Los Angeles Auto Show Pushing Fuel Cells This Year

This past week was the semi official start to the auto show season, first was Tokyo, then followed by Los Angeles. Sadly due to distance, time and work constraints, Pace Charging attended neither of the aforementioned. Fortunately the Miami Auto Show is in the dead of our winter where a long weekend in the sun would actually qualify as a potential work related excuse to get out of the cold. Regardless of our absence we took more than a passing glance at the auto headlines to follow the feedback. The New York Sunday Times Automobiles section had some pretty good coverage of the new cars being showcased, the front cover headline read, “Fuel Cells At Center Stage”.

For years fuel cells have been on the minds of Greentech and environmental cheerleaders with the promise of absolute zero-emissions (maybe). The New York Times article was written by Bradley Berman, who has been both a Nissan Leaf driver and a test “pilot” for a fuel cell Toyota Highlander hybrid – so I think it’s safe to say Bradley is a little more knowledgeable than the average bear on the subject.

In plain English, a fuel cell is a device that generates electricity by way of a chemical reaction between two electrodes (anode and cathode) and an electrolyte to carry the particles and a catalyst to speed the reaction – a hydrogen fuel cell when mixed with oxygen has water as it’s emissions by product. Sounds great, however hydrogen is extremely flammable and oxygen supports combustion, little spark and, get the picture.

While providing water as waste and the energy conversion being highly efficient, there are the obvious draw backs – the chemical volatility of fuel, the high pressure storage of the fuel (10,000 psi) and the very relatively very high cost of infrastructure build out – a single hydrogen refueling station costs between $1mm and $3mm.

These days it’s safe to say that the media is always quick to pounce on and hype any new technology (or advances in old). Berman’s assessment of fuel cells was overall guarded but positive. In closing the article he was good to quote Steven Chu, Obama’s first term Energy Secretary,

“One keeps poking at it,” he(Chu) said. “I don’t think anyone is knowledgeable enough to say this technology for the next 10 years will not work.”

Berman ends, “With developments like more efficient fuel-cell stacks, higher pressure in tanks, greater range and lower cost compared with a decade ago, fuel-cell cars are getting a second look. Dr. Chu summed it up this way: “I think automakers are saying, ‘Look, hydrogen could be a long shot. But we’re going to put a little bet on it, and we’ll see.’”
Full NY Times Article Here.