity remain major concerns. Also, hydrogen fuel is not currently cheap with the delivered costs of hydrogen produced from natural gas reforming in the range of $7.7-$10.3 per gasoline gallon equivalent (the amount of hydrogen with the same energy content as a gallon of gasoline, sometimes abbreviated as gge), according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). According to ITM Power, the projected cost of hydrogen from electrolysis in Europe is estimated at $6.44 per gge. DOE has set the goal of producing hydrogen at a delivered and dispensed cost of $2-$4 per gge. When adjusted for the higher efficiency of FCVs, this would be equivalent to $0.9-$1.7 per gge, in which case because of the higher efficiency of fuel cells the fuel cost per mile travelled would be about 2-4 times below the current US regular gasoline price of about $3.30 per gallon.

Still, all of the recent trends are promising. According to DOE, projected fuel cell costs for high volume production have come down dramatically from $275/kW in 2002 to $47/kW in 2012. The DOE goal is to reduce the fuel cell cost to $30/kW. Given continued R&D efforts, we can achieve this cost target in the future, if not exceeded. For example, the number of patents issued on fuel cells has been steadily increasing, from about 350 patents in 2002 to about 1000 patents in 2012.

On the durability side, on average the current generation of fuel cells last for about 2,500 hours (equivalent to 62,500 miles). While this is a big improvement from years ago, there is still a way to go to achieve the desired durability of about 5,000 hours or more.

As to storage, currently, the most common method is compressed hydrogen. To enhance hydrogen storage capacity, research on alternative technologies such as chemical storage in the form of metal hydride, ammonia, ionic liquid, formic acid, carbon nanotubes and glass microspheres has been ongoing. Still, with future improvements in fuel cell efficiency and reductions in vehicle weight, rolling resistance and aerodynamic drag, it is anticipated that compressed hydrogen storage would provide adequate vehicle range.

A limited number of FCVs have already been operating in countries including Japan, Germany and USA for a number of years. This has given us valuable experience in generating, storing, and dispensing hydrogen, as well as operating FCVs. In partnership with industry, the DOE has already completed the world’s largest FCV and hydrogen demonstration project, involving more than 180 FCVs and 25 hydrogen filling stations. Under this project, vehicles have completed 500,000 trips logging 3.6 million miles. The observed range of FCVs in this demonstration project was 196-254 miles.

With zero tailpipe carbon dioxide emissions, FCVs can play a major role in the decarbonization of the transport sector, especially if hydrogen is produced from renewable sources such as wind, solar and biomass. As pointed out above there are technological and infrastructural challenges, but it is evident is that the potential upside rewards of FCVs make overcoming these worthwhile. For example, a recent ICCT study shows that the potential benefits from a transition to electric vehicle drive vehicles including FCVs exceed the expected cost by an order of magnitude. This conclusion was derived using the Light Duty Alternative Vehicle and Energy Transition Model developed by the ICCT in collaboration with researchers from ORNL and the University of Tennessee.

With targeted policies, comprehensive public and private partnerships, and continued research and development efforts, we can overcome these barriers. Concerted efforts from all quarters are needed if FCVs are to become mainstream by 2030. Any delay in ramping up our efforts will mean pushing back the development of FCV markets and hydrogen economy even further into the future; particularly when large-scale GHG reductions in the near-term are necessary to avoid irreversible damage from climate change.