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Climate Change and the Environment

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs)

Ford Focus

Ford Focus

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are electric vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The fuel cells are essentially batteries fueled by hydrogen. They emit just water vapor and heat, without other tailpipe pollutants.

Technology Overview and Benefits

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are similar to battery electric vehicles (BEVs) in that they use a high-voltage electric motor to propel the vehicle. Unlike BEVs, however, FCVs are equipped with a hydrogen fuel tank and a fuel cell system that generates electric power to drive the electric motor. So FCVs use onboard hydrogen stored in the fuel tank and refueled in minutes, while BEVs are powered by electric energy stored in the high-voltage battery. As a result, FCVs provide the environmental benefits of a BEV but they have a longer driving range and significantly shorter refueling time.

In an FCV, an automotive fuel cell propulsion system runs the vehicle by converting hydrogen and oxygen into electrical current through an electro-chemical reaction in the fuel cell stack. It emits just water vapor and heat, without other tailpipe pollutants. Therefore, FCVs are considered to be zero- emission vehicles. FCVs can also be hybridized with a high-voltage battery, to improve vehicle performance and better optimize the cost and robustness of the fuel cell propulsion system. In fact, all of our efforts to improve high-voltage electronics, electric motors, regenerative braking and battery technology on BEVs, HEVs and PHEVs can be applicable to FCVs, if and when these vehicles become commercially viable.

We believe that hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles may be an important long-term solution for improving energy security and diversifying our energy sources, as well as for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, if hydrogen fuel emerges as a viable low-carbon energy carrier. Therefore, Ford has committed to significant hydrogen fuel cell research and development.


Technology Demonstration

Ford has been working on fuel cell vehicle development and technology demonstration for more than a decade. From 2005 to 2009, we participated in a technology demonstration program partially funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), as well as in other government-supported demonstration programs in Canada and Europe. A total of 30 Ford Focus FCVs were in operation in these programs. These vehicles were tested to demonstrate technical feasibility, performance durability and reliability. For example, they were subjected to driving tests at sub-zero temperatures and high altitudes to prove vehicle performance under a range of customer-encountered driving environments. By 2009, these vehicles had accumulated more than a million driving miles without significant technical problems, thereby demonstrating the reliability of fuel cell powertrain systems in real-world driving conditions. The data collected from this fleet have been critical to the further development of Ford’s fuel cell technology. Based on the knowledge gained in this first generation of fuel cell technology, we have completed development and laboratory validation of additional generations of fuel cell technologies. These later-generation technologies improve the robustness and “freeze start” capability of the fuel cell propulsion system.

Challenges of Commercialization

Even with the advances we have made in hydrogen technology over the past 10 years, we still have challenges to overcome before hydrogen FCVs can compete in the market with current vehicle technology. The cost and durability of the fuel cell system are the most significant challenges. For example, extensive DOE analysis has not yet revealed an automotive fuel cell technology that meets the DOE’s targets for real-world commercialization, or that maintains proper performance throughout the targeted lifetime while staying within the targeted cost. There are also still significant challenges related to the cost and availability of hydrogen fuel and onboard hydrogen storage technology. To overcome these challenges and make fuel cell vehicle technology commercially viable, we believe further scientific breakthroughs and continued engineering refinements are required.

Continuing Research and Development

Given these significant challenges to commercialization, Ford had reprioritized its internal resources to concentrate on core fuel cell research that will help increase the commercialization potential of FCVs, including materials development and basic scientific research to solve cost and durability challenges.

In January 2013, however, we announced a partnership with Daimler AG and Nissan Motor Co., Ltd., to accelerate the commercialization of fuel cell vehicle technology by jointly developing a common fuel cell system that will reduce technology costs by maximizing design commonality, leveraging volume and deriving efficiencies through economies of scale. This collaboration could to lead to the launch of the world’s first affordable, mass-market fuel cell electric vehicles as early as 2017.

We are continuing our core fuel cell research as well. Our materials research is focused on the membrane electrode assembly (MEA) and bipolar plates, which make up key cost and/or durability elements of the fuel cell stack. For example, we are working to develop a new fuel cell catalyst that will significantly reduce the use of precious metals, such as platinum, and we are exploring alternatives to expensive components, such as developing low-cost corrosion-resistant bipolar plates. Simultaneously, we are working to increase the power density of the individual fuel cell stack. This could potentially reduce the use of the expensive materials and components in the stack. MEA research is also crucial to our ability to optimize fuel cell stack operating conditions and reduce system complexity. We are working on the fuel cell stack research and development with our alliance partners: Daimler AG and the Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation (AFCC), a Vancouver-based company owned by Ford and Daimler AG. We are also working to optimize the overall propulsion-system architecture to take advantage of advances in fuel cell materials and lessons learned from our demonstration FCV fleet. By developing advanced computational modeling that will help us understand the mechanisms underlying ideal fuel cell functioning and anticipate failure modes under real-world usage, we are able to propose operating strategies and system architectures that minimize fuel cell propulsion system costs. These modeling tools support our fuel cell materials and system research.

On-board hydrogen storage is another critical challenge to the commercial viability of hydrogen FCVs. Current demonstration vehicles use compressed gaseous hydrogen storage. However, the high-pressure tanks required for this storage use expensive materials for reinforcement such as carbon fiber. In addition, the current tanks are large and difficult to package in a vehicle without unacceptable losses in passenger or cargo space. Therefore, we are pursuing research on materials-based on-board hydrogen-storage technology, including complex hydride and novel hydrogen sorbent technologies, which may ultimately achieve higher energy density and lower cost.

Hydrogen Refueling Infrastructure

Producing and distributing hydrogen fuel is another important hurdle on the road to implementing hydrogen-powered FCVs and hydrogen-powered internal combustion engines (H2ICEs). The GHG-reduction benefits of hydrogen fuel depend on what procedures and feedstocks are used to produce the hydrogen. Currently, the most state-of-the-art procedure is a distributed natural gas steam-reforming process. However, when FCVs are run on hydrogen reformed from natural gas using this process, they do not provide significant environmental benefits on a well-to-wheels basis (due to GHG emissions from the natural gas reformation process). It would be necessary to employ carbon-sequestration technologies in hydrogen production from fossil fuels or increase the use of renewable energy sources to enable the hydrogen for hydrogen-fueled FCVs to provide significant environmental benefits.

Even if the challenges of producing hydrogen can be overcome, there is still no widespread hydrogen fueling system. Therefore, new infrastructure must be invested in, designed and executed throughout the country to make hydrogen-powered vehicles commercially attractive to Ford customers.

Working alone, Ford will not be able to overcome all of the challenges hydrogen vehicles face. That is why Ford is collaborating with a wide range of partners.