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Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEV) are being marketed as zero-emissions vehicles with zero compromises. From light to medium and heavy-duty, FCEVs promise to provide an alternative to gas and diesel vehicles. California is where FCEVs have the most traction. The deployment is being supported by partnerships with automakers, governments and industry associations.

Ahead of National Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Day (H2 Day), Auto Futures spoke with industry insiders from Hyundai, Toyota, South Coast Air Quality Management District, the California Fuel Cell Partnership and the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association.

In short, a fuel cell vehicle is an electric car with an electrical generator onboard. One example of this is the Hyundai Nexo fuel cell SUV with a 380 mile (570 km) range.

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How Does a Fuel Cell Stack Work?

According to Gil Castillo, Senior Group Manager for Alternative Vehicle Strategy at Hyundai Motor America, the electricity is generated within the stack. The stack has two sides; one side has hydrogen and the other side pumps in oxygen. The platinum catalyst splits the hydrogen into positive ions and negative electrons. A polymer electrolyte membrane allows the positive ions to flow through while the negative electrons move along an external circuit creating an electrical current. Another catalyst causes the negatively charged electrons to combine with oxygen to make water. The water is then ejected as vapour.

The hydrogen is stored in a pressured tank which is refuelled from a hydrogen pump station. Electricity is stored in a battery that can boost power and be charged with regenerative braking.

Who are Fuel Cell Vehicles For?

“If someone is interested in zero-emission vehicles and has a long commute, fuel cells can be a very good alternative. Many people don’t have the time or the resources to charge a battery electric vehicle,” says Castillo, who notes that FCEV buyers and leasers typically look for hydrogen stations located near work or home before considering a fuel cell vehicle.

There is very little servicing required for FCEV except for replacing the air filter, changing the coolant and other things such as brake fluid and brakes. The EV stack will last 10 years or a hundred thousand mile warranty.

“FCEV can be cheaper than a gasoline-powered car,” says Castillo. “It makes a lot of sense.”

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Why Fuel Cells Suit Light- to Heavy-Duty

Hydrogen fuel cell is a robust and scalable fuel with all the benefits of gasoline without the carbon: long-range; quick refill; and no emissions, says Craig Scott, Director of the Advanced Technologies Group for Toyota Motor North America.

“Fuel cell is the ‘no-compromise’ EV. They have all the benefits of gasoline vehicles and the added quality of no maintenance like EVs with the added benefit of no need for a battery replacement,”’ says Scott.

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Toyota began offering the Mirai fuel cell sedan in the US in August 2015. He notes the Mirai drives like a luxury car. It is smooth with very little noise. The Mirai has a 312 mi (502 km) range and comes with complimentary $15,000 or 3 years worth of hydrogen. Toyota has been developing fuel cell vehicles for the last 27 years in Japan and the US for 19 years.

“Unfortunately, there were a few problems with hydrogen supplies and Mirai drivers have been asked to be patient there was an incident at a production facility in Northern California earlier this year and last year there was a shortage,” Scott apologises but notes there is great interest from people who want to help create a better future for their kids.

Fuel Cells Are Great for Transport

Toyota is taking the need for zero-emissions vehicles seriously with the Project Portal, the world’s first Class 8 heavy-duty fuel cell truck pilot programme.

Toyota and Kenworth jointly-developed fuel cell electric heavy-duty trucks with support from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) through Zero and Near-Zero Emissions Freight Facilities Project (ZANZEFF). CARB awarded $41 million to the Port of Los Angeles for the ZANZEFF project as part of California Climate Investments, a California initiative that uses of Cap-and-Trade dollars.

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In California, heavy-duty trucks, port drayage vehicles account for 30% of smog emission and 7% of global warming emissions. Project Portal is expected to reduce emissions by over 500 tons of Greenhouse Gas and 0.72 weighted tons of NOx, ROG and PM10.

Toyota has been working is using natural gas from landfill and biogas from agricultural waste to make a hundred percent renewable hydrogen energy at the Port of Los Angeles. Toyota started testing alpha and beta trucks. This year through partnering with Kenworth, they built three fuel-cell-powered Kenworth T680s and they should have five by the end of the year and eventually will have a total of ten, says Scott. He notes a problem with electric big rig trucks commercial trucks is the battery takes away from the payload and it takes a very long time for recharging.

“The truck drivers who have tried the fuel-cell truck say they are excited by the technology because diesel trucks are a hard drive the fuel-cell trucks drive like a Lexus. There’s no jerking in and shifting and they can idle with the air conditioning on as well,” says Scott, “They are amazed by the technology.”

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How Fuel Cell Vehicles Will Thrive

Fuel cell vehicles are supported by the South Coast Air Quality Management District. South Coast AQMD (SCAQMD) through demonstrating them in its fleet, displaying them at events in the area, providing co-funding for hydrogen stations, advancing vehicle development, and providing rebates to consumers says SCAQMD spokesperson Bradley Whitaker.

South Coast AQMD is one of the members of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, which issued a document in 2018 “The California Fuel Cell Revolution” to provide a vision of the market conditions needed to support fuel cell vehicle deployment to grow to up to one million vehicles by 2030 along with 1,000 hydrogen fueling stations.

“We can not get to that vision unless the private sector has partnerships with government and vice versa. To get there, there needs to be long term consistent policy that helps create stable market conditions,” says Keith Malone, spokesperson for the California Fuel Cell Partnership.

He noted that as of the first of September there were 7,450 fuel cell cars sold and leased with 40 retail hydrogen stations in the state of California. A bonus is the state of California offers buyers and leasees of fuel cell vehicles rebates up to $7,500.

The air is not only cleaner but when you replace diesel buses and trucks with fuel cell engines the noise level goes down significantly, says Malone

The Future of Fuel Cell Zero Emissions

Fuel cell vehicles are the only zero-emission vehicle to totally replicate internal combustion engine (ICE) driving experience because you can refuel in 3 to 5 minutes with a fuel cell and hydrogen can scale from a subcompact all the way up to a bus or medium or heavy-duty truck says Morry Markowitz president of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association (FCHEA).

He sees fuel cell electric vehicle as an alternative to electric battery vehicles for zero-emission transportation similar to what exists today with either gasoline or diesel transportation.

Zero-emission systems can look at what best meets the needs of the user. For example, someone who only goes on short excursions and has home charging may prefer an electric vehicle, however, if they don’t have a place to charge the vehicle they can opt for an FCEV says, Markowitz.

Providing electric vehicle charging for a fleet of vehicles or a transportation system can be very expensive if you are installing a charger for each vehicle. However, for fleets such as buses, the cost of building the fueling for hydrogen is less expensive, because the station can supply fuel for many vehicles.

In the future, he sees the portfolio of fuel cell electric vehicles will work well with transit, fleet autonomous vehicles medium and heavy-duty trucks in which there is a need for long-distance.

“The greatest challenge is to get consumers to try electric vehicles once they have the experience they appreciate it,” says Markowitz. To promote fuel cell vehicles FCHEA created October 8th as National Fuel Cell day it is named after the atomic weight of hydrogen which is 1.008.

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FCHEA is working on getting a federal tax credit for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to help consumers make better decisions. They are also working on standards to move the technology beyond California; on the next steps for medium to heavy-duty vehicles, and working on integrating a system that can produce hydrogen from multiple fuel sources including renewable solar and wind.

There are discussions within the hydrogen fuel-cell communities that the next deployment of hydrogen may be in New York and Boston for light vehicles or there is a possibility to extend the I-5 Corridor up from California to Oregon and Washington.

Malone adds that, no matter what kind of fuel cell vehicle, car, bus or truck, they provide great performance.

If you would like to attend our free live event debating the future of fuel, please click on the link below.

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