What I’ve learned so far is that fuel cells, a technology that has been around a while and has had niche applications till now, has the potential to become a mainstream alternative to internal combustion engines in cars 5 to 10 years from now. The technology is way too expensive to be practical for automotive applications today. For now, there are some pretty interesting but narrower industrial uses.
What is a Fuel Cell?
A fuel cell is a gizmo that converts the energy stored in a fuel such as methanol or hydrogen into electricity. Unlike a battery, which contains a fixed amount of stored energy, fuel is fed into a fuel cell much the way gasoline is fed into an internal combustion engine. Instead of combusting and producing kinetic (motion) energy, a fuel cell produces electrical energy, which can be used to power an electric motor or provide power to other systems. Numerous fuel cell technologies exist and fuel cells have been designed to work with a variety of fuels including gasoline, natural gas, methanol and hydrogen.
You can think of a fuel cell like a generator that takes in fuel and produces electricity. But fuel cells are quiet, may produce no pollution (depending on the fuel) and are much more efficient than internal combustion generators. The Department of Energy says that hydrogen fuel cells are two to three times more efficient than gasoline engines.
Fuel Cells in Cars?
Early fuel cell applications were to provide electrical power in remote locations such as in space or in rural areas. But there is a lot of interest in applying them to transportation today. Fuel cells powered by hydrogen fuel cells are nonpolluting and hydrogen can be produced from sources other than petroleum. (However, the production of hydrogen itself can be polluting.) Honda has started producing a car called the FCX Clarity which is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell rather than an internal combustion engine.
Cost is one of the major obstacles to the adoption of hydrogen fuel cells. Honda’s FCX Clarity costs several hundred thousand dollars to produce in today’s small volumes. One study predicts that by 2015, at high production volumes, hydrogen fuel cell costs will drop to $49 per KW, or $4900 for a 100KW fuel cell like the one in the FCX Clarity. The looks like it could make such vehicles competitive with gas-powered cars, assuming hydrogen works out to be a competitive fuel.
The production of hydrogen has its own costs and its own environmental consequences, which are factors in how attractive hydrogen fuel cells might be as an alternative to gasoline engines. Another huge factor is distribution: over about a hundred years a vast gasoline distribution network has arisen. Creating something comparable for hydrogen is no small feat. I hope to look into both of those issues in a future posts.
Applications for Fuel Cells Today
At Greentech Media’s recent conference on the future of electric technology, we heard from a company called Oorja, a company that designs and manufactures fuel cells powered by methanol. These seem to be much more cost-effective than hydrogen fuel cells but they produce emissions such as carbon monoxide.
Applications they are pursuing include powering forklifts and providing backup power to telecom installations and they claim cost competitiveness with batteries and diesel generators. Benefits vs. battery-powered forklifts supposedly include faster recharge time and lower costs. In telecom backup vs. batteries or diesel generators the benefits include cost, flexibility and longer power protection.
It seems like these niche applications are ripe today, but large-scale use in automobiles could be a decade away.
Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post away.