This article is part of the special topic "Future Mobility".

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Toyota's next-generation "Mirai Concept" is designed to offer improvements in fuel cell technology in particular.
Toyota's next-generation "Mirai Concept" is designed to offer improvements in fuel cell technology in particular.
( Source: Toyota)

ALTERNATIVE FUEL Can hydrogen fuel cells solve the pain points of electric vehicles?

Author / Editor: Cate Lawrence / Florian Richert

OEMs are responding to government mandates and consumer desire for low energy, carbon-neutral vehicles. While plug-in electric vehicles receive plenty of airtime, a less understood option is hydrogen fuel cells (HFCs), which have been of interest to several manufacturers with myFC having last week launched a hybrid vehicle concept.

All around the world, governments are implementing policies to promote electric vehicles to reduce oil consumption, climate-related emissions, and improve local air quality. Most of the attention has been dedicated to plug-in electric vehicles. Tesla has been working with China's Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd (CATL) to develop batteries that can last a million miles, also aiming to reduce the costs of electric Teslas. Last week CEO Elon Musk announced, "Battery Day" will be held in September this year, and Tesla will unveil their latest battery tech to investors.

Another way: Hydrogen Fuel Cells

But besides plug-in electrics, there's another option, Hydrogen Fuel Cells (HFCs), an electrochemical power generator that combines Hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, with water and heat as by-products. HFCs form energy that can be used to power anything from commercial vehicles to forklifts and drones.

Toyota started researching HFC batteries in the late 90s. They launched the world's first dedicated mass-produced HFC vehicle, the Mirai, in Early 2015 with 3 minutes fill time and a range of 500kms and began sales in California, Europe, and Denmark. Since then, approximately 10,000 Mirai have been sold globally. A second-generation Mirai is scheduled for release late this year marking a new stage for FCEV technology. Improvements in fuel cell system performance and increased hydrogen storage capacity mean the new Mirai will target a 30 % increase in driving range.

Hyundai has created two mass-produced HFC vehicle,the second, Nexo, was launched in 2018 with just 5 minutes filling time and a driving range of 666kms without needing to charge. Last year, the BMW i Hydrogen NEXT prototype was launched at the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show. At the time, BMW asserted that HFC was in a position to complement more mainstream existing electric vehicle technology. They unveiled their plans to release the next generation of hydrogen fuel cell electric drive systems. These would first occur in a small-series vehicle based on the current BMW X5 in 2022. They also shared the intention to start offering fuel cell vehicles for customers in 2025 at the earliest.

myFC creates a modular hybrid offering

Swedish company myFC has developed thin, scalable, modular fuel cells that are easy to dimension and adapt to any electric application. They combine batteries and hydrogen-based micro fuel cells. While their original focus was on small modular handheld devices such as mobile phones, on June 17, 2020, the company showcased a fully functional fuel cell battery hybrid concept vehicle. The new fuel cell battery hybrid concept further develops the integration of myFC's fuel cell technology and power & energy management to maximize the system's range and lifespan. myFC has merged fuel cells and batteries, adding the high energy density and short-charge time of fuel cells to existing systems, offsetting the significant weaknesses of batteries. Their efforts enable electric vehicles to travel further. They can also refuel faster, and the combination significantly prolongs the lifespan of the batteries. The fuel cells achieve this by converting Hydrogen via an electrochemical process to electricity. The only emissions are water. The electricity generated is then managed through "power balancing technology" and administered as needed to the drag train or the batteries. Due to the obvious challenges of social distancing, myFC made a digital demonstration to showcase the concept vehicle. The presentation consisted of an in-depth run-through of the technology, a test drive of the concept vehicle, and a panel discussion.

A modular fuel cell system was installed in the trunk of a Fiat500 that had been converted to electric. Sebastian Weber CTO myFC s took a walk through the retrofitted vehicle, which had an electric motor, lithium-ion battery, and a BMS. myFC's fuel cell system was installed with two small tanks of compressed Hydrogen: "The Hydrogen is fed to the fuel cell. And it converts the Hydrogen into electricity and runs the electricity through our active power balancing system. And then we charge the onboard lithium battery. And the reason why we do that is that then we can either power the drive train from the battery, or we can power different accelerates like heaters, coolers, fans, or whatever else that's electrified in the car."

The evolution of hydrogen is controversial but promising

CEO Michael Glanz noted that "Hydrogen is nothing new. We've had it since Big Bang here on Earth, but the Earth has had a very different focus, and we haven't heard so much about it, but it's the most used industrial gas." Michael also shared not only attention from car OEMs but also a growing interest from manufacturers of buses and trucks.

Roger Johansson, the founder of Jotech Group, who manufactured myFC's tech, shared, "We generate electricity. And with that electricity, we could have power and the acceleration in any vehicle. So there's the combination of supplying energy to the battery and storing it in the battery. Then we can supply energy to heaters, coolers, fans, and other accessories in vehicles. This means that we could be a good match for any automotive application or any mobile electrified vehicle, I would say."

Part of myFC's product advantage is its modularity, which makes it easy to scale: Roger notes "We are small when it comes to cell structure, then we can scale that up to different sizes. We can scale up to what we call a perfect match with the battery size on board, and the vehicle size, the range, and how the vehicle is going to be used."

In efforts to move from fuel to zero-emission vehicles and fleets, there are still several factors that prohibit consumer adoption. These include vehicle cost, range, charge time, battery life uncertainty, vehicle model choices, charging infrastructure, and understanding of the technology. While hydrogen fuel cells and hybrid HFC/electric offerings won't be mainstream anytime soon, they create an opportunity to progress innovation future and expand the existing suite of products in development and at market.