Hydrogen: Still the Fuel of Tomorrow?
Often lauded as a potentially clean power source for vehicles, hydrogen fuel cell technology has lagged electric cars in market uptake and consumer enthusiasm, according to research reported in Biofuels Digest.
The industry has seen some advances, like the strong backing of global giants Toyota and Shell, which recently joined forces to build seven hydrogen refuelling stations in California—compared to the state’s goal of 10,000 new electric vehicle recharging stations. Mostly, though, hydrogen fuel cells have largely failed to catch on outside specialty applications.
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Despite sporadic breakthroughs, one reason may be half-hearted research investment and innovation, the online publication suggests, citing proprietary findings reported by Lux Research in a report on innovating and networking in today’s hydrogen infrastructure value chain.
“A few automakers led by Toyota are putting their money where their mouth is, but the rest of the value chain lags behind by orders of magnitude,” said Cosmin Laslau, lead author of the report. “Fuel cell firms received only US$160 million from [venture capitalists] and private equity in 2015. The U.S. Department of Energy awarded US$100 million for R&D, leading hydrogen firms spent a mere US$70 million.”
By contrast, in 2015, the top dozen private sector photovoltaic module manufacturers alone invested US$543 million in research and development.
Japan, the report notes, has nearly half—45%—of the world’s hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure. The U.K. and the United States each have about 10%. “But is Japan the lone wolf,” Biofuels Digest’s Jim Lane asks, “developing technology that may not see adoption in the rest of the world?”
Lane identifies the fuel cell’s chicken-and-egg problem as a lack of “initial fueling infrastructure”, adding that “the drop in fossil fuel prices and crude’s stubborn ‘New Normal’ at $50 per barrel” has suppressed consumer interest in hydrogen vehicles.
“Just a few years back, sub-US$2 per kilo costs for hydrogen looked like they would support a market,” the report recalls. “But consumers are buying lots of new cars, SUV sales have been far outstripping climate-conscious EVs, and sales of hydrogen cars have just refused to take off.”