Reason to cell-abrate?

Hydrogen fuel cells have the potential to revolutionize transportation as we know it

MERCEDES ME <br>German automaker Mercedes-Benz has developed this fuel-cell-powered prototype, called the “Necar.”

German automaker Mercedes-Benz has developed this fuel-cell-powered prototype, called the “Necar.”

Photo by Jill Wagner

It sounds too good to be true—an automotive power source that efficiently converts a limitless supply of chemical energy into electricity without producing smog-causing emissions.

But more and more, hydrogen fuel-cell-powered vehicles are being touted as The Answer. To our everyday air quality problems. To the long-term threat that continued burning of fossil fuels poses to the environment and our atmosphere. To skyrocketing gasoline prices, the dwindling supply of petroleum, and America’s shaky dependence on foreign oil.

The nascent fuel cell technology appears so promising that many in the automotive and energy industries are already claiming it’s just a matter of time before hydrogen becomes the fuel of choice for motor vehicles. A recent article in Popular Science magazine went so far as to opine that the fuel cell might represent the “biggest leap in automotive history—a practical replacement for the internal combustion engine.”

Whoa! Have we discovered a path to energy Nirvana here? Are we finally poised to wean our petrochemically dependent society off the parched and withered teat of Mother Earth’s shrinking hydrocarbon deposits, from which we’ve so selfishly gulped all these years?

After countless false starts and half-hearted efforts to incorporate cleaner, renewable alternative fuels into the energy mix, perhaps we are finally due for some real and lasting change. If it’s any indication, fuel cell politics has already made some strange bedfellows, as major automakers and energy corporations find themselves collaborating in earnest with regulators, technology manufacturers and clean-air advocates to develop this cheap and enormously abundant source of power.

But while there are certainly many respected voices who think that fuel cells are positioned to change the face of transportation, most also admit that, as with any groundbreaking technology, there are significant hurdles to clear before hydrogen-powered vehicles gain widespread viability.

So what are fuel cells and how do they work? Simply put, fuel cells combine hydrogen with oxygen to produce electricity—without combustion. Compared to the complexities of the internal-combustion engine, the process of producing energy with the fuel cell is remarkably straightforward. The fuel cell has no moving parts and relies on the most ubiquitous substance in the universe, hydrogen, as its power source. The result is clean energy with no nasty emissions. The only waste is heat and water.

The hydrogen fuel cell concept is no real marvel of science—in fact, the first fuel cell device was created way back in 1839 by British inventor Sir William Grove. But practical applications remained elusive until the 1960s, when NASA began developing the technology to power equipment onboard its spacecraft. Today, fuel cells continue to provide electricity (and even potable water) for the space shuttle.

Only recently has the technology advanced into the realm of viability for vehicle use. Initially, developing fuel cells for transportation purposes involved bulky and expensive prototypes limited by the techniques of producing and storing hydrogen. But exponential advances in technology and design have brought rapid reductions in the size of the power plants, yielding new models that now feature nearly as much usable interior space as conventional cars.

“The technology has undergone a dramatic curve of improvements. You can liken it to the computer revolution, in that fuel cells have become smaller but much more powerful,” says Joe Irvin, spokesman for the California Fuel Cell Partnership, a unique collaborative of automakers, government agencies, manufacturers, and energy companies that comprises the world’s foremost test center for fuel-cell-powered vehicles.

Although most fuel cells being tested in vehicles are powered by pure hydrogen, which is stored onboard in secure tanks, engineers are also considering the possibility of installing reformer systems that produce hydrogen from carbon-based fuel sources such as gasoline and methanol.

But if we want fuel cells to run cleanly, why power them with polluting fossil fuels? The answer to that question reveals the most significant challenge facing fuel cell vehicles today.

Though fuel cell vehicles are nearly a market reality, with some automakers projected to roll out limited numbers as early as 2004, the fueling infrastructure needed to service larger numbers will take years, perhaps decades, to establish.

That’s why many believe the most likely route for commercialization of fuel cells will be through fleet vehicles. A shift to hydrogen for city buses and delivery trucks would help reduce the cost of manufacturing fuel cells while helping to win public acceptance.

“The first step is going to be fleet use, where you can install a central fueling station to handle many vehicles,” says Irvin. Already, hydrogen buses cruise the streets of Chicago and Vancouver, while closer to home AC Transit in the Bay Area has signed on with the partnership to take part in a pilot program that aims to put 20 hydrogen-powered buses on California roads by 2003.

HONDA TOO <br>This is a view of the fuel-cell motor that’s been developed by Honda.

Photo by Jill Wagner

In the meantime, the first generation of fuel cell passenger cars will most likely use onboard reformers that produce hydrogen from some type of “transition fuel,” one that does not necessarily live up to the full potential of clean hydrogen energy.

Nevertheless, this transition approach would allow drivers to fuel up on gasoline or methanol at existing gas stations. And, according to a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) report, onboard fuel processors—even those using gasoline—represent a major advance in reduction of pollutants over conventional vehicles.

Part of the Fuel Cell Partnership’s mission is to explore the different fuel options and test the cars’ performance under a wide variety of conditions. But if there is a favored fueling choice, nobody is tipping his hand.

“Hydrogen is the mother’s milk of the fuel cell,” says Irvin. “But if you want to get fuel cells in front of the consumer early, than to do so might mean using a familiar fuel that is cost-effective in terms of distribution.”

But will carmakers really follow through on their promises to deliver cleaner transportation choices to the car-buying public? To some extent, they have no choice but to. Prompted by air quality mandates here in California, which require that zero- and low-emission vehicles make up 10 percent of automakers’ total sales by 2003, car manufacturers are committed to developing models that prove commercially viable in the short term.

“Fuel cell vehicles present the opportunity for what we call ‘sustainable mobility,'” says Irvin. “It’s a way to affordably preserve our concept of a mobile society with much less impact on the environment.”

Once infrastructure is in place, the cost of filling up with hydrogen should be much more affordable than gasoline—and nowhere near as vulnerable to the wild price fluctuations that distinguish the global petroleum market. DOE has said that producing hydrogen for fuel cell use today would cost the equivalent of $1.92 per gallon, about the same as a gallon of gas here in California. That figure would certainly go down as the technology grows and consumer use expands.

Filling up with hydrogen is easy and safe. And, while making fuel cell vehicles safe for the road is no slam-dunk, safety is not considered an obstacle to commercialization. In fact, most experts agree that hydrogen can be at least as safe as today’s fuels.

What about vehicle cost? Once enough units are built to establish an acceptable economy of scale, cost won’t be an issue. Studies by Ford and General Motors conclude that fuel cell motors eventually could be built for about the same price as an internal-combustion engine.

And performance? So far, the cars being tested seem to be proving the technology can provide good performance in a variety of conventional passenger models, including compacts, SUVs and minivans.

Irvin says fuel cell vehicles may eventually run twice as far between fuelings as current automobiles. “The automakers are confident they will get exceptional range,” he says. “It may take some time, but with the efficiency of fuel cells, we could see about a 50 percent improvement or even a potential doubling of the ranges that we’re used to, so you might get 600-700 miles per fueling.”

So when will significant numbers of fuel-cell-powered vehicles ride on our roads and highways? Forecasts estimate that Americans will see some form of mass production (more than 100,000 vehicles) well before 2010.

What cannot be foreseen is how much support policymakers will give to this revolutionary technology. If hydrogen power—or any other clean-energy source—is going to be the panacea for our transportation woes, it is smart public policy that will be the ultimate driving force.

The California Air Resources Board, the agency charged with enforcing clean-vehicle mandates, is leading regulatory efforts for fuel cells and other clean alternatives, while DOE is playing a significant role on the federal level. Meanwhile, the California Energy Commission is doing its best to parlay influence behind the scenes at the Capitol. All are active members of the Fuel Cell Partnership.

“We have the governor’s support, and we’re building legislative awareness,” says Irvin. “The agencies are helping not only with the regulatory issues, but also with public funding and incentives to help jumpstart commercialization.”

With government, the auto industry, mass transit agencies and technology companies all working to make hydrogen vehicles a reality, where else can help be found? Well, don’t look now, but even Big Oil is jumping on the fuel cell bandwagon.

It wasn’t long ago that oil executives were openly deriding the notion that fuel cells could ever replace the internal-combustion engine. Now, the world’s oil giants—aware that this new technology could someday put them out of business—have joined in the hunt for the perfect fuel cell solution.

Hmm, maybe for once it’s too good not to be true.