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Getting Closer to a Fuel Cell Future
Jamais Cascio, 21 Feb 05

It's something of an assumption of many bright green types that the personal transportation of the near future will run on hydrogen fuel cells. After all, hydrogen can be cracked from water using little more than electricity (from renewable sources, ideally), and the fuel cell process results in little more than water as waste (again, ideally). While the chemistry of hydrogen production and use has proven a bit more complex than hoped, the real stumbling blocks to a move to a hydrogen fuel cell world have been the capabilities of the hydrogen and fuel cell systems themselves. Hydrogen is tough to store in sufficient quantities for travel, making range a problem; furthermore, the fuel cells themselves are expensive and often quite delicate, unable to operate under moderately adverse environmental conditions.

Two recent developments might bring the fuel cell future a bit closer, however.

The University of Queensland, Australia, has just spun off a company to manufacture a new storage medium for hydrogen, using magnesium allows with a sponge-like nanostructure:

“Using standard casting equipment, we’re able to produce alloys that absorb hydrogen like a sponge, store it safely for long periods and release it on demand when either the pressure or temperature is varied.

[...]

Under laboratory conditions, the magnesium alloys can store enough hydrogen to allow a vehicle (carrying a 100kg storage unit) to drive 500 kilometres, which meets a target set by the US Department of Energy for hydrogen storage systems by 2010.

As a comparison, the current generation Honda FCX, likely the most widely-used fuel cell car, maxes out at 190 miles, or a bit over 300 kilometers. A 500 kilometer -- roughly 300 mile -- range is much closer to what people currently get with standard gasoline vehicles. This development doesn't solve the comparative range problem (e.g., I get about 450 miles with my hybrid), but it makes it less overwhelming.

On the fuel cell front, Ballard Power Systems announced last week a set of improvements in their core fuel cell design which should bring them closer to being able to bring a commercially-viable vehicle fuel cell to market.

The three improvements are all directed towards making fuel cells more competitive with internal combustion engines. The new design can start repeatedly at -20 degrees C (-4 F), will operate for more than 2,000 hours without a performance degradation, and uses 30% less platinum than their previous fuel cell design, reducing costs significantly. The cold start performance is fairly competitive with internal combustion engines, especially when the measures needed to keep diesel and engine oil from gelling are taken into account. And while the cost reduction is also good, they'll likely need to bring the production cost down even further before fuel cells can be considered competitive.

It's the performance range number that is the most interesting, though. The new fuel cell design operated through numerous drive cycles for nearly 2,200 hours. That's the equivalent, Ballard asserts, of over 100,000 kilometers driven. At that point, the fuel cell had a "5% reduction in performance" (probably less power output). The US Department of Energy goal for fuel cell performance is 5,000 hours (roughly 250,000 km or 150,000 miles), closer to the range one might reasonably expect to get out of an ICE (recognizing that, with proper maintenance, such engines can go even further). The question remains of what a driver would do at that point. Can the fuel cell be "fixed" to bring it back up to spec? Or does it need to be replaced entirely?

These are certainly important steps towards moving us to a hydrogen fuel cell world. They also underscore how much more we have to do in order to make such an alternative attractive. Batteries, a more mature technology, haven't received the R&D funding that fuel cells have, but might actually turn out to be a better alternative. Either way, for a transition to a new personal transportation system to succeed, it needs to be at least as functional as the old one. Early adopters and true believers may be willing to accept some trade-offs, but, by and large, the broad population of consumers will be reluctant to move to vehicles that can do less than their current cars -- and probably cost more -- simply because it's the right thing to do. If a hydrogen fuel cell car has comparative limitations in how far it can go, or the conditions under which it can be used, or how fast it can be refueled, it will be hard to sell it to the buying public.

At the same time, this might be a reason why leapfrog nations beginning to shift to large-scale car ownership -- India and China as the biggest examples -- could end up adopting battery or fuel cell vehicles more readily than mature markets like the US. There will be fewer older gasoline cars to compare one's experience against, and less of an established convenience infrastructure (fueling stations, parts stores, and the like). Driver demand would still push for greater range, usability, etc., but there need not be an immediate rejection because the car's capabilities don't match the current late-model ICE car. It's possible.

What gasoline vehicle capabilities would you need to see in a fuel cell (or battery-electric) vehicle before you'd switch?

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Comments

Maglev PRT for me, please.


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 21 Feb 05

Personally, I think that the way to go is to push plug-in electric car a lot more than we are doing now (especially in for urban areas), especially since with a mass production prices could probably go pretty low (an all electric car has a lot less hardware than a car with an internal combustion engine -- only the batteries could be costly, but with some R&D that could probably be helped too).


Posted by: Mikhail Capone on 21 Feb 05

This is encouraging for hydrogen, though it still seems doubtful it will really be a major player, compared to the electric options. However, it's interesting that 30% less platinum "reduces costs significantly" for Ballard's fuel cells. So presumably, the cost of platnium is a huge portion of the cost of fuel cells right now - but don't we have a factor of 10 or more to go in making them even close to cost competitive with IC vehicles? Is that even theoretically possible?


Posted by: Arthur Smith on 21 Feb 05

They are getting alot closer at a much faster pace then they expected. The costs are going down rapidly and the space needed to provide the power they want is shrinking wildly.


Posted by: wintermane on 22 Feb 05

Every improvement for mobile power applications is also a boost for fixed-power too. Electric-car charging-stations will do well to generate power on-site from fuel cells fuelled by hydrogen carried by modified town-gas lines.


Posted by: Adam on 23 Feb 05

It's all going to be electric cars one way or another, running on either battery-stored electricity, or hydrogen-stored electricity via a fuel cell. Both car types are otherwise the same, probably using electric wheel-hub motors, regenerative braking, etc. Does it make sense to turn electricity into hydrogen, transport it, then store it on the car so you can then turn it back into electricity, or more sense to use the current grid, a plug and a better type of battery? We'll see.

The real issue is how efficient is the car's energy use per mile, whatever that energy's form, and what the energy's original source is. (I wish I could see a comparative chart on this.) If the source is coal, then we're no better off than we are now--worse, because people will think they are driving a "clean" vehicle--look, only water vapor! It's a misperception reinforced by countless articles saying that fuel cell cars "run" on hydrogen when they really run on electricity generated who knows where.


Posted by: Jeff Rusch on 23 Feb 05



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