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Clean Transport fuel cell EV

Published on July 10th, 2014 | by Tina Casey


Yes, Fuel Cell EVs Can Fill ‘Er Up

July 10th, 2014 by  

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 EV

Fuel cell EV (cropped) by Daniel Barker courtesy of US Navy.

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.

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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+.

  • keithdude

    California is requiring that 33% of the hydrogen fuel sold at publicly funded stations comes from renewable sources. The 33% requirement will be in effect for all hydrogen produced and/or dispensed statewide when annual throughput reaches 3,500 metric tons. (Source: SB1505, 2006). Disclosure: I work for the California Fuel Cell Partnership.

    • Bob_Wallace

      What’s your guesstimation as to what the blend price will be?

      And I read that as holding for corporate use of H2, correct? It’s not like XYZ, Inc. can tank up with 100% methane-H2O?

  • Tom G.

    One of these days people are going to wise up and stop going to filling stations. At the ripe old age of 74 I really can’t afford a Battery Electric Vehicle [BEV] but if I could, I would have long ago abandoned these things we call filling stations. People must have better things to do with their time than go to filling stations. Just go to work, go shopping, come home and plug in. What could be more simple.

    This going to filling stations thing is an old spanish custom that should probably die a rather quick death before we either end up choking on our own pollution or we cook ourselves and the planet. Hydrogen doesn’t seem like the logical answer since it involves fossil fuels and needs to use electricity in an energy wasting conversion process to be obtained. Just use the electricity and concentrate on cleaning up our power production facilities.

    O.K. I’m done ranting for this week. I hope everyone has a great day.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Tom, have you considered a used Nissan Leaf? I’ve heard about some people getting good deals on them.

      I took a quick look on line and found some prices for 2011 Leafs. Here’s a sample….

      $12,994 26k miles
      $13,900 37k miles

      Lots for under $15k.

  • TinaCasey

    Ummmm…to be clear, Sandia is not proposing no rules. They’re proposing that the rules for hydrogen could be updated to be consistent with other risks that are currently acceptable for retail filling stations. By way of comparison, consider that rooftop solar installations can potentially involve risks to firefighters, but so do home heating oil tanks, natural gas lines, oxygen tanks and other home medical equipment, hobby and shop supplies, and many other hazardous substances commonly found in US households. So, for filling stations that already accommodate gasoline, diesel, and other hazards, the question is why draw the line at hydrogen?

    • Offgridmanpolktn

      Tina you are right (I think) that hydrogen service at gas stations is feasible but as you mention in the article the first issue is going to be spacing, to existing equipment and with neighboring properties. With how first kerosene and more recently diesel have been isolated in their own pumps and now separate island’s is it going to be possible to have a separate service area and its traffic flow.
      It will also depend on the amount of infrastructure being added will it just be another storage tank and pumping equipment, or will there have to be space for the conversion from natural gas equipment also that has been suggested as part of the hydrogen supply service.
      Even if the hydrogen pumping stations were to just take over closed or older gas stations completely and not sell gas and diesel will their pricing and profit margins allow them to take on the hazardous waste management and cleanup of these sites long term? Through the years it has seemed that gas stations that close due to non viability in the local market just sit there empty for years. It is only the oil companies that can afford to upgrade these properties, as conversion to any other type of real estate usage is just to expensive unless an area resumes a big boom in the local economy making the property valuable enough for the necessary toxic waste cleanup.
      So while the installation costs of the hydrogen service stations on there own are already very high encorporating them with active or even closed gas stations is going to increase those costs multiply.
      Better batteries and a plethora of fast charging (even if grid tied) stations would seem to be the more practical long term solution.

  • Jouni Valkonen

    To compare this to EV… In not too distant future Walmart, Carrefour and Ikea and other shops with large parking lots must also offer free EV charging service, because if they do not offer this, they will lose significant amount of customers.

    Basically everywhere where it is economical to offer free parking lots, it is also economical to offer free EV charging, because the cost of parking lot is more significant than the cost of free EV charging point.

  • JamesWimberley

    The “disruption” meme is annoying. No businessman sets out a stall called “disruption”. Some better mousetraps like the first iPhone do change things in radical ways, most do not. The Newton did lead to big change – but by accident. As a product it was a failure, but it gave ARM a critical leg-up, and after passing through GSM phones, ARM’s line o f processors eventually led to the processors for the iPhone and iPad.

    • Jouni Valkonen

      Typically disruption takes few years. In 2020 when we look back into history we see how humongous disruptor Tesla Model S was. It accelerated the EV revolution by at least six years if not more, because it forced all other car companies to take EV tech seriously.

  • This sounds like a disruptive advertisement plugging totally awesome and extreme disruption. “Look Dude, no rules.” A Silicon Valley corporate image consultant couldn’t have written it any better.

    Regulations aren’t necessarily a burden as much as a civil pact. For example, industry wants to dump its waste solvents from pesticides manufacturing in the river. Water drinkers down river want to drink water that isn’t impacted with said spent solvents. Water drinkers could sue industry – but there aren’t enough lawyers sitting around jumping at doing pro bono work. So government steps in to assign discharge regulations. Industry finds that waste stream treatment isn’t too expensive and continues operation. Water drinkers have reasonable water for drinking. Epilog: industry realizes it can move all its manufacturing to China and does so. And blames everything on regulation. Postscript: young enthusiastic marketing majors, upon graduating MBA, goes to work for Uber in Silicon Valley and uses the same Ayn Randian logic to deregulate everything in her boss’s path. Allowing him to skim billions from the economy. Disruption, Heck Yeah. The End.

    Typical gas station: Hydrogen. Gasoline. Diesel. E85. Cigarettes. Fireworks. Open carry. Hot tempered patrons. Hot summers. Free ammo Sundays with fillups. Rolling coal pickup trucks. Ill timed 1987 Ford Tauruses full of smokers. Yeah, Tina, regulations suck. Disruption now!

    • Bob_Wallace

      Righteous rant, Michael. Preach it!

      • I really enjoy Tina’s writing. However, this story, the rolling coal story (diesel smoke billowing from pickup trucks to show hatred for EPA regulation), and an Uber driver kidnapping at the DC airport was just too much.

        • Jouni Valkonen

          I really cannot understand how you “enjoy Tina’s writhings”. For me Tina is by large margin the worst CleanTechnica writer. She almost without exceptions writes about nonsense.

          • I disagree. I’m sure Tina has broad enough shoulders to defend herself – so I probably don’t need to step in. Cleantechnica does a good job introducing new things brewing in the lab through early commercialization. Tina is on top of pretty much every important issue. We commenters (ok, me) tend to sit at the back of the class and shoot spitballs or throw peanuts. That’s why there’s comment section folks to tamp down the silliness if it gets out of hand, which has been done. I just have to realize that not many people had similar training – where new ideas had to go through internal gauntlets, red team reviews and peer to peer dog-pilings, before being introduced to the market at large. For instance, research defense was actually a defence of the personal and technical. The goal of committee member and audience attendees was to make the reduced the principal investigator to a puddle. And of course the tables turn. Blogs like Cleantechnica are not a bad place to throw ideas out to the market at large. Instead of say a smartphone and tech blog.

          • Ben Helton

            Non-sense? Can you give us some examples of this…

            Do you always harass people that may appreciate or have a liken for something that you don’t?

  • sault

    It still doesn’t matter. Hydrogen cars still use 3x as much energy to drive the same distance as 100% electric vehicles and they coincidentally cost 3x as much to buy too. Their only advantage is that they can “fill up” faster than electric cars, but this is meaningless when there is hardly any fueling infrastructure to begin with and there probably won’t be for a long time considering how expensive it is to build (especially compared to EV charging stations). A supercharger network like Tesla’s increasingly makes even this one advantage of FCVs nearly moot.

    We should really save all those billions of dollars we would waste buying insanely expensive hydrogen vehicles and building insanely expensive hydrogen fueling stations and just cover the country with 10x as many superchargers instead. We could also buy a few GW of solar PV to power them with what’s left over.

    • Steve Grinwis

      Replace ‘Superchargers’ with ‘Industry Standard SAE CCS Level 3 chargers’, and you got yourself a deal.

      • Bob_Wallace

        You’re probably suggesting a rebranding of the Tesla Supercharger. ;o)

        I expect that Tesla is going to stay out in front on this one.

        It will be interesting to see if one of the traditional car companies will set up a separate, but not compatible system. It might be a decade before charging is standardized.

        • Steve Grinwis

          Tesla’s put out, what, 150 – 200 million?

          That’s an eyeblink, if BMW, Mercedes, Kia, GM, and Ford all decide to chip into a plan for the SAE standard fast charger that they’ve already agreed to, and already all use the previous version plug… (SAE J1772)

          The Chevy Spark EV already has the plug, but doesn’t have a big enough pack to make big DC fast chargers worth while.

          • Bob_Wallace

            We don’t yet have cheap EV batteries. I think they’ll be available within five years. And capacity should improve as well.

            At the point ~200 mile range EVs can be purchased for about the price of a Camry/”normal car” then we’re likely to see major scrambling for market share on the part of every car manufacturer. All the EVs on the road (except for the Tesla S) will become relics.

            That’s the point at which we’ll start to see standardized charging. And I expect Tesla’s chargers will be so common that they are likely to become the standard.

          • Steve Grinwis

            The real issue with the Supercharger network is Musk’s requirement that anyone who wants to use it has tp give power away for free. That’s not going to fly for cheap cars, where small companies have razor thin margins on base models.

            The other issue is the requirement for a seperate charging port. The SAE plug does everything. 120v, 240v, and DC fast charge, all in the same plug, re-using a lot of the same wiring. It’s just an all around better standard. as well, with the connector being rated to deliver something obscene like 270 kW.

            And once again, 200 – 400 million in investment? That’s nothing for a consortium of automakers to throw down, to ensure they don’t have to get into bed with Tesla. GM spends more than that on Volt development in any given year, IIRC.

            Long and short, I don’t think Tesla has the money to create an ‘insurmountable advantage’ for a proprietary standard.

            Especially when the CCS standard is technically superior.

          • mambero

            Lest we forget, Toyota, who had invested $100m in Tesla, cashed in its chips.
            Incidentally, they’re heavily promoting their 2015 FCV.

            Which is understandable. Their energy market is geared more to the common good in Japan than in certain other countries where powerful lobbyists can even lead their countries to war for oil.

            Yes, fuel cells are a revolution of sorts. Not only environmentally but politically superior. It will take time though, like many good things.

          • Steve Grinwis

            Fuel cells are closer to business as usual than revolutionary.

            Hydrogen is expensive, fuel cells degrade quickly, and emissions are higher compared to battery technology.

          • Offgridmanpolktn

            In the video a few posts down, Musk the Disruptor, he says that the Tesla battery is now 5,000$. If Nissan would put one in the 15-20.000$ Leaf station wagon with a reasonably fast charge and give it 200 miles of range for 25-30,000$ it would finally be a vehicle that will suit my purposes at a price that seems reasonable. That is a big if of course, but if so I would go buy three of them tomorrow.
            For the range of miles the dollar cost of the Tesla batteries has never seemed that unreasonable, just wish some of the other manufacturers would utilize them in a mid range priced car.

          • Bob_Wallace

            “the Tesla battery is now 5,000$”

            Are you sure that either you or Elon didn’t make a mistake?

            $5,000 / 85kWh = $59/kWh. That’s apparently below materials cost (also according to Elon).

          • Offgridmanpolktn

            Just quoting what was said in the video, maybe that is for the smaller 60 Kwh battery, which is why I would be happy with 200 miles. Or is that possibly the forecast price after the gigafactory opens?
            Either way I would be happy with any of the other EV’s coming to market at a more reasonable price even with slower acceleration and fewer features even if they added five or ten thousand for a decent battery and range.

          • Bob_Wallace

            The 60 kWh battery model that was (IIRC) dropped. Even at $5k for 60 kWh that number sounds way too low. About $83/kWh.

            I think at one time Elon said he thought they could get battery prices down to around $100/kWh. Maybe he was talking about a hypothetical smaller than 60 kWh pack?

            I really wish we could get accurate battery prices. I’m guessing that every car company know what prices actually are but they’re playing this game of keeping the information private and away from the competition.

          • Offgridmanpolktn

            There are definitely some games going on with the pricing of these batteries. This past winter when checking out of curiosity and in case my glass mats for my solar system konk out early borrowed the password from the manager of the local NAPA (friend) to check prices of the Volt and Leaf replacement batteries.
            When purchasing for installation in one of those cars prices started used for 1400$ with five year warranty and topped out at 3200$ with ten year warranty, and this included his ten percent commission that he is willing to cut to five percent for me.
            This is why I have said before that going offgrid really isn’t that expensive, especially if you avoid batteries that have a solar label.

          • Offgridmanpolktn

            #2 after comment below

            Also I just got to the next story up, guess Tesla free charge is having an influence on Nissan as they are expanding their free charge program beyond Texas, unfortunately not much in the Southeast where it matters to me and only for two years.
            First comment under the article brings up an issue with the Chademo fast charge that has to due with over heating and is the first for me to hear about. Perhaps Nissan will end up joining with the Tesla fast charge model in the long run.

          • Jouni Valkonen

            Elon said in that interview, that $5000 battery is perhaps possible, but he could not obviously say how long it takes to get there. However he was very optimistic that the cost of EV battery is coming down fast and of course the rationale of Gigafactory is to push down the cost of battery by using the scale benefits.

            My guess: we can achieve the cost of $200 per kWh by 2017 (for EV batteries).

  • JamesWimberley

    All Sandia have shown is regulatory feasibility. Even that isn’t automatic. If gas stations need planning permits for hydrogen from municipalities, these may be difficult, as you are adding a large new safety risk to a large old one. The bigger question of course is cost, which is much (an order of magnitude?) more than for electric chargers. There’s no hydrogen equivalent of the get-you-home trickle recharge from an ordinary 120v or 220v socket. It’s a full network of hydrogen gas stations or nothing. Most probably, nothing.

    • Mint

      Well said.

      It’s pretty telling that a startup like Tesla only needs ~$50M of its own revenues to cover the US and Europe with enough superchargers to fuel almost any trip (if you leave home with a full charge), and meanwhile the major automakers want California to pay $200M to build a mere 100 stations for them.

      Then you have PHEVs, which don’t need any infrastructure at all to displace 80% of gasoline use.

      Cost is an enormous hurdle for the hydrogen based transportation, both for infrastructure and the fuel cell itself. Hell, even the fuel is fundamentally more expensive than electricity, and still not below gasoline when produced cleanly.

      Fuel cells have no chance of success for transportation. They’re going to be much more important for power generation and energy storage.

      • JamesWimberley

        Tesla may be paying over the odds for their superchargers to get the very rapid roll-out, as well as the premium for high current. We can certainly treat this price as an upper bound, likely to fall over time. At Mint’s $10k for an L2 charger, they will become ubiquitous very soon. Range anxiety is basically cured by density, even of slow chargers. Occasional waiting is a nuisance, but not normally a dealbreaker.

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