Fuel cell technology has a long but clear road ahead

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If hydrogen is going to replace fossil fuels as the future of energy for the United States, there are still a few hurdles that must be overcome, and the focus must expand beyond the automotive industry.
Last month, the Colorado Fuel Cell Center opened on the campus of the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. The center focuses on fuel-cell research, development, education and commercial application.
“Everyone asks about cars,” said Executive Director Robert Remick. “But that’s only one of the things we’re doing – we’re helping 3M develop new membranes for vehicle fuel cells. Our mission involves so much more than that.”
The center provides education about the benefits of fuel cells, performs research and provides support to commercialize research and get products to the marketplace.
Hydrogen is a fuel carrier, he said, not an energy source. It is the “economy” between the source and the creation of electricity. In other words, it stores and delivers energy in a usable form.
“I have these solar fuel cells to run my house,” Remick said. “And that’s great, but what happens when it’s dark? You convert solar energy to hydrogen to store it in the fuel cells and then use it when you need it.”
The Department of Energy is working on initiatives to create a bigger buzz about hydrogen fuel cells. The goal of President George W. Bush’s hydrogen fuel initiative is to “accelerate the research and development of hydrogen, fuel cell and infrastructure technologies that would enable hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to reach the market in the 2020 timeframe.”
Fuel cells can be used for much more than cars. Large cells have been on the market since 1992, and can power towns, but they are too expensive for wide-spread use.
Remick said the Department of Defense is interested in using fuel cell technology to create electricity. The cells the military uses are much smaller than the ones previously available commercially.
“The hydrogen fuel cell generators are quieter, have less pollution and are easier to carry,” he said. “Marines are testing them in Iraq right now; I imagine those fuel cells will be available in the next year or two.”
Fuel cell “batteries” for computers are next on the market, he said. But cars running on hydrogen are still years – if not decades — away.
Car manufacturers say that cars using the fuel cells, which have no byproducts except water, could appear in showrooms as early as 2012. Researchers and scientists are working on a myriad of issues: from transportation of the fuel to the energy needed to create the hydrogen.
Ford Motor Co. has been road-testing hydrogen-powered cars in seven U.S. cities, Germany and Canada.
“Our fuel cell stacks themselves have demonstrated promising performance to date,” said Greg Frenette, chief engineer of the Focus Fuel Cell Vehicle program at Ford. “They’ve been operating well out in the field with the technology for the most part being pretty robust.”
These fuel cell vehicles run on electricity and use hydrogen instead of a battery to produce electricity. Inside the fuel cell, oxygen combines with hydrogen to produce electricity. A module then converts the electricity for use by the motor/transaxle, which powers the wheels. The only emission is water. The fuel cell stack is supplied by Ballard Power Systems.
The test vehicles have sensors that send data via satellite to Ford engineers in Dearborn, Mich., who review it daily. Through the testing program, Ford engineers have discovered areas for improvement, Frenette said.
“We’ve found with these test vehicles that a majority of fixes were remedied with software, as opposed to having to go in and change hardware,” Frenette said. “That’s a tremendous advantage, because it is easy to rewrite software.”
The Focus Fuel Cell Vehicle is one of the most sophisticated vehicles Ford has developed. While its success is an important milestone in Ford’s long-term alternative-fuel vehicle strategy, the future is not without its challenges.
“The main issue is the cost of fuel cell systems today, which with its very low volumes, are well into six figures,” Frenette said. “We’ve got to make the cost and reliability of fuel cell systems comparable to today’s internal combustion engine.”
Storage capacity is another hurdle.
“We’ve got to figure out how to store hydrogen on the vehicle in a very compact space, and that’s a challenge the entire industry faces,” said Frenette. “This really requires some significant technological breakthroughs.”
Another hurdle is the hydrogen fuel infrastructure – a potential trillion-dollar undertaking on a national scale. Hydrogen stations opened to support the test vehicles, but stations must be as widely available as those for gasoline. And the cost of hydrogen has to be comparable to gasoline, he said.
Ford is working with BP, the automaker’s strategic partner and hydrogen provider in the United Sate, to develop solutions.
“Once those key challenges are overcome, I can envision that you could buy a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle at your local Ford dealership, but we’re talking about a decade or more to get there,” Frenette said.
Remick sees other problems.
“Right now, the cheapest way to make hydrogen is by using natural gas,” he said. “But that doesn’t get us away from using fossil fuels. We’ve got to find a renewable energy.”
He said new techniques would have to be found to create energy using renewable resources. Of these, biomass (plant matter) and waste are promising avenues. Other methods that can be used to create hydrogen include wind and solar electricity.
“We’re looking at the food industry,” Remick said. “Waste is power. They have several waste streams that can be converted into energy. And we’re looking at sewage treatment plants. They have methane as a by-product, and it’s typically burned. It is a great way of creating hydrogen. But that’s the ultimate goal: to reduce our reliance on the fossil fuels and make a renewable energy source to power the economy.”
Demand is another issue, he said. Ford pays hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single fuel cell, and the price of other fuel-cell technologies remains high.
“It’s a chicken-and-the-egg problem,” he said. “They can increase the supply if the price goes down; and the price will go down once more people want them. It’s the supply and demand economics driving it now.”