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Fuel Cells A Long Way From Mainstream, Despite Toyota Launch

Fuel Cells A Long Way From Mainstream, Despite Toyota Launch

“We struggle to understand the rationale for fuel cells electric given the performance capabilities already achieved by battery electric vehicles”

You would think that when an automotive giant like Toyota declared its fuel cell car ready for prime time, questions about hydrogen technology had been laid to rest.

You’d be wrong.

The loudest critics of fuel cells may have axes to grind. Electric car maker Telsa Motors’ CEO Elon Musk says hydrogen is more suitable for the upper stage of rockets than cars. Battery expert Donald Sadoway, Professor of Materials Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has an interest in a company which claims to have developed technology to transform the viability of batteries.

But London-based investment banker Evercore ISI, seeking to find out where best to invest for a successful new auto technology and presumably unbiased, came up with a report “Fuel Cells or “Fool” Cells?”. It was puzzled by Toyota’s plans given the progress made by companies like Tesla.

“We struggle to understand the rationale for FCEVs (fuel cell electric vehicles) given the performance capabilities already achieved by BEVs (battery electric vehicles),” Evercore ISI analyst Arndt Ellinghorst said.

He couldn’t see why car buyers would go for fuel cells over a battery-only vehicle. Fuel cell vehicles are expensive and are loss leaders for their manufacturers. Costs of hydrogen to refuel are much higher than electricity.

“Following our detailed dive into FCEV technology, our overriding conclusion is that with the exception of re-fuelling time FCEVs hold no clear advantages. When we look ahead to 2020 and 2025, independent research suggests that FCEVs will offer few advantages over BEVs from a consumer cost of ownership perspective and will be less efficient on a well to wheel basis,” Ellinghorst said.

A report by consultancy IHS Auto wasn’t bowled over by battery prospects, but thought fuel cells were barely going to trouble the scoreboard. IHS Auto said that by 2020 regular hybrids and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) will account for almost five per cent of global sales compared with less than one per cent for electric only vehicles. By 2025, battery-only will have slowly expanded to 1.5 per cent, while PHEVs and hybrids will push just past six per cent. Fuel cell vehicles will barely register at all by 2025.

And critics like MIT’s Sadoway are scathing on fuel cells.

“This is a dead end technology and (the manufacturers) are foolishly wasting their time. Where are they going to get the hydrogen from? It’s absolutely nuts. Who installs the infrastructure. You can’t send it down a natural gas pipeline. You need to have an entirely new infrastructure. I can’t explain it. It doesn’t make any sense,” Sadoway said.

Sadoway also has an interest in a battery technology company, working with Dr Qichao Hu at startup SolidEnergy. This company is developing battery technology which can double the running life of smartphones and laptops, and which could eventually find its way into cars. The improvement is to lithium batteries, which will be able to operate safely at higher temperatures. This will cut costs, save weight and lengthen life because they won’t need the elaborate cooling systems current lithium-ion batteries need.

“There are two major innovations that make this battery far superior to lithium ion – lithium metal in the negative electrode and a polymer

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