TCS Daily

Fuel Cell Follies

By Brock Yates - June 12, 2002 12:00 AM

The national news media recently became all warm and fuzzy over the news that a DaimlerChrysler fuel-cell vehicle completed a cross-country trip from San Francisco to Washington, DC. The 3262 mile journey took a leisurely 15 days (contrasting with the coast-to-coast current record, set in 1979 by a Jaguar XJS at 32 hours and 51 minutes). A team of 15 engineers and two support vehicles accompanied the so-called Necar5 (New Electric Car, Fifth Generation) all of whom were on hand to minister the single major breakdown in Nevada. But why the little Mercedes-Benz A-Class coupe (not sold here) averaged a pokey 9 mph for the trip remained unexplained in the media palpitations over it (perhaps Public Relations needs overwhelmed performance.)

Regardless of the tepid pace, the Necar5's journey was widely celebrated as a breakthrough toward fuel-cell-powered vehicles and the shedding of the shackles that link civilization to the hated, fossil-fuel-burning internal-combustion engine.

But wait a minute, before the cheering reaches hysterical levels, a brief intermission is recommended to review some realities concerning the fuel-cell concept. Not surprisingly, most of them have to do with money.

For example, one wonders if the pols touting the fuel-cell have considered its catastrophic downside in terms of revenue generation. Today Federal gasoline taxes produce $24 billion annually. State and local taxes account for another $32 billion while the Fed's take on highway diesel fuel is $16 billion. The reality: Getting rid of internal combustion engines and the petroleum products they burn means the loss of $72 billion in taxes. Add to that the expected feel-good tax rebates that are sure to be offered much like the recent $2000 bonus given to purchasers of gas-electric hybrid automobiles and further revenue shortfalls are likely. Does anyone with a brain larger than a Sheep Dog's think for one moment that the pols will let these huge chunks of change dribble out of their pockets? Be serious.

Of course the notion of brewing up together a few atoms of Hydrogen and Oxygen to produce electricity and a by-product of clean water vapor sounds terrific. But again, we're talking money. Big money. At the core of the fuel-cell is a catalyst that makes the Hydrogen and Oxygen to generate the kilowatts. This requires two exotic metals, Platinum and its ultra-rare cousin, Ruthenium (perhaps better called "unobtanium"). This stuff is so sparse that a number of experts researching fuel-cells are openly concerned that not enough Ruthenium exists on the earth to equip large fleets of fuel-cell vehicles. And with rarity comes huge cost.

DaimlerChrysler employed Methanol or "wood alcohol" as the source of its Hydrogen for safety purposes. Although converting the Methanol to Hydrogen causes a 15% power loss, the choice was made because driving around with a tankful of pure Hydrogen involves dangerous storage issues that have yet to be solved. (Remember the Hindenburg). While Honda is working on high-pressure Hydrogen storage tanks for its FCX/V4 fuel-cell prototype, many manufacturers, including DaimlerChrysler and General Motors, are choosing to "reform" such fuels as Methanol, gasoline and natural gas into Hydrogen rather than add the weight and complexity of crash-proof tanks to their vehicles.

Because Hydrogen is not exactly available at the nearest Ace Hardware, it must either be created on board the vehicle with a complex "reformer" process or refined in purpose-built factories around the nation. None of this is free and some experts estimate that the total energy consumption in BTU's (British Thermal Units) involving fuel-cells is about equal to that currently consumed by gasoline-powered vehicles. So is there a net energy savings when all is said and done? Very little, if any, at least until somebody discovers the Lost Chord in terms of (1) cheap and easy Hydrogen recovery (2) a breakthrough in catalyst technology that eliminates the need for Ruthenium.

But what about the Methanol that DCX employed in their Necar5? Cheap stuff, you think, in that it can be made from biomass, coal and natural gas. Yet even without government taxation (it is considered an industrial solvent, etc. and not a fuel) Methanol costs about $2.50 a gallon. Compare that to gasoline, which minus the 42 cents in Federal, State and local taxes cost is less than a buck. Like Ethanol, that grand scam touted by Senator Daschle, Archer-Daniels-Midland and scores of farm state pols, Methanol is expensive to refine. When its total cost is accounted for, it is less efficient in terms of overall BTU's consumed than conventional gasoline.

What we are talking about here are huge numbers; untold billions in terms of developing fuel-cell catalyst reactor systems, the refining of Hydrogen and Methanol in large quantities and the latent bugaboo of the government slapping on taxes to cover the shortfall from gasoline revenues.

No matter, everybody in the car business is on the bandwagon. General Motors is expanding its research center in Upstate New York, although its engineers privately predict that fuel-cells will work as stationary power sources for homes and industry long before they can be properly down-sized for economic use in motor vehicles. Ford has a fleet of Focus compacts under tests and talks of low-volume production by 2004. Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, Volkswagen and Opel are all in the game with a variety of schemes to either reformulate Hydrogen or package it in super-safe containers.

So, after all the cheering for the Necar5's pioneering trip, where is the fuel-cell? Is it a Wright Brothers Flyer that will trigger a technological explosion of the kind that produced super-sonic flight less than 50 years later? Or is it an expensive, chimerical dead-end?

Surely we will see fuel-cell vehicles on the road in subsidized government fleets, (DCX already has 30 buses operating in Germany). But can the issues of cost and weight be solved in light of harsh free-market realities? A mad race to develop cheap, efficient fuel-cell vehicles is underway here, in Germany and in Japan. Some say the winner will cross the line by 2010. Others say it may take 50 years. Pessimists say never.

Who knows? In the early 1950's it was believed that a Polaris submarine missile guidance system would take 25 years to develop. Yet it was operational within a few years. But cold fusion, a cure for cancer and the common cold, for all the billions spent, remain distant visions.

The future of the fuel-cell remains unclear at best.



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