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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fuel Cells

Air Date: Week of

Emilia Askari of the Detroit Free Press reports on the search for cleaner, cheaper fuels. Both auto companies and industry are hoping that fuel cells are the answer.


KNOY: People have been talking for years about some day replacing the internal combustion engine. Now, some day is near. First, everyone was talking about battery-powered electric motors. Then, the focus shifted to hybrid power vehicles that combine electric motors with gas engines. In the long run, though, many companies and investors are betting that hybrid engines will be a bridge to an even more revolutionary source of power: the fuel cell. Emilia Askari of the Detroit Free Press reports.

(A factory floor)

ASKARI: You can hear fuel cells being made at Ballard Power Systems' factory here in a suburb of Vancouver, Canada. But you can't see them. Ballard executives have blackened the windows that used to give them a view of the factory floor. They don't want visitors to steal any company secrets. Billions of dollars could go to the first companies which figure out how to bring cheap and powerful fuel cells to market, and Ballard is a leader in the race.

LANCASTER: I'd say we're a bit more than a nose ahead. That said, I don't think we should be complacent. This is a marathon and at the end of the day we intend to be first to market and to win.

ASKARI: That's Ballard's Vice President for Finance, Paul Lancaster. Lately it seems like everyone is looking for cleaner fuels that won't pollute or contribute to climate change. Auto companies hope fuel cells will power cars. Factories want them to power generators. Camping equipment companies want them to power portable cappuccino makers. Ballard's Paul Lancaster says he expects his company to get a lot of this business, but by no means all of it.

LANCASTER: This is a new industry. There are going to be other competitors. I think that the fact that Toyota and GM are working on this, although GM is one of our customers as well, the fact that there are other companies, serious companies like International Fuel Cells, which is part of United Technologies, is working on this technology, is all a good thing. Because we want to create an industry.

ASKARI: It's a new industry, but fuel cells themselves aren't a new technology. They were invented in 1839 by a British magistrate, Sir William Grove. And it's a deceptively simple technology. Sir William observed that by passing electricity through water, you could separate the hydrogen atoms from the oxygen, producing gas. And he wondered if the process worked in reverse. Could you combine hydrogen with oxygen to make electricity and water? He found that the answer is yes, and that's the essence of a fuel cell. The process starts with hydrogen, the simplest element. It's made up of just one proton and one electron. Fuel cells use a special membrane to peel off the electrons and create an electric current. Kip Smith is Ballard's president and chief operating officer.

SMITH: The magic in the fuel cell is the membrane in the middle. The protons from the hydrogen can transverse the membrane. They can go right through. But the electrons can't. So the electrons have to come around through a circuit, and that's how you create an electric current.

ASKARI: And when fuel cells use pure hydrogen, the only waste product is water, as Sir William observed. That's what makes them so attractive. The problem is, there is virtually no pure hydrogen on Earth. You need electricity to produce it. That's one reason fuel cells have only been used in specialized situations where other energy sources aren't available, such as submarines or space shuttles. But in the last few years, pressure to reduce fossil fuel pollution has grown. And so the pace of innovation on fuel cells has picked up. Today, many people are optimistic that fuel cell's day has nearly arrived.

BYRD: And we see the fuel cell vehicles being commercialized, first half of the next decade.

ASKARI: Christopher Beroni Byrd is a senior manager at Daimler Chrysler, which is working on fuel cells with Ballard Power Systems.

BYRD: Clearly, the numbers will ramp up as we get to economies of scale, and as performance continues to improve at a faster rate than we expect the internal combustion engine to do. So at some point there will be like a sea change, and it should take over rapidly once that happens.

(A car reminder dings; voices; a door shuts)

ASKARI: Another Ballard partner is Ford Motor Company. Ford recently tried to prime the pump for interest in fuel cells by inviting a pack of international journalists to a fuel cell dog-and-pony show at its Michigan headquarters. It featured lavish free food and test drives in a prototype fuel-cell car.


MAN 1: Just drive?

MAN 2: Just drive.

MAN 1: And this, the fuel gauge, is that how much hydrogen we have?

MAN 2: We have half a tank left.

MAN 1: How do you measure that half a tank?

MAN 2: Based on pressure.

ASKARI: At the same event, Ford's Director of Environmental Vehicles, John Wallace, also unveiled a new hydrogen fueling station.

WALLACE: It's the only hydrogen fueling station in North America that can provide both liquid and gaseous compressed hydrogen for fuel-cell vehicles. So they've simply hooked up the hose and now they've started the refueling process. You can hear the gas going into the vehicle.

ASKARI: This promises to be the big advantage of fuel cells over electric batteries, the other much-heralded replacement for gasoline engines. Even the best batteries have limited range, and they take hours to recharge. But potentially, fuel cells can be refilled, just like a gas tank. Of course, if it were as simple as that, fuel cell power would already be common. There are still a lot of problems with fuel cells, and they start with the fuel itself. Hydrogen gas is the same stuff that filled the Hindenberg, the zeppelin that exploded in the 1930s. It's highly combustible. Ford's John Wallace insists that any problems with hydrogen fueling have pretty much been solved.

WALLACE: I don't honestly think that there's any danger. There may be some regulations. That wouldn't be too surprising. But I don't think there's anything really dangerous here about this refueling process.

ASKARI: Still, when Ford unveiled its new hydrogen filling station, the company was cautious. News photographers were told to shoot from a distance for fear of sparks from their equipment. Clearly, some details remain to be worked out. Pure hydrogen is also difficult to store. Right now, you either have to keep the gas under very high pressure or make it very cold to liquefy it. And it's also not readily available. You have to produce it with electricity. And most electricity today is generated today with fossil fuels, which cancels out the benefit. To get truly clean hydrogen, you'd have to use solar or wind power to produce it, and that would require still another whole new infrastructure. So along with pure hydrogen, companies are researching other potential fuels for fuel cells. Methanol, for example, is high in hydrogen and relatively easy to deliver at corner gas stations. But finding a workable power source isn't the only problem. Despite the enthusiasm of companies like Ford and Daimler Chrysler, some auto industry analysts think the technology is a long way from working in a real car that people will want to buy.

COLE: There's sort of a consumer hype, media hype about it. It's sort of the great hope that we're looking at, that will bring us all of what we have been wanting for a long time.

ASKARI: David Cole is director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. He thinks fuel cells may be pushed onto the market before they are really ready, like electric cars were a few years ago. Cole says there's still along list of challenges facing fuel cells in cars.

COLE: For example, cold start. Do you want to wait a couple of minutes before you can go, or do you want to get in, as we do today, and go? What about range? And this is probably one of the most important things, what about that system level economics? How does it match up with our current system? Developments are occurring, inventions are being made. But it is not where it needs to be, and probably is not going to be there for some time, particularly in terms of the economics.

ASKARI: But the economics of automobiles are changing as the threat of climate change grows. Companies are under pressure from governments and consumers to build cleaner cars. And they're going all out to try to perfect fuel cell vehicles. Many people believe they're as close as we're going to get to non-polluting cars in our lifetimes. Bill Powers is Ford's Vice President of Research.

POWERS: The opportunity for fuel cells is so high that it is worth us working the problem.

ASKARI: For Living on Earth, I'm Emilia Askari in Detroit.



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