The fuel cell economy

The fuel cell economy

By M. L. Simon

The fuel cell economy

What will it take to make the fuel cell hydrogen economy a reality? What kind of infrastructure is needed to make hydrogen fueled vehicles a reality?

The first thing that is needed is a viable fuel cell. This means at least a 10-year life at an average speed of 50 miles an hour, which works out to be about 2,000 hours of operating life. Plus to compete economically, it must come in at around 1/10 to 1/20 of current (2002) fuel cell cost. To give you some idea of the current state of the art, Coleman is planning to deliver a 1.2 KW backup fuel cell generator that has fuel enough for about an eight to 10 hour run at full power. The fuel cell part weighs about 29 pounds. The cost with an inverter to generate AC is around $8,000. Fuel refills will cost about $100. It has an operational life of 1,500 hours. The main advantages of this unit are that it is quiet, and the exhaust is water so it can be run indoors with no need to deal with exhaust fumes. For automotive use, the power will need to go up by at least a factor of 30. To get the price down to $1,500 (in the range of a gasoline engine) for 30 times as much power requires a cost reduction of over 100 times. In addition, it requires a weight reduction on the order of a factor of three. And the cost of fuel will need to decline by a factor of 100. The only specification that is close to requirements is the operating lifetime. This is a tall order. It can be done, but it will take time.

What are some of the possible steps along the way? The first thing we will need to make the system work is a home hydrogen generator. This hydrogen generator is already inherent in a fuel cell. If properly designed, you can feed electricity into a fuel cell and extract hydrogen and oxygen from it. That gives us a home hydrogen generator.

Then we need a fuel cell-powered car. The car will need some kind of connection to accept hydrogen at 10,000 pounds a square inch safely. No pressure explosions. No ignition explosions. The vehicle will also need an electrical connection capable of transferring power at the rate of 30 kilowatts with minimal losses. I propose a 400 volt DC bus to keep the voltages and currents within reason. In addition, DC with today’s modern electronics is a lower loss technology than AC—lower weight as well.

This gives us our first leg up on the hydrogen economy: a fuel cell/ hydrogen generator for the home capable of filling up your car at home. Once we get enough of these systems on the road and in the home, we will start adding gas stations for the fuel cell vehicles.

Once there are enough homes and businesses using hydrogen, we can start pumping it through pipelines. Pipelines are one of the cheapest ways to deliver energy. The losses are very low relative to the energy delivered. They are much better than an electrical network, but not quite as flexible.

We will have to build out this system a little bit at a time. The reason for starting slow is that there are so many things we don’t know. Starting slow will give us time to work out the bugs without excessive costs. We need to start by encouraging market forces to reduce the cost of all the items in the mix. The way to do this without government intervention into the market is to encourage the early adopters. I will talk about early adopters (the rich and/or committed) in a future article and why they are critical to the development of any new technology.

M. L. Simon is an industrial controls designer and a Free Market Green. (c) M. Simon – All rights reserved. Permission granted for one-time use in a single periodical publication. Permission also granted for concurrent publication on the periodical’s www site.

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