The Wall Street Journal reports that Renault and Nissan will work with Ford and Daimler to develop fuel-cell systems that it says could hit passenger vehicles by 2017.
I’ve never been particularly bullish on fuel cell technology. For starters it’s extremely expensive, and while there are efforts to bring down the cost of fuel cells with alternatives to the pricy catalyst—platinum—we’re still a ways away from finding a suitable alternative. And unlike batteries where there are tons of established companies like Panasonic working on advancing technology for the consumer market, no such interest or existing market really exists for fuel cells.
But let’s assume the fuel cell technology itself can be improved to make it price competitive for the vehicle market. You still have a fuel problem. There’s a common misconception about the fuel that powers fuel cells. And I was surprised to see it in print in The Wall Street Journal:
“Car makers are racing to develop fuel-cell technology and bring their cars to market to comply with ever-stricter emissions regulations. Fuel-cell electric vehicles produce electricity from hydrogen and oxygen and are emissions-free, with the only byproduct being water vapor.”
While fuel cells themselves are emissions free, producing the fuel is not. Fuel cells typically run on hydrogen, which can’t be mined or found naturally. Rather, it comes from nautral gas and is produced by steam “reforming” methane or removing the 4 hydrogen atoms from the carbon atom. Fuel cells effectively run on natural gas. Until we figure out a feasible way to cost effectively produce hydrogen from water, which is a long ways away, I promise.
If right about now you’re thinking this is a play on natural gas, you’re partially right. The attractiveness of fuel cells right now stems from cheap natural gas and the temptation to find another portable transportation fuel. So if you want a nation running on fuel cells you’ll be fracking a lot of natural gas, reforming it, and oh by the way, releasing CO2 as a byproduct of the reformed natural gas.
Not a lot of great options here and while it’s nice to see the automakers partnering on next-gen technology, how about a next generation battery and a high speed charging network?