Now, here’s a first. Daimler AG, Ford Motor Company and Nissan Motor Co. are pushing ahead with an unusual three-way agreement to develop affordable fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs)for the mass market on three continents. Actually, it’s even more expansive than that since Renault is also included under the Nissan-Renault Alliance. The unique collaborative effort is not only designed to take advantage of the economies of scale involved in a common fuel cell system, it’s also meant to send a “clear signal to suppliers, policymakers and the industry” to jump on the fuel cell band wagon.
A Three-Way for Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles
The basic financial reasoning behind the new partnership is that the up-front investment costs of developing the new technology can now be split three ways instead of burdening one company with all the risk.
The project will involve developing a fuel cell stack and related systems that is identical across all three companies, but that will enable each to continue developing “highly differentiated” FCEVs under their own brands.
Each company plans to invest an equal amount, with ambitious plans to launch the first ever affordable, mass market FCEV by 2017.
FCEV’s are Ready for Their Close-Up
On its blog, Daimler points out that the three companies together have accumulated a total of more than 60 years and 10 million kilometers in FCEV research and test drives.
The foundational technology is well established. Rather than storing energy like a battery or burning fuel like a conventional engine, a fuel cell creates electricity through an electro-chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. The only emission is water vapor.
On its own, a typical fuel cell can’t create enough electricity to power a vehicle, so multiple units have to be assembled into a fuel cell stack.
Arriving at a common configuration for the stack is only one aspect of the challenge faced by the new alliance, and it’s probably the easiest one. The other part of the problem will be to rev up enough investor interest to develop processes for manufacturing mass-marketable, low cost hydrogen and establishing a common, international infrastructure for delivering it.
The End of Battery Electric Vehicles?
Probably not. A 2009 study commissioned by the Department of Energy notes that fuel cells give you greater range for less weight, but there are other vehicle engineering issues involved that might not make fuel cells the best choice for every type of electric vehicle.
Though spokes persons for the three companies are understandably excited about the new alliance, they have also been quick to note that fuel cell technology will complement their battery EV offerings, not replace them.
Meeting the Hydrogen Challenge
Aside from infrastructure issues, the overall greenhouse gas emissions issue for FCEVs has to be overcome, just as it does for EVs. In the U.S., with our heavy reliance on fossil fuels for electricity generation, charging up your EV generally means that your ultimate source of fuel is coal, natural gas or oil. That’s changing, though, as more wind power and solar energy are rapidly coming on line, both for individual charging stations and on the grid.
FCEVs face a similar challenge, and a similar solution. It takes an enormous amount of energy to manufacture hydrogen, so introducing a huge number of FCEVs to the U.S. market right now would have a consequent effect on fossil fuel consumption.
However, the fossil fuel issue is quickly fading away for FCEVs. Over at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, for example, researchers are using a natural protein to develop a new catalyst for low cost, highly efficient hydrogen manufacturing. Lawrence Berkeley National Lab is tackling the same problem from a different angle, using a low cost catalyst based on titanium dioxide.
Then there’s a company called HyperSolar, which has come up with a solar powered hydrogen generator, and a University of Colorado-Denver research project for a microbe-driven process that can treat and desalinate wastewater while creating hydrogen and generating electricity, too.