Fuel-cell vehicles could be an attractive alternative
to battery-powered cars in realising zero-emission vehicles. Fuel cells have
long been considered a promising technology for circumventing the problem of limited
battery range. However, success depends heavily on the price. "So far the
high production costs of fuel-cell systemsand the lack of infrastructurehave
prevented the long anticipated launch on the massmarket," says Wolfgang
Bernhart, Partner at Roland Berger Strategy Consultants. Roland Berger Strategy
Consultants, founded in 1967, is one of the world's leading strategy
"Even though the costs for manufacturing fuel-cell
systems will drop considerably in the future, major technical obstacles must
first be overcome before fuel cellsachieve a breakthrough in the automotive
sector," added Bernhart.
A new study by Roland Berger Strategy
Consultants entitled "Fuel cells – A realistic alternative for zero
emission?" paints a fairly bleak picture of this technology over the
medium term. According to the experts at Roland Berger, it will be possible to
cut production costs for fuel-cell systems by up to 80pc by 2025. Even though
this will provide fuel-cell technology with initial business opportunities, this
reduction will still not be enough to achieve a breakthrough on the market.
costs are preventing market success
A fuel-cell system currently costs around EUR 45,000
per vehicle. Accounting for up to 45pc of the costs is the membrane electrode assembly(MEA),
which converts hydrogen into electric energy and which is made of expensive platinum.
Even assuming mass annual production of 300,000 fuel-cell vehicles, platinum would
still account for more than 70pc of the manufacturing costs – one MEA alone would
still cost approx. EUR 2,500 per vehicle. If it were actually possible to
somehow optimise the manufacturing process, such as by reducing the amount of platinum
needed to a mere 15 grams per vehicle, the experts at Roland Berger believe
costs could be cut to about EUR 1,000. Platinum, however, would remain the
biggest cost driver.
On top of this, platinum is a very scarce
resource. The market for this precious metal is very tough and companies believe
that the notion of increasing supply while maintaining current prices is
unrealistic. "Against this backdrop it's unlikely that fuel-cell vehicles
will be able to establish themselves on the market long term – especially
because of the very limited supply of platinum," according to Bernhart,
the study's author.
Carmakers are focusing
on platinum-free fuel cells
This means many car manufacturers are focusing their
development on platinum-free fuel-cell technology. Nevertheless, such
alternatives are still far from being ready for mass production. "Carmakers,
therefore, need to earmark their R&D budgets very carefully and precisely
in order to achieve a leading position in developing a zero-emission vehicle,"
Over the medium term, however, it can be
expected that fuel cells will maintain a niche existence as a drive system.
"Only after a breakthrough is achieved in manufacturing platinum-free systems
will it be possible to tap the significant market potential," explains Bernhart.
"Ultimately, we can expect battery-based and hybrid drive trains to play
the leading role in forging the way to zero-emission
mobilityin the near future."
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