The Mythology of Fuel Cells
Where ya gonna get yer Hydrogen, when ya need it?

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EV vs. Fuel Cell

Fuel Cell: Invented in 1830, a device which converts chemical energy directly into electricity by an electrochemical process, refined and made practical during the 1960's. Primary power source for manned US Space missions, using Hydrogen and Oxygen. Features/problems:

  • Requires a Carbon-free supply of pure Hydrogen gas,
  • Reaction itself emits only water;
  • Has needed a catalyst or hi-temperature reaction chamber;
  • Oxygen supply may come from ambient air;
  • Hydrogen can be supplied by closed, hi-pressure tanks;
  • Hydrogen can be the output of a reformer, which breaks down methanol or other fuel into Hydrogen and other byproducts;
  • Time gap before electricity delivered: 10-15 seconds;
  • Under intense development for the last 40 years.

Drawbacks: Carrying Hydrogen (for mobile applications), energy loss, prohibitive cost (both mobile and stationary applications), low energy density.


There has been a lot of speculation lately that the FUEL CELL will be the ultimate mode of power for transportation in the future. This may very well be true.

Fuel Cell technology has come a long way since the early days in the Apollo space program. Certainly the idea of running a car on pure hydrogen is an exciting prospect, the only emissions would be pure water.

Water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen (H2O) and by adding electricity (electrolysis) pure hydrogen and oxygen gas can be extracted. A fuel cell does the reverse: from the Hydrogen and from Oxygen in the air, the right device (a fuel cell stack) will generate electricity which can then be used to power an electric motor. The only waste product is water.

A fuel cell is a complicated device requiring a lot of plumbing and the fuel stack itself (the heart of the system) is still extremely expensive... more expensive than the NiMH batteries used in a pure EV although both the cost of the fuel cell stack and the NiMH batteries would come down dramatically in any volume production.

In practice, electrolysis of water is much too expensive and inefficient for Hydrogen generation. Usually, Hydrogen is produced by chemical reaction from the breakdown of CarboHydrates. One of the most challenging questions regarding fuel cells (assuming they were affordable) is how to separate all the Carbon out, and how to store it.

Compressing the hydrogen into a high pressure tank is one option although some people might not be comfortable with highly compressed hydrogen tanks in the car (oddly enough, people ARE comfortable with flamable/toxic gasoline though so who knows). Even under tremendous pressure, you can't really store a lot of hydrogen in a vehicle in this fashion. Prototype compressed hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have a range of about 100 miles, not exceeding the current state of pure electric (battery) vehicles. Other exotic methods of storing pure hydrogen are being investigated including storing it in a sponge-like metalic device that would soak up hydrogen in a higher density than you could normally compress it. Of course even if we could store enough pure hydrogen on the vehicle, where would we get it? Your local hydrogen fuelling station? That's a huge infrastructure to install.

You could of course pull hydrogen from water by using electricity but if your goal is a vehicle that only goes 100 miles, it is much more efficient to put the electricity directly into a battery on the vehicle. It's far less efficient to use electricity to pull hydrogen out of water, then compress the hydrogen into a tank on the car then run the hydrogen through a fuel cell to get the electricity back than it would be simply to store it in a battery.

You might also use what is called a REFORMER to pull hydrogen out of a liquid fuel like methanol, natural gas or gasoline. This brings us to the second big problem with fuel cells.

The most likely fuel cell vehicle in the near future (2004+) would probably use on board reformer to convert a liquid fuel on the vehicle to hydrogen to run through the fuel cell. If you are able to use a large on-board reformer to pull the hydrogen out of methanol for example, you are still left with additional carbon from the gas. These extra pollutants would show up as additional emissions from the vehicle, most likely in the form of carbon dioxide, a green-house gas. Of course the situation gets even worse when you consider a gasoline reformer as gasoline is a much more complicated fuel than methanol and you'd have a lot of other odd products left over as a result of the "cracking" process. Would we really want to keep using gasoline anyway? Even though the infrastructure is already in place, the total fuel cycle emissions from gasoline is enormous including of course oil drilling, transportation cost (including spills), refining and distribution, not to mention the political upheavals and threatened and actual wars fought to protect the oil in the first place.

Even considering the marvels of modern technology, and the amazing devices we use every day, all in all the prospects of a pure hydrogen fuel cell vehicle still seems a long ways off.

A pure hydrogen manufacturing, distribution and fueling infrastructure would take a long time to replace the existing gasoline infrastructure, and involves unknown risks and expenses (and by-products). On the other hand, by contrast a battery powered electric uses an infrastructure that is already available throughout the United States, simple household electricity.



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12/04/2006 17:59

Just stop destroying the earth or in 30 years or more we will all be dead if jesus dont come back first

09/28/2006 14:34

you talk every thing but price.
07/22/2006 0:15

I really hope the comment that was left on 12 13 2002 17:12 was a joke. Initially, I got a real chuckle out of this, but then considered that this could be some some poor ignorant fool or half-educated tree hugger that honestly believe oxygen isn't recycled in our environment. It's very sad to think that our educational system could has failed us this badly.
06/09/2006 14:09

is thier any problems with fuel cells that mght affect us n 50 years?
rphs physics class

05/10/2006 12:44

regarding exposive hydrogen fuel: it's less explosive than gasoline and safer
05/07/2006 10:56

you can run a fuel cell backwards to make the hydrogen and oxygen and then feed these into another fuel cell to make the electricy (the fuel cell running backwards is driven by solar photovotaic panels or a wind generator)
05/07/2006 10:54

3M has fuel cell parts for sale
05/07/2006 10:51

Hydrogen fuelcell, HMMM? Isn't hydrogen very very explosive. I hope I never get in a wreck with one, BOOOOOM!
04/16/2006 17:55

THIS IS AN AWSOME WEBSITE I LOVE SCIENCE BUT IM GONNA BE A VETRINARIAN!!!
04/03/2006 11:53

glalglalgloo
04/03/2006 11:49

lu
04/02/2006 8:01

I NEED TO FIND OUT ABOUT GLOBLE WARMING

03/29/2006 12:41

DO DO DUMDUM DODOD DUMDUM
03/28/2006 0:32

do we care NNNNNNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOO
03/28/2006 0:31

blob
do we care
03/28/2006 0:29

omg u turnip
03/28/2006 0:28

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03/28/2006 0:27

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03/28/2006 0:26

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03/28/2006 0:26

..;.'.
'.'; [.;.'; .;
.'.
03/10/2006 7:06

Allah will blast bthose ev's

01/05/2006 9:50

i love u
11/07/2005 11:37

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05/17/2005 6:44

nathan gigleranoranorano
05/16/2005 12:43

MOTHERLAND
04/11/2005 20:32

Allah frown upon you infidel westerners. Allahs prophets will destroy you're Fuel Cells. My Brain Also hurts
04/11/2005 20:31

muta fuka
04/03/2005 20:10

GOD MY BRAIN HURTSS

03/23/2005 19:04

vgut4eeeegsw445qHG6Q7DF8
03/22/2005 5:59

poop
03/22/2005 5:59

Information Provided Here Is Incorrect. I'm a student at Virginia Tech getting my masters degree in electochemical engineering with an emphasis on fuel cells. We have a car running on 4 stacks and there are fueling stations popping up in California currently. Sorry to tell you the bad news!!! - Losers
01/14/2005 15:24

If GM were serious about H2, there is an easier technology that works now: CNG!
01/10/2005 14:52

mail is jossmeng at yahoo
.com
08/06/2003 1:54

yeah my project is a bout the global worming c the thing is i can win money and i need to find out info like how powerful the might get combined together
08/06/2003 1:53

Obviously, there are costs to manufacturing and using NiMH batteries. But even a cursory evaluation of the impacts of the oil economy compared to the impact of making battery cars proves that this "argument" is bogus. Think about the hidden cost of gasoline. External and internal money for dictators and ideologues, oil drilling costs (drill spoils are often dumped in the Ocean), oil spills that kill sea otters and other creatures, the thousands of acres devoted to refineries sitting on oil-soaked former wetlands, the toxic fumes emitted after dark. and on and.
Now compare that to the manufacturing costs of non-polluting Nickel batteries, and the fact that you can actually power that EV from your own rooftop solar system -- don't even need high efficiency NG power plants -- and you will see that you just left out a number of factors on one side, and overburdened the other! That is not a valid comparison. You have to examine all the upstream impacts of gasoline, and the fact that it makes necessary big refineries and fossil power plants. Just the very fact that EVs are so much more efficient than gasoline and diesel vehicles means that there will be a MUCH lower imact!

I congratulate the author for critically analyzing the pros and cons of using fuel cells in vehicles. Unfortunately, that same critical analysis was not applied to electric battery vehicles.

The article mentions that airborne pollution is emitted during fuel refining, during fuel transport to the stations, as well as during on-board fuel reforming. Absolutely true. However, let us ask ourselves if electric battery vehicles are pollution free? First, toxic waste is created in making and disposing of NiMH batteries. Second, the electricity to charge the batteries must come from electric power plants which typically burn coal and release huge amounts of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. And hey, the coal must be transported to the power plant somehow. Third, large amounts of power are lost when transmitting electricity over distances, which means you have to burn extra coal to make up for those losses. Are battery powered vehicles pollution free? No way.

The article states that fuel cell vehicles using pressurized hydrogen tanks only have a range of 100 miles, and that electric battery vehicles can surpass or equal that range. One should consider that the design criteria for compressed hydrogen cylinders is that they are lightweight and compact. On the other hand, a typical battery bank for a vehicle weighs in the neighborhood of 700 pounds and takes up a large amout of space. 700 pounds is almost an extra 25% added weight to a vehicle. If manufacturers of compressed hydrogen cylinders made a tank weighing 700 pounds, they would far exceed the 100 mile range.

On to the readers comments.

For those who think that solid oxide fuel cells are a good solution for vehicles I suggest you consider that those systems operate at 1000 C, and therefore require expensive corrosion-resistant materials. To get high efficiency from a SOFC system, you must use that waste heat for something. What do you use that heat for on a vehicle? In addition, an SOFC system will likely take too long to warm up for use in a vehicle. Solid oxide fuel cell systems seem to be better suited for larger stationary systems. (By the way, how can someone claim that solid oxide fuel cells are more efficient than nuclear power? How are they calculating efficiency anyways?)

Next, to the person who thinks that GM actually can produce a fuel cell that has 67% efficiency....wake up and smell the coffee. GM often makes untrue statements like this. I seem to recall that they were claiming they'd have a fuel cell vehicle in mass production by 2004 or something like that, which has turned out to be completely false. Apparently the marketing folks at GM don't communicate with the engineers at GM.

To the person who is concerned hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will use up our oxygen....i suggest you consider that current combustion vehicles using hydrocarbon fuels cause BOTH the carbon to form carbon dioxide, AND the hydrogen to become water. Yes, gasoline engines also use oxygen to form water. This is part of the combustion process. By the way, if I recall correctly from my geology classes, the oceans act as an oxygen source.

I think the current best choice for vehicles is the diesel hybrid system which uses a small diesel engine, an electric generator, and electric motors to move the vehicle. The diesel hybrids are currently acheieving greater than 40% efficiency.

Of course, we do eventually need to get away from fosil fuels all together, for a number of reasons. What ever happend to solar?
06/12/2003 14:03

There is a technology called the Direct Methanol Fuel Cell (DMFC) which uses methanol and water to produce electricity (plus CO2 and water). One gallon of methanol has more hydrogen than a gallon of liquid hydrogen. Methanol can be "cooked" out of biomass using solar power, making methanol a completely renewable energy source. Current DMFC's do have technical hurdles to overcome, but these will probably be solved in 10 years. Methanol can use the existing gasoline infrastructure (pumps, pipelines, tanks, etc).
06/09/2003 19:32

Hi 2 all my m8s!!!! Luv ya ldz Scottlish Mousse.
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05/14/2003 9:27

NOT ENOUGH INFO!!!
05/14/2003 9:24

I'm also doing a kind of project on fossil feuls and this site needs more imformation on what they actually are and do!!! This site was no help to me either.
05/14/2003 9:22

Hydrogen production and storage are seemingly insurmountable problems... 30% loss of efficiency to compress or liquify it for storage. It takes 1600 joules of energy to produce yet only gives back 1000 joules (source: recent Fresno Bee article by a physicist). I like the alternative of an electric vehicle alternative without toxic batteries that need to be replaced (infrequently) and that wouldn't lose power while sitting in the driveway. How much power do batteries lose over a period of time of nonuse, anyway? But it seems like the Bush Administration is just finding another way for its oil company cronies to keep getting rich--we'll end up using existing fossil fuels to produce hydrogen with an on-board reformer. It is just a diversion. But what the hell, research can't hurt. Better than spending money on a war--oh wait, he's doing that too! --www.ecomafia.com

WAIT, I just looked at the FST website... sounds too good to be true! Explain how!
01/31/2003 22:53

The infrastructure problem and transport problem of hydrogen appears to be solved by: www.fstenergy.com
01/31/2003 9:33

I really cannot wait 10 or god only knows how many years for a functional fuel cell vehicle to get from the automakers' drawing board to my garage. I already have something with a hundred-mile range that doesn't spew crap into the air and works really great for my purposes! It is called an electric car.
LindaGraff at aol.com
01/16/2003 22:42

RIDE A HORSE. RECYCLE THE HORSE MANURE. EASY.
12/16/2002 14:10

I believe Fuel cells may indeed power our vehicles in the future, if they can ever be made inexpensively enough for cars. I understand that they are currently over 30 times more costly than an internal combustion engine. Ouch! On the surface water sounds like an innocent enough by-product, but it concerns me that we will be converting our Oxygen into water H2O. How does the oxygen get recycled for such minor things as breathing once it is consumed by the fuel cells? I haven't heard anyone discuss this issue yet, but I expect that it is an important consideration. When gas or diesel is burned, its major by-product is Carbon dioxide, which is recycled in nature via photosynthesis to the basic components carbon and oxygen. I don't think that there is a comperable process in nature that takes Water H2O and converts it back to Hydrogen and Oxygen. That means that if we eventually have hundreds of millions of fuel cell cars on the road, the fuel cells will consume huge amounts of the Oxygen in the atmosphere without any natural processs to recycle and replenish it. I think that this is an important issue that must be addressed.
12/13/2002 17:12

Chrysler has a Jeep with fuel cells that run on borax (soap). see www.fleet.daimlerchrysler.ca
11/23/2002 18:20

ok yeah im doing a science project for biology and this site didnt really help but it was fun reading your comments that people sent it. you might wwant to add in more problems about fuel cells because some people get assigned to groups they dont want and this site really didnt help.
10/31/2002 4:56

Hey, Guys.. You are actually (and hopefuly still) doing some of the most important work at hand on our planet- so please:
1) Update the page (lose the Earthday 2000 banner),
2) Eliminate submissions that are off-topic, ridiculous, space wasting idiocy, and
3) NEVER give up!
10/12/2002 20:34
u all are geeks
10/10/2002 12:26

Fuel Cell is latest technology, which helps in reducing the pollution.
Manish Agarwal
09/16/2002 12:12

Nice work Miss Sam, you are very well versed in the sciences of flameless combustion, it's like a breath of fresh air when educated tribal members of our global village, like yourself make time to share your hard earned knowledge, and wisdom.

You might be interested to know that Global Thermoelectric is 10-12 years ahead of any other company on this tiny speck of stardust, and is doing more than just talking about repairing our air, or trying to make fast cash. Their evolutionary Solid Oxide Fuel Cell developments are following a pre-ordained pathway towards a balanced, and sustainable Mother Earth. Their use of existing organic hydrocarbon infrastructures is definitely improving the air we breathe, one step at a time. Solid Oxide Fuel Cells of their type also offer competetive pricing to nuclear power alternatives, and provide we the people a chance to break away from the tyrannical yoke of central power generation, and the ensuing control that big governments excercises over common folks.

Here's a link to their website if you would like to have a glimpse into the near future ... http: www.globalte.com

May There Be Peace on Earth Everyone

C.C. Brown
Journeyman Plumber Steamfitter
Toronto, Ontario Canada
06/25/2002 8:31

GM has unvieled a fuelcell that has 67% efficiency.
Either EV or SOFC can beat that. This changes a lot concerning the story above. When was it written anyway? Maybe an update?
09/18/2000 7:20

http://www.industrialgas-services.com
09/16/2000 16:41

bla bla bla bla bla bla bla
09/08/2000 13:42

check out global thermoelectric, their solid oxide fuel cell produces electricity without any harmful emissions, unlike pem fuel cells advocated by ballard (sofc's are less sensitive to impurities and in fact these impurities are converted during the electrochemical process to produce electiricity!) sofc's are more efficient that power generating stations that use coal, natural gas, nuclear, etc. since they also produce heat which can be used to heat homes, water tanks, etc. solid oxide fuel cells are the answer, not more electric generating stations!!!!!!!!!!


07/06/2000 21:15

My home is all electric. It has a 200 amp system and I am in search of an affordable fuel cell capable of supplying enough power for electric heat. longtink@home.com
03/22/2000 5:11

Fuel cells are being used as a chimera to avoid the mandate.
03/03/2000 23:20




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