By Pete Colantonio, Lead Product Engineer
Nuvera Fuel Cells
I attended a short course on Fuel Cell Fundamentals & Manufacturing Technology where various speakers from the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California Irvine, Toyota, Ballard and Plug Power presented on the subject matter. The speakers did an excellent job of covering the operation, technical challenges and applications of all fuel cell types. A presentation from Ballard on PEMFC durability was particularly exceptional as it covered a level of detail and disclosure absent in many of the other presentations.
The following day, plenary session speakers from the US, Japan and Europe stated the need for increased industry collaboration, recognizing that market competition limits it from being widespread beyond academia. So how does industry collaborate to advance fuel technology for the benefit of mankind, while maintaining competitive advantage and diversity, which arguably also promotes progress? This is a challenge that certainly will test both government funding & policy, and the mission statements of companies to be profitable while serving their customers and the environment.
One of five plenary session speakers was Byron McCormick, the Executive Director of GM Powertrain Fuel Cell Activities, who gave a compelling and inspirational speech for continuing to put forth our best efforts to develop and promote fuel cell technology despite any obstructions from the near-term economic climate and slow adoption of fuel cell technology. He was part of the EV1 project at GM and stated that battery technology does not compete with, but complements fuel cells considering their technical differences, infrastructure requirements, and lack of customer acceptance of reduced autonomy or convenience in the automotive market. This was determined by market research from his experience that concluded that while many commuters could utilize a battery-only electric vehicle, if they could not have the freedom to take those occasional extended range trips free of “range anxiety” due to the need to recharge, most customers would not buy a battery-only electric vehicle. Thus, fuel cells are the only feasible solution for non-fleet vehicles. I’m sure this would upset ardent battery advocates who would be quick to mention quick charging and other enabling technology that continues to improve battery performance.
Well, that debate is clearly alive and well, as a question from the audience quasi-defended batteries when considering well-to-wheels efficiency vs. hydrogen generation from various sources to be used for fuel cells. However, Mr. McCormick was quick to point out that comparison of technology must be holistic, where all technical and customer factors must be considered. He also emphasized that engineering correctness often cannot overcome either consumer or political will, as people will only buy what they are willing to live with.
Being a six-sigma black belt, his message of being mindful of your customer while developing technology certainly resonates, and I believe it is also a message that the fuel cell community as a whole must heed to if adoption of our technology is to be accelerated in the automotive and other markets as well. Clearly, this theme impacts design solutions and how value propositions are presented to our customers for acceptance, as they cannot be solely based upon non-holistic engineering metrics as Mr. McCormick so eloquently stated in his address.