There’s been a virtual civil war happening in the battle to create the next generation of motor vehicles. The battle is between plug-ins and fuel cells.
You may have heard more about about plug-ins thanks to Tesla, which has single handedly revived the market for a technology that was otherwise going nowhere. Tesla’s foe — and indeed, that is how Elon Musk regards the technology — is fuel cell vehicles, which run on hydrogen.
Fuel cell vehicles have seen their own recent jolt thanks to more established automakers like Toyota, which just got a major boost from the Japanese government in the form of fuel-cell vehicle subsidies. At least three other major automakers are plan to release FCVs in the near future.
Tesla is enjoying lots of momentum — it’s shares are up about 50% this year — and the company has embarked on an unprecedented capex odyssey to double the world’s supply of lithium ion batteries and expand its charging networks. Can they really be derailed by fuel cells? Or could the two technologies even learn to get along someday?
Let’s back up for a moment.
What are fuel cells?
Fuel cells take hydrogen and turn it into electricity. The most common way of doing this involves charging a special material, called a proton exchange membrane, to separate out the proton and electron from a hydrogen atom. The electron gets captured as electricity, then recombines with the proton and a supply of oxygen and comes out as water.
If you stack a bunch of these guys together, you get a fuel cell. Here’s what it looks like in the inside of a car. There’s only a motor in the front; the fuel cell is in the middle of the car.
Pros and cons
The principal advantage of fuel cell vehicles is that you don’t have to plug them in. Instead you simply go to a fuel station and refill your car with hydrogen. Battery electrics, on the other hand, require you to leave your car at a charging station for more hours (or a little more than an hour in the case of a Tesla). Environmentally, while neither generate direct emissions, creating the hydrogen, and the raw electricity for batteries, requires burning fossil fuels upstream at a power plant. So neither is truly emission free.
However, there remain huge gaps in fuel cells’ charging networks, while those for battery electric are much more widespread.
Here’s the map for fuel cells:
And for battery-electric charging stations:
Despite its Fremont digs, Tesla does not rule the California roost. The state plans to have 25 hydrogen fueling stations operating by fall of next year capable of handling 4,000 new vehicles. A new study says existing gasoline stations can safely store and dispense hydrogen, which could allow that figure to jump.
In fact, many hydrogen vehicles start out being only available in California. And because of how the state’s complex emissions credit rules are calculated, hydrogen-powered vehicles earn more points for range and speed of refueling than do battery-electric cars, according to GreenCarReports. Indeed, the California Air Resources Board projected in 2012 that there would eventually be more fuel cells on the road than battery electrics:
Governor Jerry Brown recently signed an executive order calling for 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on California roadways by 2025. The state is actually one of eight states that together hope to put 3.3 million zero-emission. The program’s incentives are fuel source-agnostic.
Getting cheaper … at least automakers hope so
To date, most fuel cell infrastructure has been directed toward power plants that run on hydrogen. A recent note from Navigant Research indicates more sectors are looking to fuel cells to provide sources of power independent of the grid in case of natural disasters. Fuel cells have also found their way into warehouses — Wal-Mart has been using fuel cells as cost- and labour-saving devices for its forklifts; they allow for lower refueling times.
Fuel cell automakers are hoping all this capacity spills over — Toyota, Ford, GM and Hyundai all plan to roll out new FCVs. Adam Jonas says they don’t have much choice: He sees their push as the result of failing to make a good enough plug-in electric. “We are not aware of any recent breakthrough in the field of hydrogen fuel cells,” he wrote in a recent note. “What we are aware of, however, is a failure of most EVs to achieve their stated volume targets.” He calls their doubling down on fuel cells, “a diversionary tactic to slow down, if not completely reset, a regulatory framework scripted to support mass adoption of EVs that don’t appear ready for prime time.”
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