Fueling The Hydrogen Cell Debate

February 21, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — The hottest promise in environmental manufacturing is the creation of a hydrogen fuel cell that would first power our vehicles, eventually heat our homes and offices, and ultimately change the marketplace — but not pollute.

Last month, President George W. Bush put the fuel cell back on the front page after a 30-year absence by announcing he would commit $1.2 billion in federal funds over the next five years to the development of the cell. His proposal is made up of $720 million in new money and $500 million from existing programs.

“The greatest environmental progress will come about, not through endless lawsuits or command and control regulations, but through technology and innovation. Tonight I am proposing $1.2 billion in research funding so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles,” said Bush in his State of the Union address.

“A simple chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen generates energy, which can be used to power a car producing only water, not exhaust fumes,” he added.

But is the chemical reaction really that simple? And is the money that the president has pledged to fuel cell research enough? The answers to those questions aren’t clear and won’t be coming soon. Some feel there are major obstacles to developing the fuel cell.

First is the engineering problem; some say the technology is incomplete and expensive. Second is the distribution problem; a hydrogen infrastructure has to be created to get the fuel to consumers. Third is the safety issue; hydrogen is an extremely volatile element.

Fuel cells produce electricity from a process in which hydrogen atoms are forced through a specially designed plastic membrane that peels off electrons. The electrons are then pushed through a coil to create the electricity that drives a motor. The process is free of pollution, emitting water vapor instead of carbon dioxide, and is almost twice as efficient as the internal combustion engine.

Hydrogen can be pulled from a number of sources and by a number of methods. One is water.

“That is one of the potential sources of hydrogen,” said Tom Schuelke, an engineer with URS, who has designed power plants and is helping develop the fuel cell that will power the SmartZone project in Muskegon.

“If hydrogen was readily available and the handling problems were resolved, that would be the most abundant source of fuel, and you could take it directly from water,” he added.

One method is to install solar-powered cells in warmer climates of the country and use the sun’s energy to convert water into hydrogen, which then could be stored and shipped.

“It’s a very simple process called hydrolysis. Hydrolysis is strictly taking water and putting electricity to it, and that breaks water into hydrogen and oxygen. A fuel cell is the opposite of hydrolysis. It takes hydrogen, mixes it with oxygen, and forms water vapor. And in that process it gives off electricity, rather than uses electricity,” said Schuelke.

Hydrogen can also be taken from oil, coal and natural gas, but the byproduct of carbon dioxide from those sources would have to be injected underground to prevent further airborne emissions.

Firms are also working on safely storing the explosive element, developing tanks and even membranes that could be used in a vehicle. One working on the membrane effort is Energy Conversion Devices in Detroit. And oil companies, like Chevron-Texaco, are becoming vested in the distribution end.

Although Bush made the first major investment by the government in fuel cell research, some told the Boston Globe last month it’s a small outlay when compared to the billions that automakers and the Japanese government have already invested and believe business can’t foot the research tab by itself.

“Government has to be a sustained partner because the costs are too high for the private sector,” said Larry Johnson, director of transportation technology research at Argonne National Laboratory.

Jamie Kitman, New York bureau chief for Automobile magazine, told National Public Radio that Ford spent twice as much as Bush’s proposed investment just to develop the Taurus. Schuelke said firms that have invested in fuel-cell research have to recover those costs and that is why the cell is so costly now. But he noted that PCs were also very expensive when they first came to market.

“The reason why they were so expensive is they weren’t mass produced yet, and there are several manufacturers who are starting to mass produce fuel cells,” he said. “Some are for automotive purposes. Some are for stationary power applications. And some are for tiny applications, like a generator for a motor home.”

One of those companies is Ballard Power Systems of Vancouver. Ballard said last month it had made the first 1 kW fuel cell generator for the Japanese residential market with a total system efficiency of 92 percent and is marketing it commercially. Ballard also makes a cell for Coleman that provides internal power for motor homes. Coleman is selling these to RV manufacturers.

“They are probably the leader in automotive and tiny fuel cells,” said Schuelke of Ballard.

But David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, told the Chicago Tribune that the cost of making hydrogen fuel available at gas stations would be “huge, adding up to many billions of dollars.” And because of that price tag, Cole felt electric hybrids, diesels or another technology could be more cost effective than hydrogen.

More to Cole’s liking might be what Toyota is doing. The Japanese automaker claims it has developed the cleanest-running, all-gasoline engine on the market with its PZEV Camry.

Toyota reported the PZEV has virtually no hydrocarbon emissions and comes with an emission warranty of 15 years or 150,000 miles, whichever comes first. The engines are being made in Georgetown, Ky., and the cars are being sold in California. Toyota plans to produce 40,000 PZEV engines this year.

“Fuel cells have a good shot, but there are huge cost and infrastructure barriers. It’s going to be very difficult to bring to market a vehicle that is cost competitive with what we have today. You aren’t going to be able to force an uneconomical solution on consumers with regulations or laws,” said Cole.

The small number of fuel-cell vehicles being tested in California and Japan lease for about $10,000 a month, and officials at the U.S. Energy Department said it would likely be 20 to 35 years before hydrogen-powered cars are on the roads in significant numbers. But automakers have said they hope to be selling these vehicles by 2010.  

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