Are Fuel Cells a Viable Power Source?

Do you subscribe to the theory that if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is? If so, you will need a great deal of convincing that fuel cells will soon power commercially available automobiles. Among their too-good-to-be-true attributes are the facts that they produce virtually no emissions but water vapor and they are powered by two of the most abundant elements on Earth.

If you are still among the doubters, a new study by Roland Berger Strategy Consultants, a multi-national think-tank and consulting firm, suggests that fuel cell technology will soon become commercially viable for automobiles and a number of other interesting applications, including laptop computers, despite the fact that there are numerous obstacles standing in the way.

Before we examine the study in more detail, let's look more closely at the desirable features of fuel cells. Unlike the typical gasoline or diesel automobile engine, the fuel cell doesn't use combustion to create power. Instead it uses a simple chemical reaction to make electricity, which can then be used to power electric motors and electronic equipment or stored in batteries for future use.

What powers a fuel cell? As we said, two of the most abundant elements on the globe: hydrogen and oxygen. It's stuff that is pretty easy to come by, and the bonus is that when the chemical reaction takes place the only byproduct is a little H2O. All the residue created by current internal combustion engines -- you know, the particulates, nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide that give environmentalists nightmares -- just vanish with the use of fuel cells.

As exciting as all this sounds, fuel cell-powered vehicles do have some hurdles to jump (hopefully not literally) before they end up in your garage. As the Roland Berger study intoned, if fuel cell vehicles are to have significant long-term impact in the auto industry, automakers and suppliers must successfully address 12 commercialization challenges that loom over the auto fuel cell industry.

According to the study, the most difficult among the dozen challenges are low-cost infrastructure, range and power density. The infrastructure question is especially vexing. The current fuel-supply infrastructure is both efficient and convenient, though some consumers have grumbled recently about higher gasoline prices. Conceiving and then building a new fuel-delivery infrastructure that could transport, store and dispense highly volatile hydrogen is a huge hurdle. Ultimately the solution may be the use of the current gasoline fuel dispensing system since hydrogen can be derived from gasoline and other related fuels like ethanol and methanol.

Other challenges identified by the study include cost reduction, component integration complexity and safety issues. Many of these factors are faced by any new technology that potentially can replace an old one.

Despite the hurdles, fuel cells are predicted to enjoy a bright future. The consulting firm has identified three broad markets for fuel cells: portable communications (e.g., laptop computers, cell phones); stationary (e.g., residential back-up, electric utility grid support, hospitals); and transportation (e.g., fork lift trucks, passenger vehicles, buses).

"We will see the launch of fuel cell products in all three major markets during the next four years," said Michael Heidingsfelder, managing partner of Roland Berger in North America. "However, fuel cell products will succeed only if they have a value proposition greater than their competing technologies in any given market."

In the automotive realm, the think-tank says vehicle-makers' commitment is strong. According to the study, automakers and others will invest as much as $5.2 billion in research by 2004 to develop and try to commercialize workable, low-cost fuel cell technology. Despite uncertainties concerning government regulations, technology implementation and customer acceptance, automakers remain steadfast in their pursuit of commercially viable fuel cell vehicles.

"While the next few years will be an exciting time in FC vehicle development, there is certainly no guarantee for success," said Heidingsfelder. "The winner in the automotive fuel cell industry will be one who can build a fuel cell vehicle very close to the sticker price of a comparable internal combustion engine vehicle."

Tom Ripley observes the international energy market and the automobile industry from his home in Villeperce, France.