Are fuel cells still feasible?

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I haven’t talked about fuel cells in this space for a while – indeed, it’s been two years since I last took up the topic in a post.

Yet I’m circling back to it now because General Motors and Honda just sealed what the OEMs describe as a “long-term, definitive master agreement” to co-develop next-generation fuel cell system and hydrogen storage technologies for vehicles – aiming for the 2020 time frame.

Both said they plan to work together specifically to “further advance refueling infrastructure, which is critical for the long-term viability and consumer acceptance of fuel cell vehicles,” which Dan Akerson, GM’s chairman and CEO, explained is critical to building acceptance of this transportation technology among consumers.

[Here’s a peek inside some of the fuel cell research GM conducted three years ago as the oEM sought ways to lower the cost of this technology.]

Takanobu Ito, president & CEO of Honda Motor Co. Ltd., added that among all zero carbon dioxide (CO2)emission technologies, fuel cell electric vehicles have a definitive advantage with range and refueling time that is as good as conventional gasoline cars.

“[That’s why] we are eager to accelerate the market penetration of this ultimate clean mobility technology, and I am excited to form this collaboration to fuse our leading fuel cell technologies and create an advanced system that will be both more capable and more affordable,” he said.

[Here’s a look at some of the work Honda’s done on fuel cell vehicles; in this case an overview of its FCX vehicle from two years ago.]

GM and Honda are no slouches when it comes to fuel cell research, either. Indeed, according to the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index, GM and Honda rank No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in total fuel cell patents filed between 2002 and 2012, with more than 1,200 between them.

In GM's case, its “Project Driveway” program – launched in 2007 – accumulated nearly 3 million miles of real-world driving across a fleet of 119 hydrogen-powered vehicles. For its part, Honda began leasing its fuel cell-powered FCX in 2002, deploying some 85 units in the U.S. and Japan – vehicles that include its successor model, the FCX Clarity.

Honda already plans to launch a successor of FCX Clarity in Japan and the U.S. in 2015 and then in Europe – showing that it’s still committed to the potential fuel cell technology offers in terms of reducing petroleum dependency and emissions, while boosting efficiency, range and refueling times.

Indeed, fuel cell technology remains attractive as a power source for other transportation related needs, such as auxiliary power units (APUs) – to the point where the U.S. Department of Energyinitiated a fuel cell APU research project late last year.

The interest in fuel cell vehicles is easy to discern, too, as GM and Honda noted that the technology offers up 400 miles driving range with refueling time as short as three minutes – all based on a propulsion technology can be used on small, medium, and large vehicles alike. Furthermore, fuel cells can operate on renewable hydrogen made from sources like wind and biomass, with water vapor as the only exhaust emission stream.

Yet can they make it work at a price point motorists and truckers alike can afford? That still remains the real trick yet to be accomplished. 

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