Saving Energy and Environment with the Power of Fuel Cells

From 1999-2000 I wrote for run by Hillary Rettig, which unfortunately fell victim to the dotcom drop. With her permission I’m listing some articles here. It’s interesting to note that most countries had already signed on to the the Kyoto Protocol, including Canada & the US who used various strategies to start backing out later.

The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997 stated that by 2008 all signing countries agree to lower their emissions of airborne pollutants from cars and industry.  Development and deployment of new technologies must begin years in advance of that deadline for countries to comply.

One approach that some regions are taking is mandating that a certain proportion of new cars sold produce zero emissions.  In the U.S., California, Massachusetts and New York are all calling for zero emission regulations. California will require that 10% of all cars sold by 2004 have zero tailpipe emissions.

Electric cars are one possibility.  Long recharge times on batteries, limited driving range (50-100 miles), and few recharge stations have left the public and car manufacturers less than enthusiastic about electrics as viable clean energy transportation.  

Another alternative is the new hybrid gas/electric cars that use an electric battery and a small gasoline tank. Although these cars have a driving range comparable to gas-powered cars and are self-charging they still use nonrenewable fossil fuels though emissions are lower.

Enter the Fuel Cell

A new contender in the zero-emission-vehicle race is the fuel cell.   DaimlerChrysler and Ford hope to have fuel cell-powered cars on the road within the next few years.  Both are partial owners of Ballard Power Systems Inc. in Burnaby, BC, which is the leading researcher and developer of fuel cell technology.  GM, Volkswagen, Honda, Nissan, and Mazda are also experimenting with fuel-cell-powered vehicles.  Chicago Transit Authority and Vancouver’s Metro Transit authority (Translink) are deploying fuel cell-powered buses on a test basis. The fuel cell uses hydrogen and air, which produces clean water (in some cases, water vapor). It can also be topped up quickly with fuel instead of having to be charged slowly like an electric battery.

A fuel cell is a chemically coated membrane sandwiched between two walls. On one side hydrogen is fed in and from the other side, oxygen. The hydrogen, upon reaching the membrane, splits into protons and electrons. The hydrogen protons move through the membrane to join with the oxygen on the other side. At the same time the hydrogen electrons, which cannot pass through the membrane, move out of the cell and are harnessed as electricity. The hydrogen protons meet with the electrons and the oxygen to form hot water.

Fuel cells sound like the “perfect” technology, but there are some problems that still must be resolved if it is ever to be commonly used in transportation.  These include the weight and size of the fuel cell stack, the fact that hydrogen is a highly volatile substance, and the lack of fueling stations.

Hydrogen can be extracted from other fuels but some emissions are produced. Methanol (known as wood alcohol), is a safer fuel source than pure hydrogen and will probably power DaimlerChrysler’s future mass-produced Necar, as well as other fuel cell cars.

Personal Fuel Cell Uses

Fuel cells are also being investigated for use as a power source for homes and appliances. Ballard’s Mark 900 fuel cell will be the basis of a one-kilowatt generator to power Japanese homes. The generator will extract hydrogen from natural gas.  It would be used during off-peak hours as the energy source and then supplemented by the city’s power grid during peak hours when many lights and appliances are turned on. Japan is eager to switch to fuel cell generators since several nuclear reactor accidents “have sapped the country’s already brittle confidence in nuclear power.” The Vancouver Sun (01/14/2000)  Ballard believes that Japan’s fuel-cell generator will be ready in two years.  They are also looking at marketing the generators for Europe and North America.

In the U.S., fuel cell generators are also being looked at as a supplement to city electrical grids. Many of these power grids obtain their energy from nonrenewable resources. Plug Power in Albany, NY received over twenty million dollars in research grants to develop a fuel cell that could be used in residential homes instead of using the traditional electric company grid. The fuel cell generators might be used to supplement photovoltaic panels, which collect solar energy.  Some houses already running on solar energy only draw on the grid during peak hours, cutting down the costs for household power and electricity.

The subkilowatt world of portable devices, such as laptop computers and cell phones may also soon use tiny fuel cells instead of traditional batteries. Motorola Inc.’s new “air breathing” fuel cell, developed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory “eliminates the need for air pumps, heat exchangers and other complex devices that previous fuel cells required and therefore disqualified them from successful use in small portable electronic products” according to Reuters, (01/19/2000).

The Motorola fuel cell measures one inch by less than one-tenth of an inch, and would last ten times longer than the standard lithium batteries now used, stated Christopher Dyer in The Chicago Tribune (10/25/99). Another two to five years of research and development are needed before the air breathing fuel cell is ready for the consumer. 

Fuel cells may still be the energy source of tomorrow, but that tomorrow is so close that the bus you ride today and the laptop you buy tomorrow may be powered by this clean energy. Fuel cells are one way that will let us all breathe easier.

Some Useful Sites
Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition,
Methanex (This site provides a good explanation of methanol.)
U.S. Department of Energy,
American Hydrogen Association,
Ballard Power Systems (A good description & graphics of the fuel cell.)
Fuel Cells 2000



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