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What happened to fuel cells?

Posted: 06 Sep 2011 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:fuel cells? hydrogen fuel? all-electric vehicles?

Three years ago, fuel cells were believed to be the technology that would stop U.S. dependence on foreign oil. In fact, General Motors (GM) invested more than $1 billion to create fleets of experimental Chevrolet Equinox duel cell electric vehicles (EVs). These EVs were tested in Los Angeles, New York and Washington.

However, GM has since shifted gears to the Volt hybrid, which uses a gasoline engine to generate electricity for a motor whose batteries can also be charged with house current (if the owner remembers to plug it in at night).

What happened?

"The infrastructure [for fuel cells] was not evolving fast enough," GM's Britta Gross had said at the time. Gross meant there was no easy way to transform gas stations into hydrogen fueling stations. But you would expect a GM exec whose title was "manager of hydrogen infrastructure" to offer such an answer.

The real reason was that even if you gave away a solar-powered hydrogen fueling station with every electric car, the fuel cells themselves would have become a maintenance nightmare. Their delicate membranes and fatigue-ridden innards were never going to meet consumers' expectations for a 100,000-mile operational life, the bar set by gasoline-powered automobiles.

Battery-powered all-electric vehicles are also destined to disappoint, as early adopters see their gas savings canceled out by the thousands they will need to spend on replacement lithium battery packs over their vehicles' lifetime.


SiGNa Chemistry's PowerPucks are hydrogen-bearing cartridges that allow pint-sized fuel cells to recharge users' batteries during camping trips or on other excursions. Since such trips are generally few and far between, the short life of the fuel cells themselves isn't much of a concern.

Cambridge Crude promises to solve those problems by allowing existing gas stations to pump electron-bearing fuels that contain within the liquid all the parts that wear out in a fuel cell.

Nevertheless, fuel cells are finding niche markets that are a good fit. The military, for example, uses fuel cells in the field to recharge battery-powered devices. General Atomics is reportedly saving the Army $27 million a yearand cutting soldiers' average backpack burden by 4.5kgwith fuel cells that eliminate the need to carry spare batteries; instead, soldiers tote lightweight hydrogen fuel pellets that can be replenished after use with technology invented at Los Alamos National Laboratory. When the fuel cell itself wears out after a few years, the soldier simply throws it away and requisitions another one.

Fuel cells are also proving useful to civilians for recharging batteries while on camping trips and other excursions. SiGNa Chemistry Inc. offers hydrogen-bearing cartridges, called PowerPucks, that allow pint-sized fuel cells to recharge batteries around the campfire. And since camping trips are few and far between, the short lifetime of the fuel cell itself is not much of a concern, especially for consumers accustomed to a throw-away culture.

Fuel cells are also finding use as methane scrubbers for the atmosphere. For instance, eBay uses refrigerator-sized fuel cells from Bloom Energy to lower its data center's electric

billsan installation of just five Bloom Boxes generates as much power as the 3,000 solar panels on the data center's roofwhile simultaneously performing a public service by disposing of methane from a nearby landfill. Other industrial-strength fuel cell installations by Bloom Energy are found at facilities owned by Federal Express, Google, Staples and Walmart.

And Fuel Cell Energy Inc. has about 60 fuel-cell installations nationwide, including at facilities owned by Pepperidge Farm and Westin Hotels.

- R. Colin Johnson
??EE Times

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