TCS Daily

Fuel Hell

By Brock Yates - September 9, 2002 12:00 AM

Being the hopeless optimist that I am, I was convinced that an automotive Nirvana lay ahead. The fuming internal combustion engine would be history, displaced by silent, clean and friendly efficient fuel cells that would (1) excise the environment of all sorts of ugly effluvients and (2) release us from the bondage of the Middle Eastern Mullahs and their filthy pits of black oil.

Now comes word that has dashed my Utopian dreams. It issues from a recent gathering of auto industry engineering gurus in Traverse City, Michigan. During a meeting of the Management Briefing Seminar for the joint government-industry "Freedom Car Project," some alarming news was produced regarding the fuel cell. According to the engineers who have been laboring to produce a practical, affordable fuel cell for automotive applications, they are about as close to reaching their goal as Anna Nicole Smith is to winning an Emmy for Best Lead Actress.

The objective, in technical terms, is simple: A fuel cell must generate 55 kilowatts of electricity for 18 seconds. That is the energy needed to propel a five-passenger sedan on an Interstate ramp, permitting it to merge with traffic. The fuel cell must be capable of generating that level of peak power for 15 years of usage.

Moreover, the fuel cell must continuously produce 30 kilowatts for normal driving with a cost of no more than $12 per kilowatt hour. Currently the most efficient prototype fuel cells generate electricity at a cost between $800 and $1000 per kilowatt hour. During the meeting Thomas Moore, Chrysler Group Vice President for Technical Affairs was quoted in Automotive News as observing, "I believe we can meet the technical issues. The hard part is the cost target. I don't think they can be met."

Worse yet, the best life span for fuel cells in laboratory experiments has been 1000 hours, or far short of the 5000 hours of usage that would bring the fuel cell into a reasonable cost-benefit ratio specified by the Freedom Car Project.

Add to that the seemingly impossible task of mass-producing the "stacks" that act as the catalyst for combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and the fuel cell becomes an even more distant possibility.

To be sure, fuel cells can be made to work in spacecraft and other highly limited applications where cost, weight, size and production techniques are light years away from cost-efficient, mass-produced usages.

Far from the cocktail party chatter and hazily optimistic press releases, insiders within the automotive industry generally agree that widespread usage of fuel cells in vehicles within a decade - if ever - borders on the impossible, presuming a miracle breakthrough in technology does not arrive. Keep in mind that billions have been spent simply trying to develop light, quickly-rechargeable storage batteries without success and one begins to understand the magnitude of the challenge facing fuel cell designers.

We will no doubt see prototype fuel cell powered cars introduced in impressive numbers within the next few years. General Motors, Ford, Honda, Toyota and others are hard at work to introduce such vehicles. Each will be touted as a great hope for the future. Each will be painstakingly handcrafted and will cost millions. Each manufacturer will waffle when asked if their miracle machine can be mass-produced at a reasonable price. The truthful answer will be no. Not now. Perhaps not ever.

Many experts believe fuel cells will power buildings long before they are employed in automobiles, simply because size, cost and the supply of hydrogen become easier problems to solve when the units are in stationary settings.

The fuel cell sounds like the perfect alternative to the internal combustion engine, but translating it into anything that can be cheaply mass-produced seems chimerical at best. Take my advice: Don't tear up the old gas credit card just yet.



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