New Fuel Cells Seen in Near Future

That's just what scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have done. They have produced the first fuel cell that runs directly on a liquid that is easy to get: ordinary diesel fuel.

"There used to be a saying that you could run a fuel cell on any fuel as long as it's hydrogen," says Raymond J. Gorte, professor of chemical engineering at Penn and the lead author of a paper reporting the findings in the Journal of the Electrochemical Society.

Gorte and John M. Vohs, chairman of chemical engineering at Penn, figured out how to get around a problem that has stymied so many other researchers. Other attempts to use fuels other than pure hydrogen have worked, but only briefly.

The problem, according to Vohs, is that previous systems used nickel as a catalyst, causing hydrogen and oxygen to combine and freeing up electrons, thus producing electricity.

"But nickel is also an excellent catalyst for making graphite out of hydrocarbons, and that's a problem," Vohs says. The graphite "plugged up the whole fuel cell," he adds, quickly shutting it down.

New Composite Used

The Penn scientists switched to a composite of copper and ceria, which is used in automotive catalytic converters, and the problem was solved.

Of course, running fuel cells on diesel fuel wouldn't eliminate the need for hydrocarbons, but it could reduce it.

"An internal combustion engine is 15 percent efficient in turning the fuel into power, while in a fuel cell you could probably at least double that," Vohs says.

Perhaps more important, fuel cells that could run on standard fuels could help during a transition period. The infrastructure is already in place to support fuel cells that can run on diesel fuel. So for now, you could fill up with diesel, paving the way for the day when hydrogen might be readily available.

It seems likely at this point that we will see a growing use of fuel cells in various applications before they become common in vehicles.

"To be honest with you, transportation is the hardest application in that you have to have a system that's mobile and robust," Vohs says. "You have to be able to hit potholes in the road and have everything survive."

An ideal application, he says, would be to use fuel cells as individual power plants at our homes. It takes a lot of power to run a car — possibly 10 times more than it takes to supply all the electricity needed to run a house — so a small fuel cell down in the basement could do the job. That would cut down on the enormous loss of power through transmission lines, because the juice would be produced where it's needed, thus saving additional energy.

Vohs thinks that application could be available within five years, using natural gas as the fuel.

As for replacing the family bus, a consortium of DaimlerChrysler, Ford and Canada's Ballard Power Systems is on record as expecting to mass produce fuel-cell powered vehicles within about three years. And some industry sources think the four largest automobile makers in Japan might beat them to the punch.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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