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Power to the People: The Fuel Cell Leads the Way to Clean Energy

Fuel cell cars, producing only drinkable water out of their tailpipes, are an unambiguous improvement over internal combustion. The promise these cars hold -- to be both environmentally friendly and technically superior to conventional vehicles on the roads today -- has fueled an international race to get a fuel cell car to market.
 
 
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Dearborn, Michigan is a company town. Ford's testing labs, museums and office towers line up for miles along a tree-lined boulevard in what looks for all the world like an upscale college campus. The decidedly less glamorous Rouge manufacturing complex, a 1,200-acre symbol of American industrialism built in 1916, is just down the road, but even that's getting a makeover. Environmental architect William McDonough is slated to mastermind a $2 billion "reinvention" of the six Rouge plants.Last fall, I came to Dearborn to drive a car. Not just any car, but a revolution on wheels. The Ford P2000 may look like an ordinary Contour, albeit one with a lot of bright graphics, but it's radical in every sense, from its ultra-light 2,000-pound aluminum, carbon fiber and magnesium construction and state-of-the-art electric motor to the hydrogen-powered fuel cell stack under its hood.Environmentalists debate the merits of battery-powered electric cars. Are they really "emission-free," since they get their power off a grid that includes nuclear and coal generation? Although similar questions can be raised about fuel cell cars, nearly everyone agrees that hydrogen-powered vehicles, producing only drinkable water out of their tailpipes, are an unambiguous improvement over internal combustion. And fuel cell cars, which share only an electric motor with their battery-powered brethren, actually hold out the promise of being better in every sense than the conventional vehicles on the roads today. They should accelerate just as well, run quieter, be more reliable, and cruise twice as far on a fill-up as 2000's showroom queens. "The carmakers have an enthusiasm for this technology that was never there with batteries," says Maryann Keller, an auto analyst with New York's Furman Selz.The promise these cars hold -- to be both environmentally friendly and technically superior -- has fueled an international race to get a fuel cell car to market. While battery cars exist mainly on government life support, fuel cells are being underwritten by intense competition. It's an exciting development that in many ways closely resembles the switch from horse to horseless carriage at the end of the 19th century.There are probably no more than 10 or 20 fully road-worthy fuel cell cars in the world today. The P2000 is undoubtedly the most fully developed in the U.S., which isn't really saying all that much. All the cars are rolling test beds, full of rattles, squeaks and loose ends. The revelation for me that day in Dearborn was that the P2000 starts, stops and accelerates just like a normal car. You could take it down to the 7-11 for a gallon of milk. I drove it around a Ford test track and then, because nobody stopped me, I drove it around again. Only a noisy air compressor gave evidence that this car was a work in progress.The engineers said that this particular iteration of the P2000 would go 100 miles before running out of hydrogen gas. But they predicted confidently that they'd have that up to 350 miles shortly. It's a measure of the giant leaps fuel cells have made -- in miniaturization, in power output, in reliability, in affordability. Ford, Honda, Toyota, DaimlerChrysler, all these major manufacturers say they'll have fuel cell cars on the market by 2004. As a transition to fuel cell cars, automakers will introduce, beginning this year, an array of "hybrid" cars, with both electric and gasoline drivetrains. The Honda Insight (a two-seater) and the Toyota Prius (four passengers) will get up to 70 miles per gallon and cruise 600 miles or more between fill-ups. The Japanese hybrids are ready to go, too, though the same companies' fuel cell cars are still very much in development.The first fuel cell test cars will soon hit the road. Just before Earth Day 1999, General Motors announced a major fuel cell alliance with Toyota, and DaimlerChrysler unveiled the California Fuel Cell Partnership, which will put 50 of these high-technology cars on the state's roads by 2003. Honda and Volkswagen have since signed on to the partnership.James Cannon, the author of Harnessing Hydrogen, a book about early fuel cell developments, predicts confidently that, by 2010, "There will be many fuel cell vehicles on the road, as well as lots of combustion engines in hybrid mode. They'll all be electric vehicles [EVs] in one form or another, and electric drives will be the normal way to get around. I think the revolution in electrifying cars will be over by 2010, though we'll still be in a major transitional phase then."From our perspective at the start of a new millennium, it's hard to see the revolution that Cannon is talking about. The roads are clogged, not with EVs but with gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles (SUVs). Light trucks, a category that includes SUVs, are outselling cars for the first time in American history, and average fuel economy is falling. Automakers fight tooth and nail against any rise in federal consumption standards.And yet these same automakers realize that national and international regulation to control smog and global warming gas is inevitable. Laws now on the books in California, Massachusetts and New York, collectively a quarter of the U.S. auto market, set stringent limits on tailpipe emissions and will require substantial sale of zero-emission cars by 2003. The clean cars may not be visible yet, but they're on the horizon.A Long Time ComingThe fuel cell, first demonstrated in principle in 1839, is an excellent example of a scientifically proven technology that could find no practical application during the inventor's lifetime. Indeed, the inventor made it plain that actual uses for his "gas battery" didn't interest him in the least. Sir William Robert Grove (1811-1896) was a larger-than-life figure of the type that proliferated in nineteenth-century England. Educated at Oxford and trained as a barrister, Grove became famous, or perhaps infamous, as the defender of William Palmer, the notorious "Rugeley poisoner," who used strychnine on more than a dozen victims.When he wasn't presiding in court, Grove could be found in his laboratory, where he made several important improvements to the design of storage batteries. Grove, who was knighted in 1872, could have rested his scientific reputation on these laurels, but he also invented the fuel cell, describing in some detail how the chemical combination of hydrogen and oxygen could be used to produce electricity.In 1842, Grove lectured on the gas battery's properties in London. His science was sound, based on the idea that it should be possible to reverse the already well-known electrolysis process and get electricity out rather than put electricity in. In electrolysis, which is widely used in metal plating, a current is introduced into an electricity-conducting liquid known as an electrolyte, where it flows between two electrodes and causes chemical changes.Grove proved that his reverse principle worked, and generated a powerful current in his laboratory, but the practical applications of his invention failed to stir him. "For my part," he told the Chemical Society in 1891, "I must say that science to me generally ceases to be interesting as it becomes useful."Not all fuel cells are created equal: Some run on pure hydrogen gas (the environmentalist's choice) and others on fossil fuels from which hydrogen is extracted. Fuel cell technology can be compared to that of a car battery, in that hydrogen and oxygen are combined to produce electricity. But batteries have to be periodically recharged. Like a car engine, the fuel cell can run continuously, because its fuel and oxygen aren't sealed up inside it. Here's how it works: Pure hydrogen gas -- or hydrogen extracted from a fuel like methanol or gasoline -- is fed to the cell, and passed through an electrolyte (depending on the type of fuel cell, it can be phosphoric acid, molten carbonate, or another substance). The electrons in the hydrogen can't travel through the electrolyte, and are redirected through a wire, producing electric current. At the end of the process, hydrogen is reconstituted and combined with oxygen to produce the fuel cell's major byproduct, water. The other byproduct is waste heat, which in some applications can be captured and reused in a process called cogeneration.A cell generates just under one volt, but fuel cells can easily be grouped in "stacks" to produce more voltage. In a pure hydrogen fuel cell, emissions are nonexistent, but some release of pollutants is inevitable in a car that "reforms," or extracts, its hydrogen from a fossil fuel. But levels are quite dramatically lower than what comes out of the world's dirty tailpipes. Unlike the modern car engine, with its noise, heat and rapidly spinning parts, the fuel cell is just an enclosed box, with no moving parts and no noise. It's not much to look at, but its implications are vast, not only for transportation but also for the entire energy constellation, since fuel cells work even better in stationary applications -- such as home power generation -- than they do in cars. Although there are several different kinds of fuel cells, only one type, the proton-exchange membrane, or PEM cell, is seriously being considered for cars.The PEM cell, which was developed for the Gemini space program by General Electric in the early 1960s, has no equal in terms of size, low operating temperatures, adjustable power outputs, and quick starting. Breakthroughs at the federal government's Los Alamos National Laboratories in the 1980s made the practical PEM cell possible, by drastically reducing by up to 90 percent the amount of precious metal catalyst needed to coat the cell's ultra-thin polymer membrane. Although the modern work on fuel cells is all pretty recent, the technical problems of the cells themselves have been mostly worked out, and Ballard Power Systems, the British Columbia-based leader in this technology, intends to have a car-sized power unit ready to go, at prices comparable to internal-combustion engines, by 2002.What Fuel?Fuel cells may be ready to go, but that by no means puts a fuel cell car on the showroom floor. The real obstacle, the hurdle keeping engineers in both industry and government up nights, is the fuel itself. Will fuel cells run on pure hydrogen, meaning they'll have to carry a high-compression tank of this highly flammable gas on board, or will they require (at least as an interim step) a "reformer," really a miniature chemical factory designed to extract hydrogen from a fossil fuel, probably methanol? Although most environmentalists favor the "direct hydrogen" approach because it's cleaner, the auto industry seems bent on retaining its familiar liquid fuels, and the first fuel cell cars will run on them.In 1997, a joint project of Boston-based Arthur D. Little Inc., Latham, New York's Plug Power and the U.S. Department of Energy publicly demonstrated a gasoline reformer, a stunning achievement since gasoline is among the hardest fuels to reform. Gasoline contains sulfur, which poisons fuel cells, but Epyx, the Arthur D. Little spinoff company that's working on the gas reformer, captured the sulfur before it got to the cell, using a device similar in principle to a catalytic converter.Bob Derby is the marketing director of Epyx. "We envision a reformer that can work with multiple fuels and can be changed on the fly to use gasoline, ethanol or methanol," he said. "You could compare the unit to a portable generator, except its efficiency levels will be much higher and its emissions levels much lower."Environmentalists aren't exactly jumping up and down celebrating the Epyx achievement, since it potentially postpones the inevitable day of reckoning with fossil fuels. "The environmentalists didn't like it," says Jeffrey Bentley, the Epyx CEO who invented the reformer. "But I came to the conclusion that you've got to adapt to the current infrastructure." Epyx was dealt a blow last year when Chrysler, which had been the strongest proponent of gasoline reforming, changed its mind and switched to methanol. The move reflects Chrysler's merger with methanol-boosting Daimler-Benz, but it's also an indication of the great complexity involved in reforming a highly refined fuel like gasoline.A reformer adds more weight to a car that must be as light as possible, and it's a complicated, miniature chemical factory. What's more, "reformed" hydrogen is not pure, and isn't likely to deliver the same performance as hydrogen gas.It may come down to a question of infrastructure. If fuel cell cars run on gasoline, obviously we don't have to change the local gas station. But to turn the trickle of hydrogen we produce now for industrial use into a mighty national network could cost hundreds of billions. One scenario is that methanol fuel cell cars will bridge the gap in the decade or more it might take to build that network. Another, more environmentally friendly, possibility is that gas stations will install miniature electrolysis factories next to their pumps and produce hydrogen from water. Robert W. Shaw, Jr., whose Arete Corporation was an early investor in fuel cell technologies, thinks we may even see photovoltaic cells on the roofs of service stations, cleanly producing power to make hydrogen locally.Dr. Ferdinand Panik, who directs the DaimlerChrysler Fuel Cell Project House in Germany, is convinced that hydrogen is the fuel of the future. "No technology lasts forever, and it is time to replace fossil fuels," he said. "I believe hydrogen offers the best opportunity to do that, and I don't see anything else coming along with the same potential. Fuel cell research is becoming a major international trend. I think it's become a matter of when it will happen, not whether it will happen." DaimlerChrysler's latest fuel cell vehicle, NECAR 4, built into the body of the tiny Mercedes "A Class," is its most road-ready yet, though the cryogenic liquid hydrogen in its tanks presents a host of infrastructure problems.On the BusIn many ways, the fuel cell revolution is beginning with buses, the only hydrogen vehicles in regular use today. DaimlerChrysler's NEBUS cruises silently through the streets of Stuttgart, Germany. Georgetown University operates a bus powered by International Fuel Cells. And Ballard has six test buses in municipal service in Chicago and Vancouver, Canada. It was in Canada that I got my first ride in a fuel cell vehicle. The municipal transit center in Port Coquitlam, a Vancouver suburb, looks like any other bus garage, complete with a rowdy workers' cafeteria. But not many bus depots have large hydrogen generating stations.BC Transit's Jim Kelly had never actually piloted a fuel cell bus before. Sitting among long rows of diesel craft, the 60-capacity bus didn't stand out, but ample graphics left no doubt about its provenance. The big vehicle hissed to life, the sound coming from the compressor that gradually pumped up the air suspension."It's just like driving a regular bus," Kelly said as we scooted around the parking lot. "You forget it's unique." But as he talked, the bus suddenly sputtered to a halt. "The sensors are ultra-sensitive and designed to shut the system down if they detect any abnormality," explained Ballard spokeswoman Debbie Roman, who was along for the ride. "It's usually nothing serious." Something similar happened to the unlucky Ballard in 1993, during a distinguished unveiling ceremony at Vancouver's Science World. Five minutes before Ballard's bus was to drive up on a platform occupied by the then-Premier of Canada, an incorrectly sized bolt failed and cut power. Without anyone in the crowd noticing, Ballard's intrepid engineers pushed the bus on the platform.Powering Houses, and Computers, TooFuel cells are by no means limited to powering automobiles. Plug Power, a small company in Latham, New York, recently made headlines by announcing that it was powering a house with a fuel cell. I drove up to Latham for a meeting with president and CEO Gary Mittleman, a lanky six-footer with the uncouth gray hair of the renegade inventor."The auto market is great, and it remains so," Mittleman says. "All kinds of companies and government agencies are very interested. But the automotive technology is very challenging." Automotive fuel cells, he noted, have to be both small and lightweight; they have to be shock-resistant and work in subfreezing temperatures, as well as 100-degree days. And the prices have to be very low, as low as $50 a kilowatt, the equivalent cost of running an internal-combustion car. Mittleman thinks that fuel cells in homes, a phenomenon known as "distributed power," will take off before the cars do. "In a house, you don't have the issues, like size, weight, and shock-resistance, you have with cars," he says. "And it doesn't have to be $50 to $100 a kilowatt. At $1,000 it looks viable, and at $500 it's a home run." Of 100 million homes in the U.S., he said, 75 million have natural gas passing by, giving them a built-in stationary power infrastructure. According to John Mousaw, Plug Power's communications director, the firm will market a refrigerator-sized $10,000 home power unit, running on household natural gas, by next year. Ironically, Plug Power's marketing partner in the venture is General Electric, the company that pioneered PEM fuel cells in the first place.Plug Power's demonstration house, a brick-faced ranch, is walking distance from company headquarters. The seven-kilowatt Plug Power 7000 fuel cell, about the size of a large copy machine, sat in the breezeway. Plug Power's Richard Maddaloni presided over a small repair. He was full of confidence about the future of fuel cells. "Fuel cells will soon be part of our everyday lives," he says. "The technology is certainly here today, but what happens depends on how well we communicate the story." Mittleman thinks we'll soon be buying fuel cells at Wal-Mart to power everything from computers to watches.Debbie Harris, a spokesperson for Ballard Power Systems, says there are no major technical hurdles to mass production of home fuel cells. But, she adds, it may be several years before fuel cells can be price-competitive with grid power. Instead, like Connecticut-based International Fuel Cells, Ballard is introducing large-scale 250-kilowatt cells for the "premium power" industrial market. For such crucial uses as hospitals and remote cellular sites, fuel cells will provide near-100 percent reliability and grid-free continuous electricity. Smaller fuel cells to replace diesel generators will be on the market in the next two or three years, she says, and portable units to take the place of batteries may be out in 2001. "Fuel cells will power everything that uses batteries now," she says.Is Hydrogen Safe?The spectacular 1937 fire that killed 36 people and destroyed the German zeppelin Hindenburg remains a black eye for hydrogen. The blaze, which occurred as the 240-ton airship was docking in Lakehurst, New Jersey, put an immediate end to zeppelin travel and saddled hydrogen with a nasty reputation it has yet to fully shake.Hindenburg was not hydrogen-fueled; the extra-buoyant gas, used because helium was not available to the increasingly bellicose Nazi regime, filled 16 cells in the airship's body and gave it lift. Conventional history has it that hydrogen caused the fire, but retired NASA engineer Addison Bain, a hydrogen specialist, thinks otherwise. After several years of research, Bain is convinced that the on-board hydrogen certainly fueled the fire, but it played no role in starting it. The culprit, he believes, was the highly flammable cellulose doping compound used to coat the fabric covering and make it taut.Bain believes that an electrical discharge ignited the zeppelin's skin after it docked, and that the heat from the fire then burst the hydrogen cells and ignited the escaping gas. (The gas leak caused the still-buoyant nose of the airship to rise, as it is seen to do in many famous photos of the disaster.) "I guess the moral of the story is, don't paint your airship with rocket fuel," says Bain.There are some, even in companies that make fuel cells, who speculate that hydrogen is simply too volatile, too dangerous, to ever be safely domesticated for cars. Peter Voyentzie of Danbury, Connecticut's Energy Research Corporation, which makes large stationary fuel cell power plants, is skeptical about automotive applications. "Hydrogen is a strange beast," he says. "It's the smallest molecule, and it leaks out of everything. You also can't see it burn. In a car, it has to remain stable through collisions and constant agitation. That's a lot to expect."But those worried about hydrogen's propensity to burn might want to consider that 15,000 cars are destroyed by engine fires every year, and 500 people die from auto accident-related burns. Gasoline is itself highly volatile, a fact that clinched a considerable number of EV sales in the early days of motoring. Today, we're so familiar with gasoline that it no longer seems very dangerous (even as we watch Hollywood stunt cars explode on screen). Hydrogen's problems shouldn't be minimized, but we can learn to use this amazing gas as safely as possible.I've now been to Canada, Germany, Japan and Detroit to drive fuel cell cars, and I have to admit that the rickety prototypes in automakers' test bays aren't yet ready to meet the public. They're rattly, slow and prone to unexplained breakdowns. A 10-year-old Taurus could run rings around the lot of them. In short, they're a lot like the gas buggies that entrepreneurs set loose on the world's roads beginning in 1895. People said they'd never replace the horse.Jim Motavalli is editor of E, The Environmental Magazine, where this article originally appeared.