Simanaitis Says

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FUEL CELLS have often been called “the best technology that’s always 10 years away.” But updates from the SAE 2013 Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Technologies Symposium, held February 19-21 in Anaheim, suggest that 10 years has shrunk to 2. The California Fuel Cell Partnership, automakers and other researchers at the symposium reported reasons for this.


Professor Dan Sperling, University of California, Davis, offered an update from the 33 auto and energy companies, fuel-cell suppliers, research organizations and government agencies making up the California Fuel Cell Partnership.


In particular, Sperling noted that fuel-cell cars and infrastructure no longer present a chicken-and-egg quandary. The cars are here. Already anticipated for 2015 introduction are production fuel-cell cars from Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan and Toyota.


Here I am refueling one of 70 Mercedes-Benz F-Cells currently in its California demonstration fleet. Image by Brian Blades,

There are currently 225 FCEVs on the roads of California, primarily development fleets of the Honda Clarity, Mercedes-Benz F-Cell and Toyota FCHV-adv. Thousands more are expected by 2017 as the infrastructure evolves.

By the end of this year, there will be 25 public H2 refueling stations in the state, primarily in San Francisco and the Los Angeles basin. (There are already three within a few miles of home in Orange County, California.)


In the near-term, H2 stations are clustered where FCEV buyers reside. But their weekend destinations are foreseen as well.

Clusters of stations are envisioned, both in FCEV neighborhoods as well as weekend destinations. In time, 5 to 7 percent of conventional gasoline stations are seen as adding H2 pumps, each capable of a 6-minute target refill time.

Toyota’s Justin Ward offered examples of fuel-cell technology that have cut costs to a tenth of those of original designs. One is a filament-winding process for an FCEV’s carbon-fiber H2 tanks; it’s six times faster—and more accurate—than the conventional one. (There’s historical resonance here; Toyota began as an industrial loom manufacturer.)

Another innovation, Active Shell Platinum, applies this expensive ($1600/ounce!) membrane catalyst as a coating surrounding less costly nanoparticles. Achievable as early as 2017, catalyst cost could be comparable to that of an internal-combustion engine’s exhaust treatment.

Toyota’s fuel-cell cars have operated in temperatures as cold as -40 degrees. (There’s no need to specify “Fahrenheit” or “Celsius” here; -40 F = -40 C.) And the cars have exhibited range of more than 430 miles. (See for adventures in driving Fairbanks to Vancouver and Las Vegas to San Diego back in 2007.)

Noted John German of the International Council on Clean Transportation, fuel-cell power will actually be less expensive than internal combustion’s. What’s more—and an important point—its packaging is more easily scaled to vehicle size.

The consensus isn’t for a mass replacement of internal combustion by fuel cells. In fact, cars powered by improved internal combustion, likely exploiting unconventionally sourced liquid fuels, will dominate in numbers for years to come. However, many see an optimized specialization of power for specific applications.


BEVs occupy the lower left of this optimized transportation chart; FCEVs are best suited for the other extreme; hybrids of various character fill out the middle. A variation of this chart appeared several times at the symposium.

Battery EVs are best suited for short-trip urban applications. Hybrids and their plug-in siblings better meet the needs of longer range and larger size. Fuel-cell EVs are the best choices for extended range—and even heavy trucks and buses.

A fuel-cell vehicle, after all, is an EV that makes its own E. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013

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This entry was posted on February 28, 2013 by in Driving it Today and tagged , .
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