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Archive >  August 2013 Issue >  Tech-Op-Ed > 

Filling the Tank with Hydrogen
Walter Salm, Editor
In 1839, William Robert Grove, a Scottish lawyer with exotic scientific interests, developed what he called the "Grove Cell", a strange kind of electric battery using zinc and platinum electrodes that by 1842 had evolved into the fuel cell. But by 1846, he backed off on the scientific work and started to practice law. I guess he needed to earn a living. More than 170 years have passed and we're still trying to perfect the fuel cell as a mass-market power source for highway transportation. Sure, they work just fine, but that platinum catalyst makes them very, very expensive to manufacture.

I found a wonderful update at Semicon West — a display outside the entrance to the North Hall — a really simple display. There was a Honda FC-X Clarity fuel-cell powered sedan, and a large free-standing fuel cell from a Hyundai SUV that sat on a pedestal as a visual aid. The non-booth display was representing the California Fuel Cell Partnership, and Communications specialist Juan Contreras fielded numerous questions from curious attendees. He was never at a loss for an audience, and cited facts and numbers that made it clear that the State of California is serious about going forward with hydrogen-powered vehicles.

But it has been a long, uphill battle that has been going on for decades. I first started writing about fuel cells as a possible automotive power plant back in 1965. At the time, the company that seemed most invested in the concept was Allis-Chalmers, and it had built prototype hydrogen-electric fuel cell farm tractors, golf carts and forklift trucks. They all worked, quite well, in fact, but suffered from the same problems as today's fuel cells: high cost, and the lack of ready sources of hydrogen fuel. In fact, the cost was much higher in those early days, because the best catalyst material available was platinum. Platinum is still the best, but a lot of R&D work has gone into making fuel cells with smaller platinum requirements.

The high cost didn't seem to matter too much to NASA, an early user of practical fuel cells. Fuel cells provided electric power in the Gemini and Apollo space vehicles, and traveled to the moon as part of NASA's moon landing program. They provided a reliable electric power source for our astronauts, far better than batteries, and the power/weight ratio was very favorable. The waste product was perfectly good drinking water, but it exited the fuel cell at an elevated temperature, and methods had to be developed to keep it from acting as a growth medium for incubating bacteria.

According to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, We're finally going to have hydrogen-powered electric vehicles available to the general public by 2015, along with at least 100 fueling stations, clustered mostly around Los Angeles and San Francisco. No big surprise there, but we're going to need refueling stations in some remote corners of the state as well, if anyone plans to drive out of those two metro areas. But even now, Honda has made the FC-X Clarity in sufficient numbers that Californians can lease them for about $600 a month. Trouble is, there are only about 20 fueling stations right now, and none of them are solar powered.

One important goal is to develop a renewable energy source — a cost-effective fueling station that is solar powered, making hydrogen from water, and storing it in pressurized tanks. This would finally eliminate any carbon footprint that is now associated with hydrogen production — especially when it is extracted from methane. Garbage digesters at landfills are one important source of fuel, but again, this is methane, and there are serious amounts of greenhouse gases left over after the hydrogen is removed.

There are no easy answers other than continued R&D, and 2015 may be too optimistic a date to look forward to. In the meantime, I plan to check in with the California Fuel Cell Partnership, and take that Honda sedan for a spin. It may be the only time I ever get to drive a real, honest-to-goodness production model fuel-cell car. And yes, there is a hydrogen filling station in Sacramento, but I'll let them fill the tank.  

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