Over the past several months, eight major automakers have announced plans to develop new fuel cell technologies. These automakers are BMW; Daimler AG; Ford Motor Company; General Motors Company; Honda Motor Co., Inc.; Hyundai Motor Company; Renault-Nissan; and Toyota Motor Corporation.
The projects mark an important trend in the industry: an increasing interest in producing zero-emissions vehicles in order to meet the environmental standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). One question remains: will all of the new work on fuel cells result in a hydrogen breakthrough by the end of the decade?
What Are Fuel Cells?
Fuel cells are used in specially-designed vehicles called fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs). These vehicles use fuel cells to generate electricity for their electric motors.
There are six main types of fuel cells: direct methanol, molten carbonate, phosphoric acid, polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM), regenerative, and solid oxide. All six types of fuel cells, however, consist of three basic partsan anode, a cathode, and an electrolyteand all fuel cells work similarly. A fuel type (usually hydrogen), flows in at the anode, where a catalyst then breaks down the hydrogen into electrons and ions. The electrons created by the anode travel through a wire and create electricity. The ions exit through the electrolyte to the cathode, where they react with a third chemical (usually oxygen) to create the FCEV’s primary emission: water.
To recap: hydrogen and oxygen flow into the fuel cell, electricity is generated, and the only emissions are water and heat. For an animation of how the whole process works, please visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3hxQysS0hyA&feature=c4-overview&list=UUNJsU7i2J1yyGKik0NFTp4w.
Pictured above is the Energy Monitor on a Toyota FCHV-adv, an advanced hybrid hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. Note that the fuel cell provides electricity for the electric motor. Credit: NAFTC.
BMW and Toyota
This January, BMW and Toyota Motor Corporation finalized a fuel cell deal that specifies that BMW will license future fuel cell technology from Toyota.
In 2015, BMW plans to develop a prototype fuel cell vehicle using Toyota’s fuel cell technology. The German luxury automobile manufacturer also has plans for a potential market release of a production car by the end of the decade.
Toyota has recently announced that they will unveil a new hydrogen fuel cell car at the Tokyo auto show in November. The as-yet-unnamed vehicle is slated to go on sale by 2015 for less than $70,000.
Daimler, Ford, and Renault-Nissan
Also in January, Daimler, Ford, and Renault-Nissan announced plans to collaborate on developing an affordable, mass-market FCEV technology by 2017. The three companies will jointly develop a common fuel cell stack and fuel cell system, and will incorporate this technology into their own fuel cell vehicles (which they will produce and sell independently).
GM and Honda
This July, General Motors and Honda Motor Company announced that they will collaborate on developing a next-generation fuel cell system and hydrogen storage technologies to be unveiled by the end of 2020 at a press conference in Manhattan, NY. The two automobile manufacturers will also work together (along with stakeholders) to further advance the nation’s hydrogen refueling infrastructure, which is crucial in supporting the long-term viability and consumer acceptance of fuel cell vehicles.
Hyundai’s future FCEV plans center on a version of their Tucson Crossover. The company plans to release 1,000 hydrogen vehicles based on the crossover in the U.S. by 2015.
Earlier this year, Hyundai Motor Co. began mass production of its ix35 hydrogen fuel cell vehicle at the Geneva Motor Show. The only emission generated by the ix35 Fuel Cell is water.