The transportation sector is one of the most prominent contributors toward emissions. In this scenario, the usage of fuel cells has become very prominent. These cells have high efficiency and their dependability as an alternative fuel across transport applications has increased in recent years. The presence of a supportive regulatory spectrum is also responsible for the rise in demand for these cells.
Energy consumption is more prominent in the transport sector than any other. Land transport is a major contributor to energy consumption in this domain, typically due to light vehicles including cars as well as heavy duty cargo vehicles.
The rise in automobile production will thus serve as a major factor for increasing the demand of fuel cells worldwide. According to U.S. Department of Energy's February 2019 report, the number of fuel cell vehicles on the road in America grew to 6,500 from 4,000 in 2015.
Understanding fuel cells
A fuel cell is an electrochemical device, which converts a fuel's (generally hydrogen) chemical energy, into heat and electricity. What sets fuel cells apart from their traditional counterparts is their ability to cater to a range of applications; from largescale systems like utility power stations to something as small as a laptop.
The application scope of fuel cells is expansive, including material handling, portable, stationary, power backup and transport. Fuel cells have myriad advantages over combustion-based devices, with over 60 percent efficiency in the conversion of the fuel's chemical energy to electrical energy.
Additionally, fuel cells emit significantly less pollutants than combustion engines, given that that hydrogen fuel cell conversion emits only water and heat. Furthermore, lesser moving parts ensure quieter engine operation when fuel cells are used.
How fuel cells are "driving" the automotive industry
The very first fuel cell-powered vehicle, the GM Electrovan, was tested on U.S. roads way back in 1966. The system was supported by NASA development during the space race period and involved several advances in fuel cell technologies.
Fuel cell development has come a long way since then. Following the 1992 Energy Policy Act, hydrogen is considered an alternate fuel and is thus eligible for tax credits. And since fuel cell electric vehicles or FCEVs are powered primarily by hydrogen, this proves to be a considerable boost to fuel cell market growth.
Fuel cells vehicles exhibit higher efficiency compared to combustion-powered vehicles, as they generate no tailpipe emissions. FCEVs are currently in development stages, with the U.S. Department of Energy employing consistent r&d efforts towards making hydrogen-powered vehicles an efficient, affordable and secure alternative to traditional transportation.
Emboldened by its belief that fuel cells are the future of transportation, recently, Hyundai - touted as a global leader in fuel cell technology, announced the release to two new fuel cell-powered concepts; the HDC-6 Neptune Concept Class 8 heavy-duty truck and the clean energy refrigerated concept trailer, the HT Nitro ThermoTech.
Industry experts from Hyundai have expressed that this trailer-truck combination is a glimpse into the future of U.S. transport and adds significant impetus to the firm's Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle 2030 Vision, which involves the widespread implementation of hydrogen-based fuel cell technology.
Fuel cell technology is gaining momentum rapidly in the automotive sector, as is evidenced by a series of deals among prominent industry players.
- Renowned power firm Cummins, known for its legendary diesel engine technology, recently acquired Canadian fuel cell manufacturer Hydrogenics in a $290 million deal, this September.
- Meanwhile, in Italy, truck manufacturer CNH Industrial NV, backed by billionaire family Agnelli, greenlighted an investment of $250 million towards Nikola Motor, a startup firm working towards the deployment of hydrogen powered semi-trucks.
- Furthermore, in April, the world's largest auto-parts manufacturer, Robert Bosch revealed plans to partner up with Powercell Sweden to initiative mass production of fuel cells by 2022.
What does the future landscape look like for fuel cell vehicles?
In recent times, industry analysts have often claimed that hydrogen may emerge to be the central pillar in energy transformation. Indeed, hydrogen fuel cell EVs may fast replace battery-operated EVs as the foremost trend in the auto industry.
The stronghold of fuel cell technology on the transportation sector is evident; with numerous developments to prove it. For instance, following the successful showcase of the "i Hydrogen Next" concept - a hydrogen-based X5 SUV variant, BMW is now allegedly developing a hydrogen fuel cell-based X7 model, expected to launch in 2023. An electric version of the X7, dubbed iX7, is also reportedly in the works.
Meanwhile, Hyundai has invested nearly $7 billion towards fuel cell cars development, with a production aim of half a million, including the new Hyundai Nexo SUV, by 2030.
Hyundai has also initiated a collaboration with Audi for fuel cell technology development. This deal is the indicator of Audi's renewed focus on fuel cell advancement, according to outgoing CEO Bram Schot. A production car is under development currently and is expected to launch in 2021.
Mercedes is not far behind in the fuel cell game; it is gearing up for the limited release of its revolutionary plug-in/fuel cell hybrid technology GLC F-Cell. The device is expected to facilitate smooth operations without concerns about H2 station proximity.