We’ve been digging into fuel cell electric vehicles from a number of angles, but we haven’t spent a whole lot of time on the obvious: once you have one of those super cool, super high tech fuel cell EVs parked in your driveway, where are you going to go when you need a refill?
Luckily for us, the folks over at Sandia National Laboratory have been pondering the same problem and they have come up with the obvious answer: you fill up your fuel cell EV at a filling station. No, really?
Fuel Cell EVs And The Fuel Cell Refueling Problem
Typical fuel cell EVs run on hydrogen, and the lack of hydrogen filling stations (or fuel stations, whatever you want to call them) is a major obstacle to the fuel cell EV market.
The swift rise of battery EVs in recent years also means that fuel cell EVs have a lot of catching up to do, to match the convenience factor of plugging in at home or workplace stations in addition to public EV charging stations.
As for the hydrogen itself, that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms which we’ll open up after we get to the filling station thing.
Sandia To Fuel Cell EVs: Fill ‘Er Up
Sandia looked at the problem from a low-hanging fruit point of view, which would be to enable hydrogen filling stations to piggyback on other filling stations, namely existing gas stations.
The research team went out and surveyed 70 gas stations in California to see if that would be possible, at least in terms of meeting fire regulations.
One point worth mentioning up front is that none of the gas stations could accept hydrogen, based on the 2005 National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) hydrogen technologies code.
The code covers safeguards for hydrogen gas and hydrogen in low-temperature liquid form, from generation to storage and fueling infrastructure, as well as handling procedures.
The gloomy findings under the 2005 NFPA are worth mentioning because the code has evolved since then.
In 2011 new standards were adopted under the current NFPA 2 configuration. According to Sandia, as of now 14 of the 70 gas stations it surveyed conform with the code.
Another Evolution For The NFPA Code
That still doesn’t sound very promising but once you accept the proposition that NFPA codes are responsive to change, that opens the door to future evolution, and that is what Sandia is banking on.
The 2005 and 2011 versions were based on what Sandia calls an “expert opinion-based process,” and they also applied to industrial settings. While not disparaging the value of expert opinion (depending on who the expert is), Sandia hopes to nudge the NFPA code in the direction of standards based on science that apply specifically to retail operations:
…The knowledge gained by Sandia’s work on the physical behavior of hydrogen and risks associated with hydrogen fuels provided the scientific basis to revise the separation distances in the NFPA 2 code for hydrogen installations.
The key standard is the separation distances required between various components of the fueling infrastructure and other factors, including streets, parking, other on-site structures (typically convenience stores), and property lines.
The lab is working with the Energy Department’s new Hydrogen Fueling Infrastructure Research and Station Technology (H2FIRST) project to come up with new standards that could enable more hydrogen stations at existing sites.
While smaller, typically urban gas stations would still face conformance obstacles, according to Sandia most larger gas stations would have little trouble meeting the updated requirements.
About That Hydrogen
Yes, we are years away from sustainable hydrogen sourced from sunlight and water, or from manure biogas, landfill gas, and other renewable carbon neutral sources.
In the meantime, hydrogen today is sourced from fossil natural gas, leaving FCEVs open to the sustainability issues that face battery EVs using grid-supplied electricity with fossil fuels in the mix.
As for the convenience factor, though we’re years away from home hydrogen FCEV fueling stations, home-made solar powered hydrogen is already a thing.
With major car manufacturers, notably Honda and GM, sinking big bucks into the FCEV market, the incentive could also be there for new public filling stations that accommodate hydrogen along with EV chargers, compressed natural gas, and whatever else comes down the road.