Fuel-cell visions

5 October 2005

Punters ponder F-Cell MercedesThe display of fuel cell vehicles in London’s Trafalgar Square on Monday managed to attract a fair amount of enthusiasm from passing tourists and the odd TV crew, despite the display highlights – such as the Mercedes F-Cell pictured – being on the static side. Sadly the bods from Intelligent Energy didn’t seem keen to zip through the crowds on the ENV fuel-cell bike. Perhaps it isn’t as good to ride as it is to look at?

Next day at the Grove Fuel Cell Symposium, Werner Tillmetz of the Center for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research in Ulm, Germany, summed up the state of the art in fuel cell vehicles. Of the 350 vehicles produced to date worldwide, more than 100 are currently in daily use. Together, these cars, trucks and buses have clocked up more than a million kilometres, he noted, and have “defined the requirements” for the next generation of vehicles. There are about 100 hydrogen filling stations worldwide, he added, and the prototype vehicles are helping to establish what purity of hydrogen they need to operate reliably in the long term.

An often overlooked area is maintenance. “How many mechanics are experienced in handling 400- to 600-volt cars?” Tillmetz asked, explaining that servicing skills will need to be built up before fuel cell vehicles can be offered to the general public.

Having said the above, he predicted that fuel-cell passenger cars are just 10 years – or two model development cycles – from the mass market. Japan expects to have 50,000 fuel cell vehicles in service by 2010, and five million by 2020.

The big carmakers are likely to be beaten to market by startups concentrating on niche products such as scooters, Tillmetz added. These might be fuelled using hydrogen split from water using domestic electricity.

The big unknown, of course, is what role governments will take. With global warming accelerating – the UK government’s chief scientific advisor Professor Sir David King opened the conference with some dire projections – it would be good to see some incentives to accelerate the pace of improvement in carbon-neutral technologies.

R&D tax breaks for research, zero duty or even tax rebates on hydrogen fuel, exemption from road tax and the like could dramatically alter the financial equations and speed up adoption of cleaner and more efficient alternatives to the internal combustion engine.

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