Sandia LabNews

New initiative will bolster infrastructure for hydrogen vehicles


The broad public and government interest in renewable energy and the hope for a zero-emission transportation future seem to be at an all-time high. So what is the remaining hurdle to overcome before we see widespread adoption of clean, hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road?

In a word: infrastructure. For hydrogen-based

vehicles, very little infrastructure currently exists. But that could change soon, and Sandia’s Center for Infrastructure Research and Innovation (CIRI) on the Livermore Valley Open Campus (LVOC) hopes to contribute in a big way.

Daniel Dedrick (8367), the Labs’ hydrogen program manager, calls CIRI a “collaboration facility” modeled on the success of the Combustion Research Facility (CRF). For years, the CRF has played a critical role in partnering with industry to provide a science base for fine-tuning the internal combustion engine and making it cleaner and more efficient.

“CIRI is a partnership-based RD&D facility focused on hydrogen infrastructure,” Daniel says. “More specifically, it will be a coordination of critical materials, science, and engineering research capabilities at Sandia that are needed to improve performance and reduce costs associated with hydrogen infrastructure.”

CIRI will incorporate new resources, including a full-scale test facility where equipment manufacturers can test their hardware, and existing capabilities such as a material mechanics lab that analyzes, characterizes, and predicts the behavior of various materials. It will also include a testbed refueling station where industry and research partners can run experiments to better understand refueling dynamics.

CIRI’s partners, Daniel says, will include industry members up and down the supply chain and include companies who sell gases and chemicals, as well as those companies who manufacture important components like compressors, tanks, and tubing. Testing and optimizing those components in a systems environment — another feature in the works for CIRI — will be critical in developing hydrogen refueling stations and making them more economically and technically feasible for consumers, fuel providers, and station operators.

Industry, of course, will be key to CIRI’s success, and Daniel points out that the nearby CRF already has a long history of partnerships with all of the US automakers. He hints that “significant support” for CIRI has already been assured from a number of critical companies.

The long-term vision for CIRI also includes research of vehicle systems integration with the electrical grid to understanding how hydrogen can help address issues associated with renewables integration, energy storage, and distributed generation.

Hydrogen on the upswing

Since the introduction more than 100 years ago of the modern, now-ubiquitous internal combustion engine that operates on gasoline, the nation has developed, honed, and successfully deployed tens of thousands of fueling stations to power our vehicles. The driving lifestyles Americans have been accustomed to over the decades wouldn’t be possible without that network of fueling stations.

A hydrogen fuel cell-based infrastructure, however, is limited, largely because the technology is relatively immature in the consumer environment and requires a different approach compared to the existing liquid-based fueling infrastructure.

Still, despite the technical challenges, inconsistent government investments, and competing technologies, the automotive industry has stayed the course, says Daniel.

“The automakers have stayed very consistent with their business models these past few years,” he says. “They understand the benefits of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and have continued to move the technology forward.” Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, Daniel asserts, compare favorably to electric battery vehicles, mainly because fewer high-cost materials are necessary with fuel cell vehicles.

Recent news reports would appear to confirm the notion that automakers remain bullish on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

According to a July report from Bloomberg, General Motors and Honda Motor Co. are now partnering to bring hydrogen fuel cell vehicles into the marketplace.

In November, Toyota Motor Corp. is expected to unveil its own fuel cell sedan, one that is expected to go on the market in 2015. Hyundai Motor Co. and Mercedes-Benz are also planning commercial availability of hydrogen vehicles in 2015.

In fact, virtually every major automobile manufacturer has designed and produced hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. In May, DOE Undersecretary Dave Danielson announced a public/private partnership known as H2USA focused on hydrogen infrastructure that is designed to help coordinate the nation-wide rollout of hydrogen fuelling stations. Sandia became a member of H2USA this month.

Daniel and Sandia’s transportation energy experts, along with their federal sponsors, understand the role that fuel cell electric vehicles can play in a zero-emission transportation future. The Labs’ vision, Daniel says, is for CIRI to help industry with the all-important hydrogen infrastructure part of the equation.

Reducing cost, improving performance of hydrogen systems

Sandia’s own hydrogen and fuel cells program has significantly informed and influenced the hydrogen transportation community already on key technical issues, and Daniel says researchers now have data that demonstrates the need for further R&D on infrastructure.

And what are the specific infrastructure issues that need to be addressed? Daniel points to three areas: high-pressure compression, storage, and delivery.

Compressed hydrogen is stored at high pressures (10,000 psi) in hydrogen vehicles, and the hardware used with that technology is relatively immature in the consumer environment. This leads to deficiencies in reliability and efficiency that need to be addressed. More research into how hydrogen is compressed, stored, and dispensed is required to make the infrastructure components more robust and dependable.

Secondly, Daniel says, the current capital costs of a hydrogen fueling station are higher than traditional gasoline stations and must be lowered significantly. A typical hydrogen station currently costs roughly $1-2 million from start to finish, while the cost of a gasoline station today runs around $200,000 to $300,000.

“A main reason for this is the high cost of materials used for a hydrogen station,” Daniel explains. High-nickel steels, in particular, are expensive, so new research is needed to find lower-cost classes of materials that will perform well and last long. “We also need to understand how the entire [hydrogen fueling station] system behaves so that we can refine it, introduce new technologies as needed, and shrink the system’s footprint,” Daniel adds.

For now, Daniel’s focus is on finalizing partnerships with industry and other national laboratories, with a grand opening of CIRI tentatively planned for early next year.

“If we’re successful with CIRI, we’ll be able to say that we enabled industry by providing them with a technical, scientific basis for producing cost-competitive hydrogen fueling stations that can be deployed anywhere, whether it’s downtown San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Livermore, or Albuquerque,” says Daniel.