Automakers Chase Energy Storage for Fuel Cell Cars


The year 2015 is the deadline that a number of automakers have set for themselves to introduce commercially viable fuel cell cars. The leaders in this effort are Daimler, Hyundai, Honda and Toyota, with GM continuing to push forward as well. While 2015 may seem a long way off – and indeed battery and plug-in hybrid cars will have had several years out in the commercial market in four years – key milestones must be achieved well in advance for this to happen. Automakers will need to lock down the designs for these cars by around 2013, which means they have little time to validate, tweak, and importantly, bring down the costs of their final designs.

Automakers have already demonstrated that they can build fuel cell cars that look good and work well. The biggest remaining challenge is the cost of the vehicles. As I discussed in my Fuel Cell Vehicle report last year, the key costs that must come down are those for the fuel cell stack, the fuel cell system balance of plant (the components surrounding the fuel cell stack), and the on-board storage tanks. The stacks, because of their platinum loading, tend to receive a lot of attention, and indeed are a key area for the automakers’ development dollars, but the tanks are also a critical piece.

The auto industry has arrived at a consensus on the need for compressed hydrogen stored in 700-bar tanks, not the 350-bar tanks that were used on previous generations of fuel cell vehicles (FCVs). Since range is one of the key drivers for FCV development, this high pressure storage is critical to ensure fuel cell cars achieve ranges that are comparable to gas cars. But these 700-bar tanks are expensive and add weight. To address these issues, the U.S. Department of Energy has just announced a $7 million investment into R&D on advanced storage tank technologies. This includes R&D on carbon fiber composite tanks as well as some “novel” materials for hydrogen storage. The projects are being carried out by US national labs, universities and industry. Details of the program are at DOE’s website.

Realistically, the novel material research is not on a trajectory to be ready for cars introduced in 2015, but it could produce new techniques that would be adopted by industry beyond that. Breakthroughs in composite technology could see a faster transition to real-world application. For now, it looks like conventional 700-bar hydrogen tanks will remain the primary storage option for the early market introduction of fuel cell cars.

Article by Lisa Jerram, appearing courtesy the Matter Network.

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

  • Keith D. Patch

    Thank you for the well-written update. I’m glad you stayed away from the scare tactics some try to spread about hydrogen. Please read my post (below) if you’d like to learn more about hydrogen fuel tank safety: