Fuel Cells Attractive Energy Alternative for Future Hydrogen- Burning System Could Power Automobiles, Offices, Homes, Factories

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- In a not-distant energy revolution, commuters may drive home from work and, in order to use energy in an economical and pollution-free way, leave their cars running all night.

The cars will be lighting, and heating or cooling, the houses the commuters come home to.

Back at work the next day, the cars may pull up to docking stations and pump electricity into offices or factories. A new kind of vehicle, only a handful of which exist anywhere in the world, could do that and more, proponents say. A race is on among car manufacturers in the United States, Germany and Japan to perfect automobiles that will run without expensive-to- maintain, pollution-generating internal combustion engines. Such vehicles appear to be at the brink of feasibility because of a rapidly maturing technology, the hydrogen-burning fuel cell. It produces electricity much like a storage battery but differs in the fact that it won't "run down." As long as fuel, which can be almost any hydrogen-rich substance, is added, the fuel cell keeps running. So far, the cost is prohibitive. Since fuel cells are handmade, the cost is about $3,000 per kilowatt of output, or up to $300,000 for a unit that would operate a car. With mass production, proponents expect the cost to fall rapidly, to something like $50 a kilowatt, or $5,000 per car. Meanwhile, a few engineers and energy economists are beginning to suspect that the fuel cell may have a much wider impact than just pushing around a next-century fleet of cleaner, quieter cars. "It's a hot idea," says Princeton University economist Robert H. Williams, who thinks fuel cells may usher in changes in the use of energy that are comparable to the changes the personal computer brought in the management of information. Invented in 1839, fuel cells were developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to provide on-board power in Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. They recently have come down to Earth. Because of the federal Clean Air Act and the push for "ultra low emission vehicles" and "zero emission vehicles" in southern California and the Northeast, fuel cells are being developed to drive urban buses on methanol, hydrogen gas and many other fuels. When hydrogen and oxygen are combined in a fuel cell, an electrochemical reaction generates an electric current. Any hydrogen- rich material, from natural gas to gasified coal -- even gasoline -- can serve as the fuel. The oxygen comes from the air. The feature that has started to intrigue energy economists is the technology's durability. Unlike a combustion engine, in which fuels react at high temperatures and produce explosive collisions that produce engine wear, the fuel cell has no moving parts. A fuel cell manufactured to operate a car would function for up to 60,000 hours, outlasting everything else on the vehicle by a factor of 10 or more, said Princeton's Williams. "It may be economically possible to design a more poorly engineered fuel cell that wears out sooner," he said, "but more probably we will want to think of other uses for the fuel cell than merely operating a car for the 5,000 or 6,000 hours it takes the rest of the car to wear out." One use might be as a portable power plant. As grid-based power systems developed around huge stationary power plants are changing to make room for co-generation and solar energy usage, opportunities could emerge for the automobile fuel cell to be plugged into the system as well. …