Hydrogen Fuel Cell vs. Electric Battery Automotive Technologies

Most of us recall the home entertainment battle between VHS vs. Betamax tape formats back in the 80s. In the end, the VHS format won out as the result of normal market mechanisms and without government intervention. Today, the battle is for the future of the automotive industry. Although hydrogen technology has received scant attention recently and biofuels are already in use, the heavyweight contenders are battery and fuel cell technologies. Both technologies are poised to hit the automotive market in the near future, but one has a definite, and almost certainly decisive, advantage.

The Department of Energy has invested heavily in the development of battery electric vehicles. Those investments include upgrading and retooling of battery vehicle manufacturing plants as well as R&D of the actual technology. By comparison, the DOE’s funding of hydrogen vehicle technology is almost negligible. Both fuel cell and battery electric vehicles utilize the same electric motors.

The apparent preference for battery electric technology can be attributed to the lower development and deployment / infrastructure costs. Battery technology is already in use in a number of gas-electric hybrid models, and the infrastructure for plug-in electric technology is already in place. A number of private sector companies including Better Place, ECOtality, Coulomg, Aerovironment and others are courting lucrative federal contracts to install battery charging stations throughout the country. Few hydrogen fuel cell recharging stations have been deployed and have not yet been commercialized.

Earlier this year, hydrogen fuel cell proponents defeated the DOE’s attempt to cut funding of the technology by more than 60%. The agency has appropriated $190 million to fund research and development of fuel cell technology in 2010 which advocates say is a “drop in the bucket” compared with the $10 billion the agency has funneled into battery electric research and development in 2009.

Auto companies have also invested heavily in battery technology. General Motors alone has invested $1.5 billion in the cause. Ford Motors has also received $5.9 billion from the DOE’s Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Loan Program to further develop its EcoBoost combustion engine technology, hybrid technology and to transform a portion of its truck manufacturing capabilities for the production of passenger cars.

In contrast to the U.S., Europe and Japan offer a more level playing field for the development of fuel cell technology. A recent issue of the Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Letter reported that automaker – Daimler, energy provider – Vattanfall, liquid hydrogen producer – the Linde Group and oil producers – Total and Shell, as well as others, are collaborating on the formation of a national hydrogen fueling network in Germany. According to the consortium, fuel cell vehicles could number in the hundreds of thousands in Germany by 2015. There are currently 30 hydrogen refueling stations located throughout Germany.

Toyota’s president, Akio Toyoda considers battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as equal parts of the solution to reducing greenhouse emissions and reducing the reliance on fossil fuels. Akio says, “In the future we may use electric vehicles for short-distance travel and fuel-cell cars for long drives.” Toyota is planning to roll out an electric battery vehicle in 2012 and a hydrogen fuel cell car as early as 2014.

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