One of the holy grails for creating a hydrogen energy economy is affordable refueling. Today, full-scale hydrogen stations capable of producing 100s of kilograms daily cost $1 to $2 million, which has hindered the spread of the infrastructure.
California is the epicenter for hydrogen fueling in the U.S., aided by a $100 million state commitment. The Northeast is beginning to catch up, aided by 12 stations to be built by Toyota and partner Air Liquide.
The Hydrogen Education Foundation/Energy Department’s H2 Refuel H-Prize Competition is dedicated to the proposition that refueling could happen on a relatively small scale, for five-10-car fleets, or even at home—the same place battery electric vehicles are mostly recharged. It’s providing a $1 million award, which is significant motivation for developers.
The Simple Fuel consortium—comprising Ivys Energy Solutions, McPhy Energy North America, and PDC Machines—is the finalist for the competition (among six entrants), and it is already marketing its $200,000 to $250,000 hydrogen refueling station. The station will be publicly unveiled (and demonstrated with a so-far unnamed fuel-cell car) at PDC Machines’ location in Warminster, Pennsylvania on November 9.
PDC is building the stations in low volumes, and Prabhu Rao, CEO of McPhy’s North American business, said in an interview that the price would drop dramatically if the units were mass-produced—perhaps 30,000 to 40,000 per year. At that production rate, a water-based home electrolyzer/refueler could perhaps be reasonably priced. A Connecticut company called Avalence was working on this approach a decade ago, but both the units and the hydrogen would have been too expensive at that time.
Rao said that the SimpleFuel Hydrogen Refueling Solution produces five kilograms of hydrogen at 700 bar (10,000 pounds per square inch) daily. It could handle a 10-car fleet, in part because fuel-cell cars use an average of only half a kilogram of hydrogen daily—so only a few would need to be refueled each day.
The feedstock is water. The unit—which, vented, can be located indoors—combines an electrolyzer, a compressor and a dispenser. Pumping half a tank of hydrogen takes about 10 minutes, which is longer than the five minutes at full-sized stations, but still much faster than EV recharging. A full tank will take 30 to 45 minutes.
Hydrogen generating costs will vary depending on electricity rates, but Rao estimates it as $5 to $7 per kilogram, which because of the fuel cell’s greater efficiency (compared to gas engines) is the equivalent of $2.50 to $3.50 per gallon gasoline.
In addition to small fleets, SimpleFuel is targeting the large forklift market—the indoor location could make the unit attractive. It could easily be located at today’s gas stations, and takes up only one parking space.
“This is how you enable the infrastructure,” Rao said. “We can put the big and small refuelers together and combined that gets you to a network. If a number of our hydrogen dispensers are located around a state, fuel-cell car drivers could feel confident of taking longer trips, and returning safely after topping off.”
Rao said states and municipalities could see SimpleFuel as an ideal way to deploy small test fleets. “Towns unable to afford $1 or $2 million for a full-scale refueler could pay $200,000 for a unit they could combine with solar and have a completely renewable fleet,” he said.
The results of the H2 Refuel H-Prize Competition will be announced in early 2017. To win, SimpleFuel was told it had to build a prototype, then perform test and analyze its performance. There are six technical and cost criteria.