This week’s announcements that Ford is joining with Daimler and Renault-Nissan to speed development of cars that run on hydrogen and that BMW and Toyota are expanding their collaboration in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles could be a shot in the arm for research on the zero emission technologies in Columbia and Aiken County.
The Ford partnership announced that it hopes to bring an affordable hydrogen vehicle to market in as little as four years.
BMW and Toyota hope to have a more workable and affordable hydrogen fuel cell drive train by 2020.
The push to make the cars and the infrastructure that supports them more affordable is a general boost to fuel cell research at the University of South Carolina, and hydrogen production and storage at the Savannah River National Laboratory and the Applied Research Center in Aiken County. Even though those facilities don’t deal in automobile research specifically, their research could assist suppliers of high tech parts for those cars.
“There isn’t one thing that is making these vehicles expensive,” said USC professor and chair John Weidner, whose research team in part works to advance fuel cells and batteries used in hydrogen technology.
Testing hydrogen fuel cells
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles generate electricity after a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen is stored in special high-pressure tanks, and the only emissions are water vapor and heat.
Under the alliance, each company will invest equally in the technology. They plan to develop a common fuel cell system that the companies will use to power their own vehicles. The automakers also plan to take advantage of their combined size to reduce costs.
Many automakers have been testing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for years, but so far haven’t been able to bring costs down enough to sell the vehicles in mass markets.
BMW rolled out a demonstration fleet of 100 Hydrogen 7s beginning in 2006, mainly in New York and Los Angeles, where strings of hydrogen fueling stations make their use possible. Celebrity testers included Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Will Ferrell and Edward Norton.
The vehicles still are not within economic reach of the average motorist and until that happens, fuel cell use would remain limited to smaller markets such as fork lifts and battery packs, said Fred Humes, executive director of the Applied Research Center in Aiken County. But when fuel cell cars become mainstream, he said, South Carolina could start reaping the rewards of its investment in the technology.
“You’re going to see the fuel cell factory pop up when there is a greater demand,” said Humes, who also is chairman of the S.C. Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Alliance. “And we’re positioned well to be a major player when they begin rolling out these vehicles.”
S.C.’s part in innovation
South Carolina is already a player in the hydrogen and fuel cell world, alongside New York, California and Ohio.
The state has two hydrogen fueling stations already – one in Columbia and one in Aiken — at a cost of about $1 million each. And South Carolina cemented itself on the zero emissions map when Columbia hosted the National Hydrogen Association Conference & Expo in April 2009.
Already the Bridgestone/Firestone tire plant in Aiken and the BMW plant in Greer use hydrogen fuel cell forklifts and their own fueling facilities. And USC engineers have developed a small electric vehicle that can run on a variety of energy sources, including hydrogen fuel cells.
But a lot of work needs to be done before hydrogen cars start rolling up and down the state’s highways.
California has 36 fueling stations built or in development today and, through state government initiatives, hopes to have 100 in place by 2015, in anticipation of affordable vehicles becoming available to consumers.
Humes said the challenge for South Carolina is creating enough infrastructure and demand for the vehicles here to get on the major car companies’ radar.
“The challenge for us is going to be one of population and demand,” he said. “There is quite a logistics tail that is going to come with these vehicles. I think one of the things we can do is add to the infrastructure – fueling stations in the rest of the state.”
The zero-emissions cars have great potential to cut pollution — a serious problem in California — and reduce the world’s reliance on oil for transportation. They also have advantages over electric cars in that they can be refueled in a matter of minutes rather than hours.
The problems are similar to the challenges faced by electric cars – making the technologies that go into the cars more efficient and cheaper, and finding ways to make hydrogen storage provide greater range. Hydrogen cars are now limited to a range of about 100 miles.
Those are all technological challenges being tackled in South Carolina laboratories. And with the renewed push by the major car companies, that research could shift into high gear.
Jeff Serfass, chief executive of the Hydrogen Education Foundation, told The State that the Ford collaboration and the BMW expansion is good news for the hydrogen industry and therefore hydrogen research in the Palmetto State.
“It’s going to focus development resources in a way that will bring lower cost, market-ready vehicles to the marketplace faster,” he said. “This puts hydrogen and fuel cells back on center stage.”