Fuel Cells, the Technology that Never Quite Made it, Makes Another Run

Apr 13, 2017

There’s more than one-way to power an electric vehicle.  The one most people are familiar with is through batteries. However, there’s another way to generate electricity for cars that these days is more science fact than fiction. 

How a fuel cell works
Credit How a fuel cell works / U.S. Department of Energy

Fuel cells create electricity by chemical reaction. Their only emissions are water vapor, so environmentally the technology is very attractive. But, its development has been slow because of cost and infrastructure challenges.

That is changing, says Sunita Satyapal, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fuel Cell Technologies Office.

“We have been funding research that enables fuel cells to be commercial. And we have had lots of progress.  We have helped reduce the cost over 50 percent in the last several years.”

She made that comment during a regional fuel cell conference in Lorain last month. She came to Ohio because of the increasing deployment of fuel-cell vehicles and the ramp-up of supporting infrastructure.

SARTA Executive Director Kirt Conrad is a big proponent of the technology.
Credit TIM RUDELL / WKSU

Open to the public
SARTA, the regional transit system based in Canton is especially active in those areas. It now has the third largest fuel-cell bus fleet in the nation.  And Executive Director Kirt Conrad says it is building a hydrogen fueling center to service its fleet and anyone else who wants to use it, including a well-known delivery company. 

"Eighteen of those will be UPS (vehicles). And that will be the largest grouped deployment of such UPS vehicles in the world. Nine will be in Canton, and nine in Columbus.”

Andrew Thomas is executive-in-residence at the Levin College Energy Policy Center of Cleveland State University. He is a geophysicist, an attorney with a specialty in energy law and a former energy industry executive. 

Natural gas fueling station
Credit Tim Rudell / WKSU

A supply chain that matters
He sees the rollout with SARTA as just the beginning.

“Fleets will be the first adopters on it, in the same way we did with compressed natural gas. By having this hydrogen fueling station open to the public in Canton, Ohio — and we need more of these — as these come out and become available, then we see the cars coming out as well. And people can actually buy fuel cell vehicles and operate them.”    

As a matter of economic development and job creation, SARTA’s Kirt Conrad believes there is promise showing even in early fuel-cell activity like his organization’s.

“The one thing that’s interesting about that is that a lot of the outfitters and that stuff are here in Ohio. So we’re trying to actually find Ohio companies to start doing some of this work for us.”

Pat Valente, executive director of the Ohio Fuel Cell Coalition, thinks there is another reason that Ohio has potential in the fuel cell industry. He points to a meeting with senior managers of Ballard Power Systems, Canada’s biggest fuel cell company.

“I ran into them about three years ago, or four years ago, at a conference. And one of the people from there said: “Ohio -- you have the best supply chain in the world.”

SARTA bus taking on passengers
Credit WKSU

The natural gas connection
Ohio also sits atop a part of the Utica Shale that is rich in natural gas—the most commonly used source of hydrogen for fuel cells. It contains natural gas liquids, too, used in manufacturing fuel cells.

Cleveland State’s Andrew Thomas says that can make the region the center for fuel cell technology.

“So there is an entire chemical industry that would potentially come out of this hydrogen industry. And this could be something that is born and developed here because we have cheap feed stock of natural gas.

Not everyone is so optimistic. The auto industry has been very slow to adopt this technology. However three of the world’s biggest car makers now have fuel-cell vehicles on the market. Toyota’s Mirai, Hyundai’s Tucson FCV, and Honda’s just-introduced Clarity.

2017 Toyota Mirai
Credit Toyota

Another traditional problem for fuel-cell vehicles has been “wear-out-time”...they just couldn’t match the typical 100-thousand-mile-plus life spans of regular cars and trucks.

Pat Valente with the Ohio Fuel Cell Coalition says the new models feature engineering like “stacking” cells, linking them together for more for power and durability.  “Honda, they got 150-thousand miles out of their stack. That’s pretty good.  Hey, look it, I’m Honda or Toyota:  I’m not putting junk on the rocket.  They’ve got too much to lose.” 

The U.S. Energy Department says a quarter of a billion dollars was spent or invested in fuel cell related businesses in Ohio last year.  That puts the state in the top ten when it comes to fuel cell production.  It is number one when it comes to making parts for fuel cells.