A new series of reports coming from the Department of Energy (DOE) have found that the United States’ fuel cell industry is booming. According to the DOE’s press release, nearly 80% of global investments in the fuel cell industry went to American companies and production costs continue to drop while efficiency continues to improve. In 2012, there were more than 4,000 fuel cell powered forklifts working in factories, warehouses, and retail centers across the nation, being used by such big name corporations as Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, and Sysco.
The reports show that since 2005, fuel cell durability has doubled and the amount of platinum (a prohibitively expensive catalyst) needed has dropped by 80%. The report also recognizes those states that have embraced and promoted fuel cell technologies in the past year, naming California, Connecticut, New York, and Ohio (score) as leaders in fuel cell use. Highlights included San Diego’s new installation of fuel cells that generate 2.4 megawatts of clean energy using gases purified from a wastewater facility and the addition of 175 fuel cell powered forklifts to the Spartansburg, S.C. BMW factory.
This news of our thriving fuel cell market begs the questions: what exactly is a fuel cell and why are they doing so well? To put it simply, a fuel cell is a battery that uses hydrogen and oxygen to produce water and electricity (basically reversing hydrolysis, whereby water is split into hydrogen and oxygen using an electrical current). For a more in-depth examination of how these things work, check out this breakdown at HowStuffWorks.com. It’s long (about 8 pages), but it’s fairly brisk reading and it isn’t bogged down by jargon.
What’s remarkable about a fuel cell compared to a battery is that it doesn’t require recharging and it doesn’t run down. As long as more chemicals (that is, hydrogen and oxygen) are fed into it, the system keeps on producing electricity. According to fuelcells.org (a branch of the Breakthrough Technologies Institute, an independent non-profit organization that promotes new environmentally sound technologies), one of the many benefits of fuel cells is the variety of sources for the hydrogen that powers them. This can be obtained from organic compounds, inorganic compounds, biomass, natural gas, and even gas from wastewater plants. What their information doesn’t address is how efficient those processes are, and the actual costs of producing viable amounts of hydrogen from these alternative sources, rather than via hydrolysis using the already established power grid which would then still rely on our everyday, “dirty energies.”
Unlike those means of energy production, hydrogen fuel cells aren’t based around combustion reactions, and so don’t have any extra byproducts that end up polluting the environment. Fuel cells have a pretty closed-circuit sort of functionality, whereby the only real products of the cell are water and electricity. They operate with about 60% fuel efficiency, managing to harness just under two-thirds of the energy released by the movement of hydrogen’s electrons through the cell’s external circuit. This compares to only about 20% efficiency in gas-powered engines and around 75% efficiency in battery powered engines (although that 75% doesn’t take into account how efficient the battery production process is).
Back in 2003, the Bush administration began the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative, a 5 year, $1.2 billion program of research, development, and demonstration for hydrogen cell technology that helped kickstart the industry. In 2008 when the initiative had run its course, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report on the success of the initiative, and found that great strides had in fact been made on all technological fronts, but that the DOE needed to re-evaluate its goals and plans. Initially its goals had been to have the technology necessary to produce a hydrogen powered car by 2015 to allow automotive companies the possibility of producing one by 2020. The GAO’s report also suggested addressing infrastructure issues that will undoubtedly hinder the expansion of fuel cells into the consumer market.
All that being said, Honda is currently doing a progressive three year limited release of about 200 FCX Clarities, their first dedicated hydrogen vehicle, a sleek star garnet (that is, maroon) sedan (leasing them to select Southern Californians at $600/month). According to PC World, Toyota is also slated to reveal their hydrogen concept car, the FCV, at CES this January. So we’re doing okay I guess.
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