Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles: Paving the Way to Commercial Success

Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles: Paving the Way to Commercial Success

Research focuses on boosting reliability, reducing costs, and designing infrastructure of the future.

A photo of a white Toyota fuel cell hybrid vehicle driving on a road. The side of the vehicle includes a blue NREL logo and a decal that reads, "Powered by 100% Renewable Sources". Enlarge image

Powered by a fuel cell system with light-weight, high-pressure hydrogen tanks, an electric motor, a nickel-metal-hydride battery, and a power-control unit, the Toyota fuel cell electric vehicle has zero tailpipe emissions.
Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

As nations around the world pursue sustainable transportation solutions, the hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) presents a promising opportunity for consumers and automakers alike. Automakers have made steady progress reducing the cost and increasing the performance of fuel cell propulsion systems, and most major vehicle manufacturers are geared to launch FCEVs in the U.S. market between 2015 and 2020.

Although fuel cell technologies are proven and effective, deployment challenges persist—particularly in terms of further reducing the cost and increasing the durability of fuel cells and getting sufficient infrastructure in place to support widespread consumer use. Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) are collaborating with industry partners to remove some of these barriers.

In-line Diagnostics Help Reduce Cost, Improve Reliability

As the fuel cell manufacturing industry moves from small- to large-scale production, quality control is essential. Using NREL-developed in-line diagnostics, manufacturers can more effectively identify defects in fuel cell components, leading to higher production volumes, improved reliability, and lower costs.

A photo of a group of people looking under the hood of a white fuel cell hybrid vehicle. Enlarge image

NREL's Keith Wipke explains how a fuel cell electric vehicle works at an advanced vehicle ride-and-drive event at the NREL Education Center.
Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

"The cost impact of defects could be huge," said Senior Engineer Michael Ulsh. "A fuel cell stack can consist of hundreds of components. Because a single component failure could affect the whole stack, a 10% composite stack failure rate could drive up stack cost by 60%."

To help address this challenge, researchers use an NREL-developed optical reflectance system to identify defects in fuel cell membranes and apply active infrared imaging techniques to identify defects in electrode materials. These methods have been validated on a small-scale manufacturing line that can convey fuel cell component materials at speeds of 100 feet per minute.

Supporting a Hydrogen Infrastructure Rollout

NREL recently joined H2USA, a public-private partnership designed to promote the widespread adoption of FCEVs. This new partnership focuses on overcoming the hurdles associated with establishing a robust hydrogen infrastructure.

"NREL's participation in this partnership builds on the lab's extensive fuel cell and hydrogen technology validation and analysis experience," said Jen Kurtz, manager of the hydrogen analysis group. "Our hydrogen systems analysis staff will collaborate with a team of analysts from other national labs, universities, and key stakeholder groups to evaluate infrastructure rollout strategies and the business case for commercialization."

A photo of a white hydrogen fueling pump. The Rocky Mountains can be seen in the background. Enlarge image

Fuel cell electric vehicles fill up at NREL's hydrogen fueling station, which dispenses hydrogen made via renewable electrolysis.
Photo by John De La Rosa, NREL

This team will combine analytic capabilities refined over many years of systems analysis to understand the technical, market, and investment challenges associated with the transition to hydrogen, electric, and other alternative fuel vehicles. NREL will contribute a suite of modeling and analysis capabilities developed over the last decade in support of the U.S. Department of Energy's Fuel Cell Technologies Office as well as technology validation; safety, codes, and standards; and market transformation expertise.

Renewable Hydrogen FCEVs

Because hydrogen can be made from a variety of domestic resources, FCEVs reduce our nation's dependence on imported oil and diversify our transportation-related energy sources. While most hydrogen is currently produced from natural gas, NREL is investigating renewable hydrogen production technologies that tap into energy from the sun and wind.

"Here at NREL, we have four FCEVs on loan from Toyota that fill up on renewable hydrogen—wind turbines and solar arrays power electrolyzers that split water into hydrogen and oxygen," Kurtz said. "We showcase these and other advanced vehicles at public events to raise awareness about the alternative transportation options available today and on the horizon."

—Written by Julia Thomas

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