The Future of the Fuel Cell

Honda couldn’t have been more emphatic in its support of fuel cell vehicles at the recent Detroit auto show. 

In a press event there, Takanobu Ito, president and CEO of Honda Motor Co., called fuel cells the best solution for combating the creation of more carbon dioxide. But at the same motor show, a number of other manufacturers showed battery electric vehicles, the technology that seems to be the darling of the Obama administration. And make no mistake, the endorsement of a particular technology by the powers that be in Washington will have an increasingly important effect on what consumers eventually see in their driveways. Which begs the question: What are the attributes of fuel cell vehicles and why are they being put on the back burner in favor of battery electrics?

Are Fuel Cells Really Better?
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. (In layman’s terms, it doesn’t burn anything.) Instead, it uses a simple chemical reaction to make electricity, which can either be used to power electric motors and electronic equipment or can be stored in batteries for future use. So what are the powers a fuel cell? 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 water in vapor (aka gaseous) form. All the residue spewed by current internal combustion engines -- the particulates, nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide -- that give environmentalists nightmares vanish with the use of fuel cells.

The Fuel Cell Challenge
As exciting as all this sounds, fuel cell-powered vehicles do have some hurdles to jump before they end up in your garage. If fuel cell vehicles are to have significant long-term impact in the auto industry, automakers and suppliers must successfully address several challenges that loom over the auto fuel cell industry. The most difficult among these challenges is low-cost infrastructure (read: fueling stations) and the two related issues of vehicle range and power density.

The infrastructure question is especially vexing: 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 manufactured onsite with a reformation process, perhaps powered by solar energy.

Obama vs. Fuel Cells

But the biggest hurdle in the short term might well be the fact that the current administration and its regulatory arms seem to clearly favor battery electric vehicles.  That is demonstrated by the fact that startup battery-electric companies like Tesla Motors have received millions in government loans. And if the industry senses that the government is pushing battery electrics, it is far less likely to fund a hydrogen infrastructure that is necessary for fuel cell vehicles to thrive.

So fuel cells offer many advantages, but those advantages could well be trumped by governmental policy that favors other technologies. The final chapter on this is yet to be written.

by Tom Ripley for DrivingToday