Batteries Now, Fuel Cells Later?

Posted On April 23, 2009 | by AllenCaron

The news this morning: although we are enthusiastic about today’s battery–powered EVs, the fuel-cell-powered vehicle will be an important part of the mix in the future.  (http://www.greencarcongress.com/2009/04/h2fcv-20090423.html).  

Many in the media seem to accept that EVs will be powered by either the current dominant technology (the Nickel Metal Hydride or NiMH battery), or the myriad variety of Lithium-ion batteries that are being designed and flogged in Asia, Europe, and North America.  But not every early winner finishes a winner.  Ask the Mets or the Cubs about that.

The Lithium-ion industry is grabbing the largest share of battery or batterylike stimulus dollars.  The Watertown, MA-based privately held and venture-backed A123 Systems (http://www.a123systems.com/)  has applied for $1.84 billion in subsidies, and the New York-based but Indianapolis-centered company, Ener1 Inc (Nasdaq:HEV, http://www.ener1.com), has applied for $480 millon, and was recently advanced to the finalist stage by the feds.  That’s all well and good — if the li-ion battery is not a mirage shimmering on the automotive horizon. 

There are some issues with li-ion batteries, and they are no secret.  The most well-known issue is that some of them have exploded, taking transporting aircraft and people’s laps down with them.  EVERY li-ion battery maker says they have fixed that problem.  Nobody wants to drive a car whose powertrain might blow up, after all.  Also li-ion batteries can have problems starting in cold temperatures (which is why li-ion vehicles still have a lead-acid battery for starter purposes). 

But if you look around, there are other technologies that “coulda been a contender” (with apologies to Marlon Brando) — and may yet be.  Perhaps the most obvious is the lineal descendent of the battery in the car you drive now — the “good old” lead-acid battery.  But wait! 

There are several companies that are modernizing the lead-acid battery, many of them working within the auspices of the US-based Advanced Lead-Acid Battery Consortium (http://www.alabc.org/)  .  That would include the R&D-stage Firefly (http://www.fireflyenergy.com/),  and Axion Power* (EBB: AXPW, http://www.axionpower.com) , which recently snared a deal with one of the world’s largest battery companies, Alpharetta, GA-based Exide Technologies (Nasdaq: XIDE, http://www.exide.com).  Both companies use forms of the element carbon to revolutionize and improve the performance of batteries.  It’s hard to tell a lot about Firefly batteries because they haven’t been sold commercially, but Axion batteries, branded as PbC(r) batteries, are the heart and soul of the Exide distribution deal, and are also being used in demonstration projects by widely diverse groups including NYSERDA and an industry consortium designing and building solar-powered charging stations for electric vehicles.  Axion has also been the recipient of DOD and DOE research funds, as well as industry grants to test and develop their proprietary technology, which basically replaces half the lead in a battery with nanocarbon that is analagous to the substance that is in your Brita water filter.

There are other tortoise-like technologies bringing up the rear behind the hare-like li-ion companies.  Some are pretty exotic — steam-powered assists, or devices that pump up gasoline efficiency by adding platinum, or urea, or even hydrogen additives.

Then there are the fuel cells, as mentioned at the top of this article.  The biggest problem with fuel cells is that few of them actually work well enough to be manufactured in quantity.  One assumes that will change.  The second biggest problem with fuel cells is that they are NOT batteries; they actually generate “new” electricity on the spot, rather than regurgitating “old” electricity that they have stored.  Other than that distinction (and it is important), they BEHAVE a lot like batteries.

Toyota Fuel-cell vehicle (today)

Toyota Fuel-cell vehicle (today)

For reality’s sake, there ARE fuel-cell vehicles operating today, just not in production quantities.  Read this from carlist.com: http://www.carlist.com/autonews/2004/toyota_fchv.html.   And in this picture you can see how the innards of a fuel-cell-car look (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/object/article?o=0&f=/c/a/2007/01/02/FUELCELL.TMP):

Mercedes Fuel-cell car cutaway

Mercedes Fuel-cell car cutaway

And lest we be accused of favoritism, there is this from GM and SAIC — both as American as apple pie: http://www.autobloggreen.com/2009/04/21/saic-to-use-gm-fuel-cell-propulsion-system-in-new-experimental-v

GM-SAIC Fuel-cell prototype

GM-SAIC Fuel-cell prototype

The problem to be surmounted is that only one company has ever managed to make portable (as opposed to the gigantic, truck-sized fuel cells that are called “stationary”) fuel cells in production quantities:  Medis Technologies (Nasdaq: MDTL, http://www.medistechnologies.com). Medis pumped out 250,000 of their hand-held fuel cells last fall, and now says it is in the process of upsizing the product and moving its production back to the US from Ireland, no doubt with stimulus funding on its agenda.  They also are eyeing military applications here and abroad (http://www.defencetalk.com/fuel-cell-power-technology-for-the-italian-military-17532/)

This article is already too long to go into the reasons WHY Medis fuel cells can be built in quantity and others can’t.  Suffice it to say here that they use a heretical technology employing sodium borohydride (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sodium_borohydride), where everyone else uses hydrogen, in most cases generated by breaking down natural gas.  The former works well; the latter is more orthodox and does not work well (and might explode — Remember the Hindenburg!).

As for stationary fuel cells, they seem to be chugging along.  FuelCell Energy Inc (Nasdaq: FCEL, http://www.fuelcellenergy.com) announced a new deal with the USAF: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/FuelCell-Energy-Power-Plant-pz-14856468.html.

*Allen & Caron client

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