This article shares some of the findings of the new IDTechEx Research report, Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles 2015-2030: Land, Water, Air and some of what will be discussed in the forthcoming IDTechEx webinar on 9th June.
Fuel cells are a success as static "combined heat and power" units on land and in certain specialist power sources, for example in aerospace. It has always been a dream that they would be useful powering along many types of vehicles on and under water, on-road and off road and in the air. Indeed, they have already been profitably and successfully used in one-off specialist applications such as certain autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) - the large Urashima in Japan being an example. They have powered military airships. In fact, fuel cells have been trialled in everything from bicycles to manned aircraft over the last 25 years. In most such cases they have performed well.
There is a considerable choice of modes in which a traction fuel cell may operate in a vehicle. It can drive an electric motor to replace the conventional engine or it may be the range extender in a series hybrid powertrain. It usually needs a substantial battery in all applications in order to manage hotel facilities when inoperative, perform start up, accept energy harvesting such as regenerative braking and photovoltaics and manage the more severe demands for power surge to the wheels or propeller.
The fuel cell is the only range extender with zero pollution at point of use. However, the PEM types that are the best prospect in the view of nearly everyone get their hydrogen almost entirely from fossil fuels and a fuel cell car wastes up to one kilowatt of heat for every kilowatt of electricity produced using large radiators, so comments about the fuel cell being the ultimate green device are currently wide of the mark. In wrestling with the problems of managing power surges and reducing usually prohibitive cost of the fuelling stations, hydrogen and the fuel cells themselves, a spectrum of powertrains has been trialled. They vary from "fuel cell dominant" to "battery dominant" and even ones with a supercapacitor and no battery for traction power management. There is disagreement about which is likely to be commercially viable in which application.
One might have thought that the market positioning of the fuel cell would have become clear a long time ago: it was invented as long ago as 1839 after all. However, in the roll out of fuel cells in vehicles, there are amazing twists and turns - truly an intriguing and surprising ongoing marketing landscape. For example, the leading proponents have long taught that a clean and ultimately lower cost alternative to gasoline in large and heavy duty vehicles can only be the fuel cell. So fuel cells in vehicles will replace the internal combustion engine? Well maybe but the first commercial success without subsidy is some of the 8000 or so forklifts in the USA that have fuel cells, often as retrofit. These are small pure electric indoor forklifts not the large outdoor ones that are becoming hybrid. These indoor forklifts are zero emission by law and they used lead-acid batteries.
A few users of these indoor forklifts are replacing the lead-acid batteries, with their hassle of replacement in only a few years, frequent recharging and limited performance. Fuel cells replacing lead-acid batteries not internal combustion engines. Doubtless they are paying a little extra for the benefit. Green issues do not seem to be a primary aspect here because neither the electricity for the lead-acid batteries nor the hydrogen for the fuel cells comes entirely from renewable sources, indeed the hydrogen is 100% from fossil fuels. From Germany to Korea, forklift companies have long had fuel cell forklift models but they have so far been unable to sell those thousands, even with subsidies. Some say the modest success in the USA is partly because hydrogen is cheaper there.
Others think fuel cells can succeed at the lighter end first, including the British, Japanese and Taiwanese pursuing fuel-cell scooters. In dramatic contrast, others think they will become viable first at the heavy end such as buses, though both the bus companies and the fuel cell companies consistently tell IDTechEx that the cost of the fuel cells and the hydrogen refuelling remain an impediment.
With cars, Toyota has altered its earlier roadmap of doing them after buses and it has launched the Mirai as a very limited edition in 2015. Hyundai and Honda are extremely keen on fuel cells for large and heavy duty vehicles including up-market cars. They still argue that pure-electric battery versions will never have the economics or suitably short charging time to make them a viable alternative.
However, IDTechEx interviews of Chinese companies reveal that the Chinese Government is backing off of fuel cell vehicles in 2015, its subsidies and directives being concentrated on plug-in vehicles with long all-electric range and pure-electric battery vehicles. Chinese industry has taken this as meaning, for all practicable purposes, going hard for pure-electric buses and it has responded with such enthusiasm that even articulated and double decker buses are being sold in pure electric form. The largest order in the world for buses in recent times was an order for 2000 pure-electric buses in China - the BYD K9 - so fuel cell proponents are no longer able to argue that large pure electric buses never get beyond trials. That said, the subsidies are huge.
Back with cars, there seem to be some subtle changes of positioning with Daimler, previously having a robust plan to launch fuel cell buses and cars as mainstream products, talking at EVS28 in Korea recently of a robust competition between pure-electric and fuel-cell hybrid buses and cars as the only two end games for zero pollution at point of use. This reflects the new realities. Indeed, after years of disappointing sales of pure electric cars, Nissan announced at that event that pure electric on-road vehicle sales (essentially cars) leapt 54% in 2014. In another curious twist, they noted that the main demand was in Europe and the USA not in East Asia where the Nissan Leaf, the leader, originated and most of the batteries are sourced and developed.
These and other aspects will be discussed in the free webinar next week on fuel cell vehicles: www.IDTechEx.com/webinars
Also see the new IDTechEx Research report: www.IDTechEx.com/fuel