Fuel cell vehicles feel the pressure

Dr Peter Harrop
Fuel cell vehicles feel the pressure
It is not much of an achievement to make a fuel cell powered vehicle any more. They have been made for over 25 years and they work well. A recent example is Oakland University in the USA making a fuel cell golf buggy. They sought a small fuel cell system that would integrate well with CAN 2.OB system, the battery, computer and motor controller systems. It would fit the limited space underneath the seat of the golf cart and have continuous power output of greater than 800W. It would be reliable and decently durable to withstand frequent trips around Oakland University's campus for various events.
As outlined in the IDTechEx report, Hydrogen and Fuel Cells 2015-2025: Forecasts, Technologies, Markets, such small fuel cells often manage a certain degree of load variation without becoming extremely inefficient but they do require a substantial start up battery kit. Heliocentris provided Oakland with a 1.2 kW Nexa® Integration System and metal hydride hydrogen storage cylinders. The Heliocentris Nexa® is an industrial fuel cell module with matching DC/DC converter and system control software. The fuel cell module uses an FCGen™ 1020 ACS stack from Ballard Power Systems, one of the world leaders in fuel cell stacks and automotive fuel cells. Of course, this is a means for students to gain experience: there will be no market for golf vehicles at golf clubs needing special hydrogen delivery.
However, Intelligent Energy of the UK has a joint venture with Suzuki of Japan to bring a fuel cell scooter to market. Indeed, several automotive manufacturers are starting a big push to get fuel cell cars and buses called "fuel cell electric buses FCEB" to market. Hyundai has been selling a fuel cell car and Toyota will make 700 such vehicles in 2015 but they desperately need major cost reduction throughout their value chains and much better hydrogen infrastructure, if they are to scale up. Diverting a long way to get expensive hydrogen typically made from fossil fuels is scarcely a tempting user proposition.
Worse, there is now tougher competition. For example, leading Chinese companies have reduced the price and doubtless the cost of pure electric large buses by $50,000 in the last three years, partly helped by orders of up to 2000 at a time. The days of huge government grants for fuel cell work are over now that it looks increasingly as if pure electric vehicles will do the same job better.
The problems with fuel cells primarily lie in their high total cost of ownership, part of which is caused by life of only a few years before major refurbishment. In many ways they are outstandingly good, provided a large lithium-ion battery manages start-up, load variations and acceptance of regenerative braking energy. For 25 years, over ten bus companies have made and trialled fuel cell buses over millions of revenue kilometers. However, Ballard the leader still has only around 50 FCEBs deployed worldwide.
Now Toyota hopes to help jumpstart the hydrogen vehicle by sharing its intellectual property. The recent announcement represents the first time that it's sharing patents free of charge. The automaker earlier licensed hybrid vehicle patents but at a charge.
"At Toyota, we believe that when good ideas are shared, great things can happen," said Bob Carter, senior VP of automotive operations at Toyota Motor Sales, USA Inc. "The first generation hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, launched between 2015 and 2020, will be critical, requiring a concerted effort and unconventional collaboration between automakers, government regulators, academia and energy providers. By eliminating traditional corporate boundaries, we can speed the development of new technologies and move into the future of mobility more quickly, effectively and economically."
The approximately 5,680 total of global patents involved consist of about 3,350 fuel cell system software control patents, most importantly 1,970 fuel cell stack-related patents, 290 high-pressure hydrogen tank patents, and 70 hydrogen production and supply patents. They will be made available to fuel cell vehicle manufacturers, fuel cell parts suppliers, and hydrogen fuelling station companies through an initial market introduction period that Toyota expects to run until 2020.
In 2014, Tesla announced a similar move, opening its EV patents to the competition, but that was less dramatic as it did not involve the core IP of its pure electric vehicles. It has no interest in fuel cell alternative, calling them "fool cells". Most crucially, the Tesla traction battery modules and cells are made by Panasonic which owns the IP and is not releasing it. By contrast, the Toyota fuel cell patent release is more extensive and deep and has an air of urgency triggered by inadequately rapid cost reduction to date.
It represents a big but necessary risk. The Chinese, for example, will do their usual trick of making copies at a fraction of the price that really do work well and not stop at supplying low cost parts to Toyota. For example, Chinese pure electric maxi scooters are only 40% of the price of Western ones yet they meet similar specifications as analysed in the new IDTechEx report, Electric Motorcycles and Three Wheel Electric Vehicles 2015-2025.
Top image: Oakland University