Interview with Will Wright – “Hydrogen and Fuel Cells are Ramping Fast”

Sep 8, 2019

Will Wright is VP of Sales at Impact Coatings specializing in the hydrogen/fuel cell and automotive industries. We talked to Will at our Linköping HQ while he was on a quick break from traveling.

Q: Hydrogen and fuel cells seem to have good momentum, what is happening?

Yes, things are happening fast now. Global focus on climate change, phase-out of fossil fuels, and electrification are facts. Electrification is pushing development of batteries and hydrogen fuel cells. More and more governments, companies and people realize that hydrogen as an energy carrier, converted to electrical power when needed, has many advantages over electricity stored in batteries. The technologies most likely will co-exist in the new green-energy landscape.

A sign of this is that Japan during its 2019 presidency of G20 has put hydrogen high up on the agenda. Especially Japan, South Korea and China are investing heavily in technology development and infrastructure for hydrogen and fuel cells. These countries today depend on oil and gas from the Middle East, a dependency that they want to eliminate. The plan is to produce hydrogen locally and import hydrogen from other parts of the world where it is produced efficiently, preferably using renewable energy sources.

Q: What are the advantages of hydrogen that people have realized?

Storing and transporting large amounts of energy is expensive and complex using batteries. Today’s battery technologies also face challenges from necessary rare materials and political and environmental conflicts related to the mining of these materials. The International Energy Agency (IEA) wrote in its recent report to G20, “Hydrogen is one of the leading options for storing energy from renewables and looks promising to be a lowest-cost option for storing electricity over days, weeks or even months.” Hydrogen has many uses including powering homes and industry, and in transportation: cars, buses, trucks, forklifts, trains and even airplanes.

Infrastructure for refueling vehicles is another reason hydrogen is an attractive option, and in countries like Germany this is moving fast now, with one new hydrogen fueling station being built per month. Filling a hydrogen vehicle is as easy and quick as filling gasoline or diesel. Re-charging times for battery cars are of course a challenge for long-distance driving. In sparsely populated countries, charging overnight for short distance driving is fine, but in the parts of the world where most people live, like the huge cities in Asia, the electrical grid cannot handle a majority of cars running on batteries.

And when it comes to heavy transportation, long re-charging times and carrying around heavy batteries in trucks for long distances just don’t make sense. Heavy transportation is clearly a compelling application for the automotive OEMs, like Toyota, Hyundai and Daimler, that invest in hydrogen and fuel cell technology. As an example, Hyundai together with the Swiss company H2 Energy (H2E) plan to produce 1,600 fuel cell heavy trucks for the European market until 2025.

I want to emphasize that the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is an electric vehicle. The electric engine is the same whether the electricity comes from a battery or is converted from hydrogen in a fuel cell. The abbreviation FCEV (fuel cell electric vehicle) is used for a fuel cell car, compared to BEV (battery electric vehicle) for the battery car.

Q: What are the challenges for FCEVs?

The charging station infrastructure must be in place for people to invest in a hydrogen fuel cell car for private use. This is happening fast in countries like Germany where the government subsidizes building the infrastructure, while others – unfortunately including Sweden – are far behind. Local commercial and public fleets of trucks and buses that can return to the same local hydrogen fueling station are important first adopters.

Q: What is needed in terms of development?

If the hydrogen is produced using renewable energy, it is a totally green energy solution with zero CO2 emissions. Green electricity is used for electrolysis, where water is split into hydrogen and oxygen. Electrolysis is available in small scale today,  and a lot of development is going on to scale the technology. So far much of the hydrogen is produced from natural gas. This already has a better energy efficiency than to burn the fossil fuel. If carbon capture (CCS) can be used full scale the CO2 emissions can be reduced with up to 90% even if natural gas is the source.

Fuel cell technologies are already there for many applications. It is really a matter of scaling volumes to reduce cost, the same thing that has happened with batteries and BEVs in recent years. One trend in transportation is to make sure the lifetime of the fuel cell system is sufficient for heavy trucks that need to run day in and day out. The OEMs now talk about 20,000 hours lifetime. Durable and cost-efficient flow plates or bipolar plates are very important components both for electrolysis and fuel cells. Impact Coatings provides cost-efficient coating technologies for metal plates that allow large upscaling.

Q: What is the most important trend you see in the automotive industry?

OEMs are accelerating the development of FCEV and increasing their production forecasts, with Toyota and Hyundai leading the pack. Another important trend that has started is consolidation, where big players are building clusters of companies in order to become full system suppliers. Such clusters are built around the OEMs Toyota and Hyundai, for example, but also around big Tier-1 suppliers like Bosch and Faurecia/Michelin. In parallel there are other companies that continue as suppliers of sub-systems, such as the fuel cell stack. Impact Coatings is following these trends closely and indeed is working to be a central part of the industry’s rapid technological development.