Pumped About Hydrogen at the Shell Eco Marathon

Policy  /   /  By Jim Motavalli

DETROIT–There were no less than six fuel-cell powered cars at the Shell Eco Marathon, held this year (and for the next two) in Detroit’s Cobo Hall. The aim is for high school and college teams to build the most fuel-efficient car they can, and the tiny lightweight pods—often with carbon-fiber bodies and a single, recumbent driver—achieve stellar results. The overall winner this year: The University of Toronto, with 3,421 mpg from a tiny gas engine.

Cicero North Syracuse High School from New York was one of the hydrogen competitors in the prototype class, fielding a car, H2 Go (formerly the “Clean Green Machine”) with a comparatively ancient Ballard fuel-cell stack built in 2001. In 2010, when the Marathon was held in Houston, the team achieved a class-winning 1,837 mpg in its hydrogen car. Teacher Marty Miner gave me a thumbs-up when asked how its latest was performing this year.

fuel-cell demonstration

A fuel cell demonstration designed to engage the public at the Shell Eco Marathon. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The University of Alberta’s car was powered by a more modern 2014 two-kilowatt Ballard stack, and it was running well. Last year, the team won its class with a photo-finish 618 mpg after a nightmare in which the car failed on the starting grid. This year it did even better: the Alberta car, “Steve,” won a $2,000 first place in the UrbanConcept class, achieving 29.6 kilometers per kilowatt-hour of electricity.

A team member and third-year engineering student named Balazs Gyenes he’s got his fingers crossed at all the companies where he’s applied for work—BMW and Tesla included. “I want to work on electric and hydrogen cars,” he said firmly.

shell hydrogen oliver bishop

Shell Hydrogen General Manager Oliver Bishiop: “The nicest fuel-cell car in the world won’t sell without places to refuel.” (Jim Motavalli photo)

Shell does more than host hydrogen competitors; it has a hydrogen division. The company is, of course, thought of primarily as part of Big Oil, but in fact its natural gas holdings are the largest part of its portfolio today. And that work was showcased in Detroit.

Oliver Bishop is general manager of Shell Hydrogen, launched in 1999, and in a Cobo Hall talk he said that the company now has six stations operating, three in California (including the one in Newport Beach used to refuel the Toyota Mirai during its debut event) and three in Germany.

“Each of our stations represents a different technology we’re showcasing, including an electrolyzer, a methane reformer, liquid hydrogen, truck delivery, and a pipeline connection,” Bishop said. “The infrastructure is really important. Carmakers can build the most beautiful car in the world but if there’s nowhere to refuel it people won’t buy it.”

shell fuel cell

A competitor’s fuel-cell stack ready for racing at the Shell event. (Jim Motavalli photo)

In a Germany-based joint venture, Shell is really addressing the station problem. Bishop said there are only 180 hydrogen stations in the world today, but the joint venture hopes to add 400. Partners include Daimler, Air Liquide, Total and Linde, with associates including Hyundai, Honda, Toyota, BMW and Volkswagen. “It’s up and running,” Bishop said. “The first seven stations will be in place by the end of the year.”

In an interview, Bishop said Shell is currently upgrading its Torrance, California station. The company’s hydrogen strategy is constantly evolving. “We need to work out how to make money at this,” he said. “Shell Hydrogen is not a philanthropic company.”

One challenge, Bishop said, is measurement. Shell doesn’t charge money at its California hydrogen stations for a simple reason—the available flow meters aren’t accurate enough to measure how much of the gas a customer’s car actually takes in. “If we sell hydrogen on a kilogram basis, we need to certify that you’re actually getting what you buy,” he said. “It’s akin to a pub selling beer in England—they get in trouble if they don’t fill the glass up the pint line.”

H2 Gurus has also heard about this problem from fuel-cell car drivers, who say their vehicles measure the hydrogen taken in more precisely than the pump does. Obviously, this is an issue that needs an immediate solution if full commercialization can even be considered. With companies like Shell pursuing hydrogen refueling full-tilt, issues like paying for it will have to be resolved.

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