The markets: Fuels cells and batteries (2018)

Although fuel-cell powered vehicles could still be in the automotive future, growth will be measured, and so will the market there for composite components. Composites for battery packs in electric vehicles will be the more immediate opportunity.

More than 80 different concept, demonstrator and/or test-fleet fuel-cell-powered electric vehicles have been fielded by 25 different automakers around the globe since General Motors (Detroit MI, US) unveiled the first, its GM Electrovan, in … yes, 1966. There have also been a host of trucks, buses, racing vehicles, a motorcycle, four rail locomotives and some ocean vessels, including submarines. Fuel cells also power an increasing number of stationary systems that provide heat and light to and other structures. According to 4th Energy Wave’s (Caldbeck, Cumbria, UK) report, the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Annual Review, installed fuel-cell systems have totaled more than 1 GW since 1995. It predicted that the second installed GW, however, would be achieved in the 2016-2017 timeframe. Although 4th Energy Wave is tracking a transportation sector growth since release of the first production fuel cell vehicles in 2014, and more forecast to appear in 2015 and 2016, it’s offering a cautious global forecast of only 66,500 FCVs by 2025, noting that “the adoption rate will be tempered by infrastructure issues [e.g., refueling stations and fuel sources] and by customer demand not being expected to really take off before the mid 2020s.” 

Composites can make up the bipolar plates, end plates, fuel tanks and other system components of proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel-cell systems, still the leading type. In the past, thermoset materials were thought to be limited to lower volume and stationary applications, due to their longer mold cycle times, higher scrap rates and an inability to produce molded composite plates as thin as stamped metal plates. More recently, however, these issues have been overcome, providing a clear advantage over metals in high-temperature and low-temperature PEM fuel cells where power density is a secondary requirement. Chopped carbon fiber and graphite particle filled/vinyl ester bulk molding compounds (BMCs) are finding wide use in bi-polar plates for low-temperature PEM fuel cells. BMC cost has declined significantly as volumes have increased.  Similarly, molding cycles once measured in minutes are now routinely completed in seconds, due to formulation improvements and the capability to make thinner plate cross sections.

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For now, automakers anxious to meet looming CAFE and CO2 emission standards are more interested in battery electric vehicles (BEVs). However, electric cars, without the aid of a hybrid vehicle’s gas-powered engine and fuel tank, have lacked the driving range of their conventional gas- and diesel-powered counterparts due,
in part, to battery weight, offering the potential for composites applications in the lightweighting the cases that contain them. GM’s Chevy Spark offered a good example of that possibility.


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