Vehicle upheaval: Can fuel cells take on the automotive market? | The American Ceramic Society

Vehicle upheaval: Can fuel cells take on the automotive market?

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[Image above] Toyota Mirai. Credit: Maurizio Pesce; Flickr CC BY 2.0

Everything seems to be changing in the automotive world today—cars are getting lighter, smarter, and more efficient than ever before.

Besides the advent and near consumer-market entrance of autonomous cars, the popularity of hybrid, electric, and fuel cells vehicles is gaining traction. Automakers are even openly sharing plans for these cars, a move unheard of in the uber-competitive auto world.

Even when it comes to more conventional gas-filled and human-controlled cars, things are changing. Amidst concerns for the wellbeing of our pale blue dot, there’s a push to make the cars of today more efficient and eco-friendly, a feat often approached by efforts to make cars weigh less.

Advanced materials are prime players in these lightweighting efforts, reducing the hefty amount of steel weighing down current car designs.

“A 10% reduction in vehicle weight can result in a 6%-8% fuel economy improvement. …Using lightweight components and high-efficiency engines enabled by advanced materials in one quarter of the U.S. fleet could save more than 5 billion gallons of fuel annually by 2030,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy.

This video from PBS’s Motorweek provides a flavor of the breadth of various next-gen advanced materials for automotive components that were happening at Oak Ridge National Lab last year.

Credit: MotorWeek; Youtube

In addition to making conventional cars lighter, some manufacturers want to overhaul the automotive market by nixing fossil fuels altogether.

All-electric vehicles have made huge strides ahead in popularity of late. But fuel cell vehicles refuel faster and are more similar to conventional combustion engine vehicles, making many think they’re the next big thing in the automotive world.

Although Tesla CEO Elon Musk thinks they’re “extremely silly”—perhaps because of his love of lithium-ions instead—fuel cells are gaining traction.

Musk went so far as to call fuel cells bullsh*t, a comment that automaker giant Toyota has turned into a clever marketing campaign for its new fuel cell vehicle. Fuel cells vehicles aren’t bullsh*t, it says—they’re fueled by bullsh*t.

Toyota is betting big on fuel cell vehicles for the future with its upcoming release of the Toyota Mirai. Toyota will offer ~700 of these fuel cell vehicles for sale this fall, with a sticker price of just under $60,000 (which includes three years or $15,000 of free fuel).

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Credit: Maurizio Pesce; Flickr CC BY 2.0

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Credit: Toyota UK; Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Although the “world’s first real attempt at a consumer hydrogen car,” the Mirai has a long way to go, although it does offer a better range and shorter fill-up time than electric vehicles. The Mirai has a range of 150 miles if filled up at a 350 bar fueling station, and a boost up to a 300-mi range if filled from a 700 bar fueling station.

Toyota is not alone. Other major vehicle manufacturers, including Honda and Nissan, have also publicly voiced their support for fuel cell vehicles. Hyundai already offers its fuel cell powered model, the Tucson, for lease, and Honda will bring its fuel cell vehicle rendition into the fold in 2016.

Although Hyundai thinks it will be another decade before fuel cell vehicles gain significant traction, progress on the research side will continue to push the tech to new frontiers.

It seems that the biggest problem with fuel cell vehicles is an integral component to their success—the availability of hydrogen fuel.

The problem is infrastructure. There are only a dozen hydrogen fueling stations across the U.S. currently. Part of the scarcity problem can be blamed on the newness of fuel cell vehicles and how few of them are currently on the road. Car makers argue that enough companies are interested in a hydrogen fuel future that they are willing to invest as the technology takes hold.

In addition to the limited availability of fueling stations, hydrogen has green problems, too. Generating and storing hydrogen are energy intensive processes, and so far fuel cell cars are no better environmentally than electric vehicles once you factor in the energy required to isolate and store the fuel.

Considering the cars’ total embodied emissions—the emissions generated in entire process rather than just in the car’s operation itself—is an important part of the bigger picture.

“The total embodied emissions for alternatively fuelled vehicles such as hybrids, electric, and fuel-cell vehicles may even be higher than normal internal combustion engines—even when they produce no tail-pipe emissions (based on the as-yet unpublished Greet2 study),” according an article on The Conversation. “This is perhaps because such technologies are more energy intensive to produce due to the materials that compose them.”

It’s important to remember that those results are based on the current state of the technology—so as it stands today, fuel cell vehicles don’t offer considerable energy and emissions savings over other transportation options.

But the difference is in the future, as many believe that the promise and potential of fuel cell vehicles is exponentially greater than other automotive world competition. 

The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions provides some background and lists obstacles impeding further development and deployment of fuel cell vehicles. If more of these obstacles can be sufficiently overcome, fuel cell vehicles may be more ubiquitous in our future.

Although some still argue that we need new ideas altogether to change our energy-instense transportation culture, we want to know: What do you think will drive us into the future?