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NREL bets the ranch on fuel cell electric vehicles, forms a new R&D partnership with GM to cut the cost of EV fuel cells with materials.

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NREL To Fuel Cell EV Critics: La-La-La-La-La

NREL bets the ranch on fuel cell electric vehicles, forms a new R&D partnership with GM to cut the cost of EV fuel cells with materials.

People are talking about the downside of fuel cell electric vehicles, but the folks at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) aren’t listening. Just last week, NREL inked a major deal with GM to partner on a new research program aimed at reducing the cost of fuel cells for electric vehicles.

fuel cell electric vehicls

GM fuel cell electric vehicle (cropped) by Brian Fitzgerald.

NREL Meets GM On Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles

The NREL-GM fuel cell partnership covers foundational research from two angles.

One is materials research, and in that regard the high cost of platinum catalysts for fuel cells is going to get a lot of attention. Improving power density is another area of focus.

Picking apart the impact of contaminants on fuel cell performance and durability is another aspect of the materials angle that NREL and GM will collaborate on.

The other main area is streamlining the manufacturing process for commercial scale efficiencies.

The NREL Energy Systems Integration Facility

The collaborative angle is of growing interest to CleanTechnica, considering that Telsa Motors has opened up its patents for battery EV technology.

It’s also worth noting that GM and Honda have begun collaborating on fuel cells for electric vehicles along with “other stakeholders,” which we’re guessing includes the US Army.

The new partnership will enable the public’s NREL (yes, NREL is part of the Energy Department so group hug) to combine its resources with GM’s non-public knowledge base.

The partnership benefits GM because it gives the company access to NREL’s new Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF), which is already outfitted for R&D on hydrogen systems.

This won’t be the first NREL collaboration with GM, by the way. NREL notes that it launched the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles with GM back in 1993 to push gas-electric hybrids into the mainstream.

One early result was GM’s ill-fated EV1, which only hit the road for a few years in the 1990’s, but the program eventually bore fruit in GM’s Chevy Volt, which has won raves from owners and industry observers.

La-La-La-La-La

In addition to GM, Honda, and the US Army, there are some mighty big bucks behind fuel cell electric vehicles, and that’s not going to go away any time soon.

NREL provided a handy FCEV research update earlier this year, which notes that Toyota and Hyundai, as well as Honda, are all pledged to put FCEVs on sale by next year.

That means scaling up production from about 1,000 vehicles per year to 10,000, which means a huge investment in manufacturing in addition to the R&D.

As NREL sees it, the success of Toyota’s Prius is going to help leverage the market and help kickstart an infrastructure for fuel cell refueling, which could be another reason why the agency smells success up ahead.

Why Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles?

For those of you familiar with the hydrogen issue, there is currently a huge downside to fuel cell electric vehicles relating to the fossil natural gas sourcing of hydrogen. That includes water resource impacts, local public health impacts, property value degradation, greenhouse gas emissions, and even earthquakes. Yes, earthquakes.

Given all that baggage, you could start wondering why bother with FCEVs in the first place? For that matter, why bother with battery EVs when you still have fossil fuels in the grid mix?

Based on the history of BEVs, which have gone from exotic toys to mainstream vehicles in just a few years with a good, hard push from the Obama Administration, a little extra nudge from NREL for fuel cells could push the cost of FCEVs into the competitive range sooner rather than later.

In that context, note that ESIF, the NREL lab involved in the agency’s partnership with GM, has integration built into its mission, as in this kind of integration (emphasis added):

…The 182,500-ft2 building houses research to overcome challenges related to the interconnection of distributed energy systems and the integration of renewable energy technologies into the electricity grid.

In the aforementioned rundown of fuel cell R&D, NREL is pretty clear that fossil sourced hydrogen is on the way out, and an electrolysis-based method using wind and solar power is on the way in.

For the record, ESIF’s current partners include Abengoa Solar (aka the molten salt people) and the solar energy inverter specialist Solectra.

 

If solar power and other non-fossil ways of sourcing hydrogen can go mainstream and costs get pushed down to a competitive level, we’re not seeing whatever it is that could stop FCEVs from hitting the mainstream road.

All else being equal, plug-in-anwhere BEVs would still be a major convenience for many consumers, but the ultra quick-charge capability of FCEVs would be an attraction for others.

For that matter, if costs get chopped down far enough you could be looking at the EV of the future equipped with both a battery and a fuel cell.

If we missed something, leave us a thought in the comment thread.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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