Firing Up Fuel Cells: Has a Space-Age Technology Finally Come of Age for Civilians?
Lipkin, Richard, Science News
In January 1994, a new type of bus will hit the American road. Unlike conventional diesel buses, whose growling engines spew coarse black fumes, this 30-foot prototype should, if all goes well, leave little trace of its passage. No thick exhaust. No engine grind. No diesel grime. Just the thrum of its electric drive, powered by a phosphoric acid fuel cell that converts airborne oxygen and methanol-derived hydrogen into electricity and water, while emitting negligible amounts of pollutants.
The Department of Energy (DOE) will road test this bus as part of a special project that aims to reduce vehicle emissions and dependence on fossil fuels while promoting a practical form of renewable energy. The first three buses, products of H Power Corp. in Belleview, N.J., will undergo trials in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., next year, signaling a move to bring hydrogenpowered propulsion systems from government-sponsored research labs to the civilian world. Compared to diesel buses, the DOE maintains, the fuel-cell-powered buses will run with 50 percent higher fuel economy, 10 to 20 decibels less noise, and 99 percent lower emissions, spewing out carbon monoxide, nitrogen, and sulfur compounds -- depending on the fuel source for the hydrogen -- in amounts below the stringent standards set for ultra-low-emission vehicles in California.
The fuel cell - which generates electricity. heat, and water by combining hydrogen and oxygen -- has been around conceptually for more than 150 years. Since the 1960s, NASA and the Defense Department have used fuel cells to supply electricity and hot water for the Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle missions and to keep troops powered up in remote locations. But only recently have technical advances made commercial uses look feasible. Now, with companies plugging fuel cells into cars, buses, and power plants, the long-term vision of a cleaner, hydrogen-powered nation - considered unrealistic even five years ago -- seems less farfetched.
"This is the first time since fuel cells were invented that their performance has been high enough and their price low enough to build demonstration plants," says Edward Gillis, fuel-cell program manager for the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif. "We're finally seeing commercial fuel cells, and that just happened in the last year."
Fuel cells have enormous potential. Hydrogen could easily displace fossil fuels as an energy source, if only a simply engineered system could generate electricity cheaply, safely, and reliably for homes and vehicles. In theory, fuel cells can achieve that goal. But the question is when.
An answer should surface soon. In transportation, for instance, Canada is road testing a fuel-cell-powered bus built by the Ballard Corp. of North Vancouver, British Columbia. Varying slightly from the H Power bus, this 32-foot demonstration vehicle, operating since March 1993, runs on compressed hydrogen, which fuels a proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell. By 1998, under the auspices of the government of British Columbia, Ballard plans to build a fleet of 75passenger, 350-mile-range commercial buses for use in transit systems.
Among car companies, General Motors Corp., at its Indianapolis-based Allison Gas Turbine Division, is working on several fuel-cell-powered passenger vehicles, ranging from compact cars to minivans. In West Palm Beach, Fla., Energy Partners, Inc. is showing off its fuel-cell powered Green Car. To boot, the Mazda Motor Corp. is at work on an electric prototype, powered by an 8-kilowatt PEM cell that draws its hydrogen from a metal hydride storage tank.
The United States will see fuel-cell testing in 1994 in power plants as well as buses. The Southern California Gas Co. plans to have 10 fuel-cell plants on-line in California by mid-1994, lighting up a hotel in Irvine, hospitals in Anaheim and Riverside, and even the Santa Barbara county jail. …