Thoughts on Fuel Cells

Jonathan Strickland

iStock/Thinkstock
iStock/Thinkstock

I wanted to spend some time really talking about fuel cells, particularly hydrogen-based fuel cells. To catch you up, that kind of fuel cell uses hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity. The only other byproduct is water vapor. Since the 1970s, people have talked about using hydrogen as an alternative fuel source. It's the most plentiful element in the universe and when used in fuel cells you can cut back on carbon emissions.

I recently attended CES 2015 and covered Toyota's announcement that the company now offers its more than 5,600 patents on fuel cell technology for free. There are no royalty or licensing fees. This is a big deal -- often, companies will zealously guard their intellectual property because it represents real value. Lots of money, time and other resources go into the research and development behind every patent. So why give them up for free?

The answer is simple -- ushering in a hydrogen-based economy is too big a job for any one company to do on its own. If we are to see such a future, it will take a lot of coordination from many different entities to make it happen. Toyota could sit on its patents and make its own fuel cells and hydrogen refueling stations but that would result in a very small market. You can't change the world like that.

Since the announcement, I've seen a lot of criticism and skepticism about Toyota's fuel cell technology. I can understand this -- it's been more than four decades since we first started talking about the hydrogen-based economy and we're still not there yet. But I wanted to take some time to give my point of view on the matter. And just to clear things up, I've been researching fuel cells long before I started doing a show with Toyota. Go check out How Fuel Cells Work -- I wrote that.

First, there's the concern that building out infrastructure is too hard. This was one of my biggest objections a few years ago. And there's no denying that building it out will be challenging and expensive. The question is if the objective is worth the effort. As long as the answer is yes, this really isn't a problem. In other words, just because something is difficult to do doesn't mean it's not worth doing.

Second, there's the objection that hydrogen is a dangerous fuel. That's why Toyota spent years developing systems that protect humans by housing the hydrogen in extremely tough tanks. It's actually safer than your typical gasoline-powered vehicle.

Third, I hear people say that electric cars are the way to go. Technically, fuel cell vehicles are electric cars. They run on electricity created by a reaction in the fuel cell. We really should be saying battery-powered cars rather than electric cars. Batteries generate electricity through a chemical reaction. The two types of vehicles are similar in many ways.

And finally, the biggest point of argument centers around how we get the hydrogen. This is a valid concern -- hydrogen is plentiful but it also likes to buddy up with other elements. This means most hydrogen we encounter is already bonded to other stuff. To free it up, we have to pour energy into it and break the molecular bonds. So you have to exert energy in order to get fuel (the same is true for other fuels, of course). We need to make sure we're being efficient so that we're getting the most fuel for our energy. And we need to make sure that the energy we use to get the hydrogen isn't based on fossil fuels.

If we harvest hydrogen using fossil fuels as our energy source, then we've merely shifted the carbon emissions from the vehicles to the fuel refineries. But my hope is that Toyota has inspired people to find ways to leverage renewable energy sources to harvest hydrogen. This could be the pathway to a carbon-zero ecosystem for vehicles and fuel.

On a similar note, I see battery-powered vehicle enthusiasts talk about this point a lot -- do they not realize that the same thing is true for their electricity? If the electricity recharging their vehicles is coming from a coal power plant, that's not exactly green either. But I digress.

Will my vision of the future ever come to pass? I think it could if we're willing to put forth the effort. And I think there's room for both hydrogen and battery-powered vehicles in that future. In fact, I want both to be there so that consumers have choices when they look at vehicles. Most of all, I don't think we should ever discourage innovation. You never know how we might benefit in the future.