Fuel Cells, The Article Part 1

Originally posted at Writeindependent.org on January 13, 2012

I wrote the following article in 1997 about using fuel cells and other technologies in cars. If only our government had supported some of these ideas whole-heartedly back then, we might never have to worry about gas prices by now! I’ve updated the links, but for more info go to: http://www.whokilledtheelectriccar.com/

Before You Buy a New Car

Recent Technologies that Decrease Pollution

Ever try to take a breath of fresh air in Bangkok, Thailand? The initiative taken at last week’s international summit on global warming may be decades away from cleaning up two-cylinder “tuk-tuk” exhaust in Bangkok, but with the attention on new transportation technologies, consumers can make decisions that will ultimately affect such smog-ridden cities as Tokyo and Mexico City.

Three technologies, used alone or in combination, promise to decrease vehicular emissions. Battery-powered electric vehicles (EV’s) are a reality at Honda, Toyota, General Motors and other auto manufacturers. Flywheels would offer an improvement on electric vehicle performance and range. And the third technology, fuel cells, provide yet another alternative to today’s internal combustion engine.

Electric Vehicles: To Charge or Not to Charge?

Electric Vehicles may be a smart move for new car buyers. The International Center for Technology Assessment and Consumer Federation of America found EV’s safer in 9 out of 11 major safety tests, dealing with issues such as fire and noxious fumes. The two areas where EV’s ranked the same as Internal Combustion Engines (ICE) were risk of collision and electric shock.

EV’s are inexpensive to run. Compared with the average gasoline powered car which runs at 5 cents per mile, an EV costs 1.8 cents per mile to operate. That translates to hundreds of dollars of savings per year over an ICE car that gets 28 mpg.

Car purchasers may be surprised by the amount of support already in place for Electric Vehicles. Charging stations are popping up all over southern California. In June, South Coast’s AQMD “Quick Charge” Program announced funding for 194 new installations. Many private companies are joining in, notably Ralph’s Grocery Co., Costco, and Hawthorne Savings Bank.

The LA Department of Water and Power will install 43 new charging sites around the city, and Southern California Edison will install 120 sites.

Aerovironment, the company who, with GM’s money, designed the prototype that influenced the EV1, unveiled its new PosiCharge™ station at the Electric Vehicle Show in Florida last week. The station looks much like a gasoline pump and recharges EV batteries in just 12 minutes.

Alec Brooks, an engineer at Aerovironment whose SunRaycer won the 1986 World Solar Challenge, owns an EV1 and drives it 8,000 miles a year. He says of the EV1’s acceleration: “It’s quite effortless. There’s no large amount of noise associated with it. . . . It’s sort of deceptively fast. [It] sneaks up on you.”

Several expanding lists of recharging stations are available on the web. See: http://carstations.com/.

The main concern for consumers seems to be the range an EV can travel on one battery charge. Most electric cars on the road today have upper limits of 100 miles.

Several research companies such as Horizon Battery Technologies, Zinc Air Power Corp, AEG Corporation, Westinghouse, SAFT, 3M and Duracell are currently developing batteries that will charge faster, last longer, work under normal temperatures, and deliver rapid power output for acceleration and hill climbing.

A standard for battery performance has been set by the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium. The USABC consists of the Big Three Automakers (Chrysler, Ford, GM) and the Electric Power Research Institute and is half funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. This five year, $262 million project set medium-term goals for itself and the battery industry in general. They expect to develop a battery that has a lifetime of 100,000 miles, costs less than $150 per kilowatt hour of stored energy, and provides a range of 200 miles.

Current technology is not too far off from these goals. Batteries presently exist that have lifetimes of 80,000 miles. Lawrence Livermore National Labs (LLNL) are developing a zinc-air battery with a range of 300 miles and charging time of 10 to 15 minutes.

Many car manufacturers have electric models, though they may be difficult to find on car lots. Hyundai makes the Atos EV; Nissan the Altra EV; GM the EV1 and S-10 pickup; Ford manufactures an Electric Ranger; Toyota has a RAV4-EV; and Honda makes an EV Plus. The lease rate on an EV1 runs $399 per month, which includes a home recharging unit and a portable unit. Installation of the home unit costs extra.

Electric motors last a long time. Electric cars have fewer parts to repair. They don’t have spark plugs, pistons, cylinders, starters, solenoids, crankcases, distributors, carburetors, camshafts, crankshafts, fuel pumps, fuel injectors, mufflers, catalytic converters, manifolds or exhaust pipes.

When an electric motor accelerates or decelerates, it creates a “wheen” sound, like that of a golf cart. Today’s EV’s have not buffered that sound enough to satisfy a driver that likes a completely quiet drive. But outside the car, pedestrians may not notice a silent EV creeping up on them.

EV’s feature “regenerative braking.” An EV’s electric motor regenerates electricity from the kinetic energy produced by braking. Because the car’s brakes don’t experience the usual heat from friction, brake pads probably won’t need to be replaced.

EV’s cost less to manufacture, but car dealers often make their profit on after-sale repairs. Unless an EV is in an accident, the few costs related to upkeep will be repairing faulty electronics, replacing tires or batteries.

The major objections to batteries, like short range and long recharging times may be solved by other technologies that are in development today, such as flywheels. (to be continued tomorrow as Part 2)

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