New Fuel Cells Seen in Near Future

Scientists and engineers around the world are making significant progress in harnessing an energy source that could significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

That's a little bit of good news at a time when the United States is gearing up for what could be a decades-long war against international terrorism Battles will likely be fought in some of the troubled regions of the globe that now supply oil to fuel the industrial world, and it's not unlikely that supplies will become limited and prices will skyrocket.

That doesn't rank up there with worries about the loss of lives, of course, but the time has never been better for the country to redouble its efforts to reduce its dependence on petroleum.

Inexhaustible, Versatile, Powerful

Now would be a good time for someone to come up with a gadget that could turn out electricity without polluting the air, use an inexhaustible energy source, and be versatile enough to power everything from our cell phones to our automobiles to our factories.

It sounds too good to be true, and it maybe it is, but fuel cells that convert hydrogen — the most abundant element in the universe — directly to electricity with no pollution could fit the bill. Such devices have been around for awhile. Since the 1960s, they have provided the electricity to power the instruments aboard various spacecraft, but they've been too expensive and too weak to do much for the rest of us.

Yet just about every major automobile manufacturer, and numerous companies involved in supplying energy, plus a wide range of research institutions, and the U.S. Defense Department, are betting that's going to change. They are spending billions on research.

Here's why hydrogen is so promising as an energy source: It really packs a wallop, with about three times as much energy by weight as gasoline. When used in a fuel cell to produce electricity, its byproducts are water that is pure enough to drink, and heat that can be used for other purposes.

But here's the down side: Hydrogen is expensive and difficult to isolate. And the atoms in hydrogen gas are so sparse it's difficult to pack enough of them in a small space — like a fuel tank — to do much good, and it can be highly flammable. Plus, if you had a car powered by hydrogen, you couldn't drive into your neighborhood gas station and fill 'er up.

A Non-Hydrogen Cell

So the drive to develop cars that can run on hydrogen has been hindered by a Catch-22 conundrum. Not many folks are likely to put out big bucks to buy a car that runs on a fuel that isn't available. And no one is likely to build the costly supply lines and filling stations until a lot of cars are out there that run on hydrogen.

That has led to a compromise. The main avenue of research these days is directed at using the hydrogen that is already available in commonly used fuels, like gasoline, methanol or diesel, to power fuel cells. But that entails "reforming" the fuel, either under the hood of the car or at the filling station, to extract the hydrogen and feed it to the fuel cell. That has turned out to be expensive and challenging, but industry leaders like DaimlerChrysler and Ford have proved that it can be done.

Meanwhile, some researchers have approached the problem from a different perspective. Instead of reforming standard fuels, they reasoned, why not develop a fuel cell that could run directly on a fuel that is readily available?

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