Cars fuel cell electric vehicls

Published on June 30th, 2014 | by Tina Casey


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

June 30th, 2014 by  

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.


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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About the Author

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+.

  • Rick Kargaard

    there are always niche markets for any technology. The only question is, will they be large enough to warrant production.

  • Doug

    What will stop FCEVs dead in their tracks is the $1Trillion investment in infrastructure required to enable mass production. Without seriously stupid amounts of government funding, and subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, FCEVs won’t have anywhere to fill up. The H2 stations are $2M/unit and transporting H2 doubles the cost. It’s just not viable.

    • Steve Grinwis

      And for comparison: a DC quickcharger is worth $30k, and the price is falling. Fcv’s can’t compete, on any level.

  • Doug

    It would be outstanding if FCEVs (powered by renewable energy) could compete with BEVs. Doubtful, but it would be good.

  • AC Tesla

    I don’t see Fuel Cells using Hydrogen but instead filling the vehicle up with Natural Gas directly. I know there has been work on that. Hydrogen is just too light an element. Storing and transporting Hydrogen just isn’t practical and given that right now the only way is to compress it at at huge cost…I don’t see it.

    • Doug

      That’s a good point. Why not just use the natural gas directly rather than going through the chemical loss of converting it to H2? It’s twice as efficient to skip the conversion

  • Jim Seko

    If methane leakage is added to the greenhouse gas calculation, hydrogen from natural gas makes fuel cell vehicles dirtier than conventional gasoline or diesel vehicles. Hydrogen from electrolysis using clean energy sources also has major problems.

  • The key green point, as I understand it, is that nothing is going to compete financially with getting hydrogen from natural gas. There is just a gigantic financial advantage to pulling hydrogen from natural gas, and all the renewable methods can’t compete and likely never will. (This is not the same as renewables competing on the grid.) Even a Toyota Prius is cleaner than a HFCV.

    The other point is that HFCVs best theoretical performance doesn’t compete with the current performance of BEVs. So… there’s no way they will ever compete.

    • Doug

      While it may be possible for renewable H2 to compete with fossil fuel generated H2, the odds are stacked against FCEVs competing with BEV in terms of efficiency – by upwards of a factor of two

  • Marty

    GM has to push the fuel-cell vehicles, after a Ballard debacle 10 years ago, as it senses new grants (will the government ever learn ?) and to finally get away from putting ignition switches on vehicles. The latter I can concur with.

  • JamesWimberley

    The Cossacks work for the Czar. The NREL is simply carrying out Obama’s and therefore Moniz’s energy policy which is pro natural gas as a “bridge” fuel. There is is a lot of political calculation in this: the idea seems to be to take down coal first as the weakest link. They may be thinking that the gas bubble will pop by itself.

    Tina: “a little extra nudge from NREL for fuel cells could push the cost of FCEVs into the competitive range sooner rather than later.” That’s not very likely. The whole “nudge” theory (link) of Cass Sunstein et al is based on manipulating the choices of ill-informed individuals (us) through clever framing. This doesn’t work when dealing with hardboiled business executives and engineers focusing hard on the bottom line.

    A big reduction in the cost of anything depends less on lab technology than on massive deployment to start moving down the learning curve. What we are seeing with FCEVs is concept-car tinkering by manufacturers, hedging their bets so as to be prepared to jump in if somebody else bets big and it looks as if it’s paying off. In EVs, the big bets are being made as we speak. Musk and Ghosn and BYD are not tinkering but investing hundreds of millions in large-scale production, not to mention sales, service and recharging networks. Every year that passes without a major manufacturer announcing a real production FCEV makes their mass deployment less likely.

    • Ghosn said it really well when he emphasized that no one is putting out a mass-market FCEV. They are putting out a few here and there for show. They are not trying to sell them (and not able to sell them) like Nissan/Renault is sellings EVS, like Tesla is selling EVs, like BMW is selling EVs, like Mitsubishi is selling EVs.

      It’s like equating a $5 bet to a $500,000 bet. Yes, they are both bets, but they mean very different things. One is just to say, “Yeah, I play on the stock market.”

    • Bob_Wallace

      “They may be thinking that the gas bubble will pop by itself.”

      That’s my impression of what will happen. The gas industry has glossed over the rapidity at which large numbers of wells are playing out. New wells and fracking of older wells costs money and that dives up the cost of gas. Plus we’ve gone after the best fields already.

      Storage is starting to eat away at the most expensive NG use – peaker plants. Gas prices are likely to rise as we use what we have more rapidly and the cost of replacement increases. The price of storage will almost certainly fall. Gas could be priced away in 20 years or sooner.

    • Here’s an interesting article from the world’s foremost science journal (copy/pasted from someone else):

      “Is 2014 the Year of the Fuel Cell Car?”

      “After announcing $50 million in funding for advanced transportation technologies at the auto show yesterday, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz underscored the Energy Department’s commitment to bringing fuel-cell technology to market. He also hinted that DOE could launch a new manufacturing innovation institute that would help to further reduce the cost of fuel cells.”

      Because the oil and gas business is broke and they supply the software (natural gas to hydrogen), our government needs to step up and help.

      The world’s arguably foremost school of journalism is now called: “Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications -Northwestern University”

      What this get’s society is our best and brightest going into corporate PR and image consulting, i.e. sales. It should be remembered, one does not go to Northwestern to make cold calls. And one does not become a newspaperman with that degree in hand.

  • Bob_Wallace

    “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.”

    That is such a gigantic “if”, Tina. Physics knows of no low energy way to form H2 from H2O. Low energy water cracking would take such a breakthrough that, in essence, you are saying “If magic happens”.

  • Bob_Wallace

    I’m very happy to see BEVs and FCEVs compete. But we need to be very honest with ourselves. FCEVs run on H2 created from natural gas are not going to help our CO2 problem.

    What is happening right now is that BEVs are competing against fossil fuel FCEVs.

  • Not to step on this awesome sales pitch, the US is awash in natural gas from fracking, LNG overseas sales is being questioned, and UNGI (unconventional natural gas and oil Institute) at Mines is just down the street from NREL in Golden. Hydrogen from natural gas reforming is, as they say, “shovel ready.” All the other “sustainable” methods are still “in the works.” Also, I believe GTI (gas technology institute) works with NREL on its DOE contract.

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