Automotive Fuel Cell Systems

Automotive fuel cell technology continues to make substantial progress but is not yet proven to be commercially viable. Recent technological and engineering advancements have improved, simplified, and even eliminated components of the fuel cell system. These include major improvements in the membrane electrode assembly (MEA) and fuel cell stack technologies. The Balance of Plant has a reduced number of components and now uses some parts that are of automotive quality and cost. The fuel cell system has a reduced start time and in-vehicle startup from a frozen condition has been demonstrated. Great strides have been made in the science of materials and operating characteristics of fuel cells. This increase in fundamental understanding shows promise for solving life, abuse, and durability issues for fuel cell systems.

The consensus among the majority of fuel cell system developers is that in order to achieve commercialization there are simultaneous requirements for:

• Higher MEA power per unit area of fuel cell electrodes (goal of 0.8-1.0 W/cm2)

• Reduced MEA catalyst cost (goal of total MEA catalyst loading

• Longer fuel cell system operating life and increased durability (goal of >5,000 h of customer use)

• Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) materials that are stable and can operate at a higher temperature (above 100°C)

• Engineering advances

An increase in MEA specific power allows a given fuel cell stack to produce more power and thus achieve a lower $/kW. Nearly every stack cost factor, at a given voltage, decreases in inverse proportion to MEA specific power. The MEA catalyst cost is directly related to the price of platinum. The price of this noble metal is rising due to worldwide demand exceeding supply and at current levels it represents a significant barrier to automotive fuel cell commercialization. The life and durability of fuel cells in automotive applications is not yet proven. A life of 5,000+hours in a light duty vehicle type load cycle has not been demonstrated at the cell or stack level. The development of high temperature membranes can potentially reduce the size and complexity of the Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) thermal system and may possibly eliminate the need for stack humidification. Engineering advances and innovation are focused on materials, stack design, and balance of plant to reduce cost and increase life.

At this time no fuel cell developer has achieved the necessary requirements for automotive fuel cell commercialization. The developers are relying on future technological improvements to meet both cost and life goals. Achieving these goals creates some contradictory requirements for the fuel cell system. These requirements are difficult to achieve separately and because they are interrelated, even more difficult to solve simultaneously. These technological improvements include the development of MEAs that use significantly less catalyst material and that operate at higher specific power and temperature over a longer system life. To simultaneously increase performance, extend life, and reduce cost will likely take ingenuity and invention.

In summary, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic regarding the prospects for fuel cell system commercialization. There are still large technical barriers to be solved but these might well be overcome over the next 5-10 years through the massive efforts underway at the major fuel cell and automobile manufacturers.

However, there are other issues that are beyond the control of any single manufacturer. These include timely availability of adequate and affordable hydrogen refueling, as well as need for a host of sustainable financial incentives to help minimize the capitalization risks of all key stakeholders during the early years of initial commercialization of hydrogen powered FCEVs. Wide spread deployment of FCEVs will require continuous strong support and a long-term commitment from government agencies in resolving these issues.

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