Fuel Cells Article, Part 3

Originally posted at Writeindependent.org on January 15, 2012

This is the third part of a Fuel Cell article I wrote in 1997, reviewing alternative energy for automobiles.

Fuel Cells and Hydrogen: The Clean, Green, Machine

One of the most green vehicles of the future may run on fuel cells. As Bob Sikorsky, Automotive Columnist with the NY Times Syndicate says, “The fuel cell . . . is going to be the widespread technology at some time.”

The beauty of fuel cells is that they produce electricity silently, without combustion. Fuel cells run off one of the cleanest fuel sources available: hydrogen. “When you [use] hydrogen your by-product is water and you can’t get any cleaner emission than that,” says Sikorsky.

Two companies that develop fuel cells have partnered with major auto manufacturers: Ballard Power Systems of Vancouver and Plug Power of Latham, NY. A plethora of other research and development companies are involved in fuel cells, more than can be addressed in this article.

Daimler-Benz and Ford now hold 20% and 15%, respectively of Ballard Power Systems Inc. In September, Daimler-Benz debuted the world’s first methanol-fueled fuel cell passenger car at the Frankfurt Auto Show.  Designed like the Mercedes-Benz A-Class subcompact, the car is called a NECAR III (New Electric Car 3).

Since fuel cells run on hydrogen, the methanol must first be converted to hydrogen. The NECAR III has an on-board methanol reformer which itself creates some emissions, though negligible compared with an ICE’s emissions. They expect a commercialized vehicle to be ready in the year 2004.

Arthur D. Little, a Boston based energy consulting firm, will work with Plug Power, Chrysler, and GM to develop gasoline-fueled cars which have on-board converters and run off of fuel cells. Their deadline is the year 2005, but they feel they have a distinct advantage using today’s infrastructure for petrol. When gasoline is burned “on-board” a vehicle to produce hydrogen, it gives off one tenth the emissions of an ICE, according to Jeff Bentley, VP of Technology at Arthur D. Little.

For auto manufacturers to make completely Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEV’s), they must stop converting petrol and natural gas products on-board and rather store the hydrogen in tanks. If fuel cells power the car of the future it follows that hydrogen is the fuel of the future. Today’s researchers have to deal with several problems before on-board hydrogen becomes a reality.

Because hydrogen is “bulky,” today’s hydrogen tanks are large to hold enough fuel for a reasonable range of 200 to 300 miles. To solve this problem, researchers must first find a way to contain the hydrogen in smaller tanks or the efficiency of the fuel cell must be increased. “I can see that there needs to be a breakthrough in hydrogen storage before it can be used on-board as a fuel,” states Bentley.

Second, a large-scale infrastructure must be built (or converted from existing petrol equipment) to assure production and dissemination of hydrogen. According to Bentley, with the technology we have today, gas stations could set up a small hydrogen-generation system right on their lot, bypassing the need for costly transportation and storage.

Even if hydrogen were made at large plants, its transportation is safer than transporting oil. “It is less expensive to move hydrogen across the continent as a compressed gas by pipeline than an equal amount of electrical energy. Liquid hydrogen is the safest and most economical choice for moving energy across oceans” states the American Hydrogen Association on its website. If hydrogen were the fuel of today, we would not be reading headlines about oil spills on the ocean. We could also lessen our dependence on oil sources from the Middle East.

Hydrogen can be produced from sunshine and water or such unlikely resources as sewage, landfill, garbage, and paper waste products. Hydrogen can also be extracted from gasoline, methanol, alcohol, or natural gas.

The President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technologies (PCAST) has recommended in early November 1997 that the U.S. Energy Department’s hydrogen program needs “better articulated near-, medium- and long-term goals.” Their report to Clinton asserts that hydrogen as an energy carrier in the 21st Century is “of importance comparable to electricity.”


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