The Fuel Cells are Coming!

For the last few years there has been some low-key buzz in the renewable energy world about the possibility of using fuel cells in home power installations. You may have heard the term if you have followed the space program at any time during the last 30 years. Fuel cells have been used for decades to provide power for spacecraft (primarily those with human crews) on short duration missions (lasting less than a few weeks).

All the Gemini and Apollo missions, for example, got their power from fuel cells. A fuel cell produces energy by combining hydrogen gas with oxygen. The resulting reaction produces water (H2O) and energy. This is a reversal of the way hydrogen gas is produced. Hydrogen gas is produced through a process known as electrolysis, where an electric current is introduced to a container of water and the reaction with the water causes the water molecules to break down into their component atoms (hydrogen and oxygen).

On a spacecraft, tanks of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen are carried as "fuel" for the fuel cell and the two are mixed in the fuel cell. The beauty of this system is that it produces absolutely no pollution. The problem has always been incredibly high cost.

However, just as the space-age technology of photovoltaics has made the transition from the space program so now is fuel cell technology poised to enter the mainstream.

A number of companies have made advances that could bring fuel cells to our homes and cars within the next 15 years. Ballard Power Systems, Inc., a Canadian company, has been working with auto manufacturers, from Chrysler to Mercedes, as well as Arthur D. Little, Inc., an energy consulting firm, to make fuel cells practical for everyday use in automobiles. Instead of using pure hydrogen they use hydrogen-rich fuels such as gasoline, natural gas or propane.

Though these fuel cells are not as pollution-free as cells powered by pure hydrogen, even the least efficient of them provides double the miles-per-gallon of a conventional internal combustion engine and a fraction of the pollutants. Also, because these cars would be powered by the electricity produced by the fuel cells, they would not need the kind of maintenance and polluting greases and oils of cars powered by internal combustion engines.

Both Ballard Power Systems and the Department of Energy have made announcements of these systems in the last few weeks. At this stage the cost is still prohibitive for commercial use (around $30,000) but it is magnitudes less than the millions the systems cost on spacecraft. As the potential for commercial application increases, the pace of research and development will increase exponentially and the costs will drop accordingly.

Although this research is being driven primarily by the vehicle industry the implications for home power systems are enormous. Fuel cells would replace batteries and could be run on whatever fuel is available (natural gas or propane, for example). It is also possible to use the electricity produced by solar panels or wind generators for electrolysis to produce hydrogen that would then run the fuel cells. In this way the energy is "stored" in the hydrogen which is fed to the fuel cell to produce electricity as needed. The hydrogen, therefor, takes the place of batteries.

One of the scenarios being tossed around by the news media in their recent reports on these fuel cell breakthroughs is the idea of using the fuel cell in a car to power a house. "Imagine coming home and plugging your car into your house to provide power", they say. (Ignoring the fact that you’ll still have to have a source of power for the house while you are out driving the car somewhere).

The reality will most likely be just the opposite. A fuel cell system that might be considered too expensive for a car would still be affordable as a power source for a single family home. I suspect we will see fuel cells in home use a bit before they become practical and affordable for cars. It is entirely possible that within the next twenty years we will see both homes and cars powered by fuel cells.

All Contents © 1998
Wagonmaker Press
Thomas W. Elliot


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