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Publication Date: 09/1/2011
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When Will Fuel Cell Technology Really Happen?
Walter Salm, Editor
About a decade ago, industry pundits were predicting that fuel cells would take over the automotive industry within a decade or so. I was among those making such wild predictions. Fuel cells were going to solve our air pollution problems and were going to relieve our dependence on foreign oil. The reality is that we're still as far from a practical fuel cell solution for our pollution as we were 10 years ago. To be sure, there have been numerous fleets of test vehicles of all sizes and categories tested, but they have been just that — test vehicles. There has been virtually no wholesale adoption of the fuel cell auto for reasons that have not changed in 10 years.

First, there's the high initial cost of a fuel cell powered car — out of the range of the typical buyer's budget. Then there's the totally non-existent hydrogen infrastructure. What ever happened to those proposed fueling stations that generate hydrogen from water using solar power? Do any exist?

The sad part of all this is that fuel cells have been around since 1839, when they were first invented by a Welsh judge, inventor and physicist, Sir William Robert Grove. Even through several stages of "improvements," the fuel cell remained a curiosity until a viable unit was built by Allis-Chalmers in 1959, along with the first ever fuel cell powered vehicle — a 20 horsepower tractor. It was quite expensive — no big surprise there. And it was one of a kind.

But there have been some serious niche markets that have benefited handsomely from fuel cells. There are stationary units used to power buildings with critical needs or to supply backup emergency power where Diesel generators have been considered too unreliable. The fuel cell systems, powered by pipeline-supplied natural gas have become important to hospitals, telecommunications exchanges and banking/credit card centers.

The systems still aren't cheap, but they work reliably and inexhaustibly in situations where loss of power could be life-threatening, disruptive of comm systems, and downright expensive. There was the case of a central banking center/credit card clearing house in Omaha several years ago, that lost power and the emergency Diesel generator wouldn't start. This resulted in halting credit card transactions across the country for almost a full day. Now that was expensive! Not wanting to face that problem again, the bank bought six 250kW fuel cell generators from UTC and had them hooked up to the city's natural gas supply.

In developing nations, where the infrastructure is relatively shaky, telecom centers and other sensitive locations are increasingly installing fuel cell systems. In some cases, they run free of charge on methane produced from waste at nearby landfills. In some cases, there are government-sponsored financial incentives to install such a system, but there seems to be no universal acceptance of fuel cell technology — no matter how benign it may be.

Even though the technology has improved greatly, it's still a developing technology that requires much more R&D. For the fuel cell automobile to succeed, there certainly needs to be some kind of hydrogen infrastructure, and that's still nowhere in sight. Will it happen within my lifetime? Hard to say. I'm getting awfully old, awfully fast.  

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