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Clean Transport solar powered hydrogen FCEVs

Published on June 18th, 2014 | by Tina Casey

17

$20 Million Sez Solar Powered FCEVs Are On The Way

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June 18th, 2014 by
 
The US Department of Energy has just announced a new $20 million round of funding to bump the market for FCEVs (fuel cell electric vehicles) up to the next level. Of the ten winning projects, four deal with hydrogen fueling stations and six deal with new ways of producing hydrogen for fuel cell electric vehicles. The goal is to achieve a retail price below the $4 per gallon equivalent mark.

We’ve been having quite an interesting discussion about hydrogen and FCEVs over here at CleanTechnica, but before you (or some of you, anyways) hit the roof consider that of those six hydrogen production projects, none are aimed at producing hydrogen from fossil natural gas.

solar powered hydrogen FCEVs

Hydrogen FCEV by Joseph Brent.

The Dark Side Of FCEVs (And BEVs)

For those of you new to the topic, hydrogen for fuel cells is produced primarily from fossil natural gas. The two-stage process, called steam reforming, yield copious amounts of carbon dioxide along with hydrogen, which is a whole ‘nother can of worms.

Although FCEVs are touted as zero emission vehicles, that’s only a tailpipe claim. They are only as clean as their source, which under the current state of affairs means that FCEVs are dragging a heavy load of baggage related to hydrogen production, including methane leakage, earthquakes, water contamination, and local health impacts.

The US still relies heavily on coal and fossil natural gas for electricity generation, so that puts FCEV owners in the same fix as many battery EV owners.

However, technology is rapidly evolving to provide more BEV owners with solar power and other clean energy sources on the grid, as well as off-grid options such as personal home solar systems.

FCEV tech is running behind the curve, but it is also evolving to shed its reliance on fossil natural gas.

Currently the other options are renewable gas or liquids, and solar power. That is where the Energy Department is focusing its resources in this round of funding.

Solar Powered FCEVs

We’ve been following the development of the “artificial leaf,” which is basically a photoelectrochemical cell that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen without any fossil fuel input.

The new round of funding goes to four projects that expand on that concept.

1. Our friends over at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory get $3 million to improve the efficiency of solar powered water-splitting, based on new cutting edge semiconductor materials.

2. The University of Hawaii of Honolulu, Hawaii (Hawaii is a hotbed of fuel cell activity, btw) will gets $3 million for developing new photoelectrodes.

3. Sandia National Laboratories gets $2.2 million for a new high-efficiency solar thermochemical reactor.

4. The University of Colorado gets $2 million for a new solar-thermal reactor that involves concentrating solar power.

Real Natural Gas For Clean Hydrogen Production

The other two projects in the hydrogen production group involve using non-fossil natural gas for the feedstock.

That includes the only private company in the hydrogen production group, FuelCell Energy Inc., best known for its stationary fuel cell power plants (the company also received $3 million in Energy Department funding for a fuel cell based carbon capture system back in 2011).

With the new funding, the Connecticut-based company gets $900,000 for a hybrid hydrogen production system. The details are a bit slim right now but FuelCell already has a system in the works that can run on renewable biogas as well as fossil gas.

The system also has potential for running on liquid feedstocks as well.

That leads to the last chunk of change for the hydrogen production group, which goes to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The lab gets $2.2 million for a hydrogen production system that is aimed specifically at using renewable bio-derived feedstocks in liquid form.

More And Better Hydrogen Delivery

Aside from the sustainability issues arising from fossil natural gas, FCEVs also face some serious infrastructure-related obstacles.

 

The other four projects selected by the Energy Department address these issues as they occur at hydrogen dispensing stations:

1. The Texas-based Southwest Research Institute gets $1.8 million for a new hydrogen compression system.

2. The company Nuvera Fuel Cells Inc. of Billerica, Massachusetts gets $1.5 million for a “smart” high pressure hydrogen dispenser.

Judging from the description, we’re guessing that this particular project is aimed at ramping up one advantage that FCEVs currently have over BEVs. Fueling up an FCEV takes far less time than charging a battery, even with quick-charging.

3. Oak Ridge National Laboratory gets $2 million for lowering the cost of  hydrogen storage, with a steel concrete composite.

4. The Virginia company Wiretough Cylinders gets $2 million for another type of high pressure hydrogen storage vessel that incorporates a steel wire wrapping, which is also expected to result in lower costs.

As for the long term picture, according to the Energy Department the cost of manufacturing fuel cells for EVs has dropped by more than 80 percent since 2002 and more than 35 percent just since 2008, while performance in terms of durability has doubled.

If you have any ideas about whether or not this will all lead to sustainable, affordable FCEVs for the mass market, feel free to leave a comment in the thread.

Meanwhile, much of that aforementioned progress has come about thanks to taxpayers, through funding from the Energy Department and other federal agencies, so let’s all go ahead and pat ourselves on the back.

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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  • murrayscott66

    All the angst about gas-sourced hydrogen is based on the assumption that the energy for reforming conversion is from burning more gas to CO2. It is far simpler chemistry however to get hydrogen from hydrocarbons by stripping out the carbon through pyrolysis. Make solar thermal the heat source for pyrolysis and you have an augmented solar energy storage system and a non-polluting by-product of solid carbon. Use a bit more cleverness with catalysts and take your solid carbon as fibres or nanotubes instead of soot.

    We all focus on non-polluting ENERGY but the other half of the 21st century dilemma is emission-free MATERIALS, particularly alternatives for steel, aluminium and concrete. Carbon composites offer a technical but currently uneconomic alternative that effectively sequester carbon in the fabric of our machines and structures.

    OK, gas is still a non-renewable resource but doesn’t that oblige us to save it for the most intractable energy and material problems. I think solar pyrolysis is a promising path towards that goal.

  • Benjamin Nead

    Well, this news item just in: even the Toyota “fuel cells are the only way to go” Corporation isn’t getting out of the battery business just yet . . .

    http://chargedevs.com/newswire/toyota-researchers-develop-all-solid-state-li-ion-batteries/

    When – not if – solid electrolyte (ie: solid state) batteries get here, so many of the current deficits associated with EVs (short range, need of heavy/expensive thermal management system for protecting the cells) will quickly go away. This will certainly happen long before clean electrolysis hydrogen becomes efficient enough to be truly cost effective.

  • anderlan

    Here’s a test. Ask an FCV advocate and ask an EV advocate each if he/she supports a simple penalty fee on carbon pollution. If they answer no, their motives for advocacy are not associated with scientific enlightenment and the humane, non-misanthropic response to it.

    (Because a simple, generically imposed burden on the damaging externality is the most laissez-faire way to deal with it. Some people don’t believe in negative externalities, full stop; we can dismiss these iron-skulled ideological fantasists from rational discussion, but you might be surprised to realize there are a lot of them walking among us. You can find these people with another test: Ask a denier to vocalize support for a few of the pollution penalties imposed in the last 100 years–they cannot do this, because as I said they do not believe in communal harm by individuals a.k.a. negative externalities. The science of broad environmental harm from fossil carbon emissions are not a specific problem for these folks; rather the science behind broad environmental harm from anything is a general problem for them. But they’d never come out and say it unless you patiently (almost lovingly) interrogate it out of them. But I digress.)

    You can do the same thing with nuclear proponents.

    Anyway, my point was to say, we should just start asking FCEV folks if they can demonstrate support for a carbon fee. If they can’t, or can’t verifiably and honestly, then that is alone demonstration of the failings of FC sustainability because supporters of it do not believe it is economically viable under a straight and generic carbon price.

    H2 is only economically made from CH4, and it introduces unconscionable decreases in efficiency into almost every energy system micromanagers would shoehorn it into.

  • Benjamin Nead

    Interesting, Tina, that when you chose to link to an earlier “interesting” discussion on CleanTechnica about hydrogen, that you chose not to link to this more recent one . . .

    http://cleantechnica.com/2014/06/04/hydrogen-fuel-cell-vehicles-about-not-clean/

    . . . which actually is an interesting, detailed article that exposes hydrogen as the Trojan Horse it really is.

    Yes, what is discussed in this current article concerns so-called clean hydrogen – water PV electrolysis, as opposed to steam methane reformation – but the electrolysis method is so vastly less efficient in utilizing PV technology (2 to 3 times the amount of PV panels needed to get the same energy out, compared to tying those same PV panels to the grid,) it’s little more than an expensive Rube Goldberg clean energy demonstration. Hydrogen, it is said, is the power source of the future . . . and will always remain so.

    Also . . . even with clean hydrogen, we return to a liquid/gaseous substance to run our cars that is separate from how we power our houses. Where, with BEVs, we finally start to see a path where we can tie those sources together. So, hydrogen, basically kills off the V2G idea . . .

    http://www.acpropulsion.com/products-v2g.html

    And, yes, since clean hydrogen extraction from water is far less efficient than the dirty methods tied to natural gas, it will only be used as a pie-in-the-sky greenwashing demonstration for mass consumption and for those who won’t bother to take the time to examine the dark underbelly of what’s really going on. This commercial announcement will be brought to you by the usual suspects: BP, Exxon, Shell, etc. It not by coincidence that Elon Musk refers to fuel cells as “fool” cells.

  • JamesWimberley

    “FuelCell already has a system in the works that can run on renewable biogas as well as fossil gas.” If you’ve got renewable methane, you can run an existing gas turbine or ICE off it now. So why bother with the expensive and dangerous hydrogen conversion? Hydrogen fuel cells are a solution looking for a problem.

    • eveee

      Right. Until the FCEV efficiency conundrum is ironed out, its a waste to convert natgas to hydrogen. The same effect, but more hardware cost and steps make it uncompetitive. Its possible breakthroughs could happen in hydrogen, but we must keep an eye on the practicality of economics and efficiencies. When so much energy is lost in each conversion step…. A major concern is the heat lost in hydrolysis. Its hard to get efficiency, when energy is lost due to low temperature heat at some step. We must also watch out for steps that create CO2, as the natgas to hydrogen conversion does. No sense in winding up with a low carbon final step, if the intermediate steps produce more carbon emissions. The chief problem with FCEV is the multitude of energy conversion steps with efficiency losses and costly hardware. Its hard to see what niche hydrogen storage fits that cannot be better served by other existing storage solutions. On primary figures of merit, it loses out, cost/kwhr, conversion efficiency.

  • Peter Thomas

    Note:

    “Once commercially available, the production cost of the hydrogen from DFC plants is expected to be competitively priced within a range of $5 to $7 per kilogram or even lower with increased production volumes.”

    This equals a fill up of about 4(kg) x $7 per(kg) about $28 dollars to fill up the FCV to travel approx. 300 miles (cleanly) vs. what we pay now to fill up!

    Impressive… Just saw the Hyundai advertisement for their Fuel Cell “Tuscon”…
    Hyundai is giving away the fuel for free???

    Talk about creating good jobs and helping the environment??? America has a bright future folks!!!

    • Bob_Wallace

      At this point in time FCEVs are not helping the environment. At least to any great extent.

      The H2 used will come from natural gas. More carbon extracted from below the Earth’s surface and pumped into our atmosphere.

      Bringing a lot of H2 FCEVs on market right now will only speed the time at which we will have burned through the available NG (not that many years away). At that point FCEVs will be at least 2x more expensive to drive than EVs. And we’ll be stuck with a hotter planet.

      • Brooks Bridges

        You are confusing me. You say “The H2 used will come from natural gas.” The article very clearly states they are talking about NOT doing this. From the beginning of the article: “but before you (or some of you, anyways) hit the roof consider that of those six hydrogen production projects, none are aimed at producing hydrogen from fossil natural gas.”
        I myself think there are other problems with FCEV’s that must be addressed. That’s the discussion I’d like to see.

        • Bob_Wallace

          H2 from methane/natural gas is considerably cheaper than methane made from water.

          People aren’t going to purchase more expensive H20 H2 when they can fill up with much cheaper CH4 H2. There won’t be any significant use of H2O H2 until we use up so much natural gas that the price rises very significantly.

          Basically all the stuff about producing clean H2 is most likely hype at this point. FVECs would just shift us from one carbon based fuel to another. We’d do little, if anything, to help our climate change problem.

          We’ll build demonstration “clean” H2 plants, but people won’t fill up there unless the product is sold at a large loss. People will pick the cheaper NG H2.

          • Brooks Bridges

            This is where fuel cell cars have always lost me: Why would you ever make H2 from methane to then power a car via fuel cells? Why not just burn the methane directly in an IC engine to power the car? Unless there is some “magic” to fuel cells I’m unaware of.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I think a few car companies didn’t believe that EVs would ever work and invested a lot of money into fuel cell vehicles. Now that Tesla and Nissan are making EVs a reality I suspect they are scrambling to try to gain some foothold before they are washed away.

    • Benjamin Nead

      Hmmm . . . $28 for a tank of hydrogen to run a FCV for 300 miles? That works out to about 9.3 cents per mile, or about what it costs to run today’s conventional (non-plug-in) hybrids on gasoline.

      Contrast this to a BEV, which today easily achieves 2 cents per mile . . .

      http://avt.inel.gov/pdf/fsev/costs.pdf

  • Peter Thomas

    Nice Article! This is good news… Looking forward to one day owning a FCV!!! I hope…

    Wanted to share some impressive links about Fuel Cell Technology…

    Video (Someone took down the video but the article still there) below of what is happening in California at municipal wastewater treatment plants using fuel cell technology to produce 3 value streams of electricity, hydrogen and heat all from a human waste! This is pretty impressive in my opinion for hydro-refueling infrastructure.

    “New fuel cell sewage gas station in Orange County, CA may be world’s first”

    http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news/local/orange_county&id=8310315

    “It is here today and it is deployable today,” said Tom Mutchler of Air Products and Chemicals Inc., a sponsor and developer of the project.

    This DFC-H2 installation can generate about 135 kilograms of hydrogen per day which generally meets the daily requirements of many industrial hydrogen users. Once commercially available, the production cost of the hydrogen from DFC plants is expected to be competitively priced within a range of $5 to $7 per kilogram or even lower with increased production volumes. On-site hydrogen generation from DFC plants avoids the costs and pollutants associated with transportation while enhancing the reliability of supply.

    2.8MW fuel cell using biogas now operating; Largest PPA of its kind in North America

    http://www.fuelcelltoday.com/news-events/news-archive/2012/october/28-mw-fuel-cell-using-biogas-now-operating-largest-ppa-of-its-kind-in-north-america

    Microsoft Backs Away From Grid

    http://blogs.wsj.com/cio/2012/11/20/microsoft-backs-away-slowly-from-the-grid/

    Hyundai “Tuscon” Fuel Cell Vehicle

    $499 per month w/ Free Fuel & Free Maintenance from Hyundai!!! (pure water for exhaust)

    https://www.hyundaiusa.com/tucsonfuelcell/

    Toyota joins California Hydrogen Push in Station Funding – Bloomberg

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-05-01/california-awards-46-6-million-for-hydrogen-car-stations.html

  • http://www.michaeljberndtson.com/ Michael Berndtson

    OK, I’ll admit this is awesome. With that said, we need to read that billions are invested in wind and solar and daughter products, i.e. hydrogen generated from solar and water, rather than methane from shale gas. Not millions. Millions is a rounding error for fossil fuel capital spending and military hardware. My fear is hydrogen is a red herring or a MacGuffin (a sneaky plot twist thrown in to fool the audience). Based simply on fossil fuel spending alone, oil and gas wants to use methane for anything and everything. They can’t burn it fast enough. A frankly, they would love billions from the government to help out with research and develop and commercialization, while of course railing against big government and regulations.

    As an example of spending, let’s look at my state. The home of Barack Obama and democrats that never opened a science book. Illinois is becoming the tar sands diluted bitumen, shale oil and gas, and old fashion conventional oil and gas junction. Here’s a figure I prepared using EIA state by state energy mapping (I think I did the figure embedding right this time. If it doesn’t show up here’s the link:

    http://michaeljberndtson.com/blog/2014/6/16/illinois-crude-oil-pipelines

  • Kompani

    Very interesting and nice to see a reasonable amount of $$ investment into the R&D for FCEV’s and great to see an article acknowledge the potential environmental problems. Most articles I have read only look at the pollution as far as the tail pipe. I’m a little new to FCEV technology so this has been a great starter.

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