Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCEV) are slowly making their way to market, after many many years of “they’re 5-10 years away”. For informational purposes, today the Dept of Energy and the SAE teamed up on a Webinar going over the status of fuel cell vehicle fueling standards (SAE J2601 – the physical plug format, SAE J2799 – data communication protocols to control fueling). These standards are accepted around the world, being adopted in Europe under the ISO fuel cell vehicle standards, and the automakers behind the standards have over a decade worth of mathematical modeling, laboratory testing, and real world testing to validate the system.
For the most part automakers have not gone-it-alone in fuel cell development, but have instead partnered in these alliances:
- BMW, Toyota
- Daimler, Ford, Nissan
- Honda, GM
The primary advantage cited during the webinar is refueling time. The goal mandated by the U.S. Dept of Transportation is 300+ miles of range in 3-5 minutes. That combination replicates the user experience of gasoline refueling – letting people keep on with their road trips without having to change any habit other than pulling up to the hydrogen pump rather than the gasoline pump.
But let’s get back to the fueling standard, because this is kind of interesting.
As I said, the nozzle looks like a gasoline nozzle but it borrows technology from natural gas refueling. Of course a hydrogen nozzle has to have a secure air-tight connection to the car because otherwise the hydrogen gas will just escape into the atmosphere rather than flow into the tank.
The protocol accommodates a several tank sizes, and two maximum tank pressures.
The J2799 protocol exchanges data commands between fueling station and vehicle meant to control the fueling process. It accommodates refueling at a range of ambient temperatures, and targets end-of-fueling at a given tank temperature and tank pressure. The standards don’t allow for tank temperature to go above 85 degrees centigrade, and of course the tank pressure is what determines the total range on the vehicle.
Because of the physics, the station gets cold during refueling, while the on-board tank gets hot. The stations have a precooling system, to cool the hydrogen gas prior to refueling so the heating in the on-board tank is minimized.
This is less flexible than battery electric vehicles. Hydrogen refueling stations only exist today as laboratory prototypes, and there’s no infrastructure for hydrogen delivery other than companies like Air Products who drive trucks around with pressurized gas tanks. Electric vehicles, on the other hand, can plug into any electrical outlet, and electricity is ubiquitously everywhere. That’s a big advantage towards the BEV camp.
The faster refueling time is the big issue that makes FCEV’s attractive. This is especially true for big trucks running on hydrogen, for which the SAE has a related set of refueling protocols. Truck fleet owners want their trucks on the road for more hours, and can’t afford the longer recharging time of a BEV Big Truck.
But is fast refueling attractive if you can’t find a station? The hydrogen stations are very expensive, which will limit their rollout – California is planning 100 total stations by 2016, which simply isn’t many stations. California might have more Tesla Supercharger stations installed by then, not to mention the CHADEMO and CCS stations for DC Fast Charging of regular electric cars.
DC Fast Charging stations cost a lot less than $2 million apiece, meaning the BEV recharging infrastructure will be built more quickly. Therefore, BEV infrastructure is already way ahead of FCEV infrastructure, and that lead will keep building over time.
Another example is sales volume – California just passed the point of having 100,000 plug-in vehicles, 3 1/2 years into the project. Tesla Motors claims they’ll be selling a half million electric cars per year by 2020. By comparison, FCEV sales volume is barely an asterisk at the bottom of the page, and we don’t see any indication that’ll appreciably change.
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