Are Fuel Cell Vehicles the Answer to the Growing Environmental Problems?

In continuing my “series” on environmentally friendly cars of the future, today I will be taking a look at Fuel Cell vehicles.  Yesterday I wrote about Plug-in Hybrids, which seem to be an obvious short term answer to decreasing both our demand for oil as well as carbon emissions.

The long term answer, however, probably lies in a vehicle that can be completely independent of gasoline and the power grid.  And many people feel that this is where Fuel Cell vehicles will come into play.

Fuel Cell vehicles are powered by electric motors that are charged by the electricity created when hydrogen is mixed with oxygen from the air.  This hydrogen can come either from either pure hydrogen gas, or hydrogen rich fuels such as methane or natural gas.

Undoubtedly, the biggest buzz in alternative fuels surrounds fuel cell vehicles.  While these vehicles are still a long way away from mass production, their potential is undeniable.

Here’s a list of pros and cons that I pulled from a couple of different online resources:

Pros:

  • When using strictly hydrogen as fuel, the vehicle’s exhaust will only contain water and heat.
  • Even when using hydrogen rich fuels, carbon emissions will be greatly less than regular gasoline burning engines.
  • Will help to reduce the dependency on foreign oil.
  • Fuel cell vehicles have the ability to produce their own electricity, meaning it isn’t necessary to plug the car into the power grid to recharge its batteries.
  • Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, so chances are this is a pretty renewable resource.

Cons:

  • Fuel cell vehicles are pretty much still in the concept phase, so they’re a long way away from hitting the mainstream.  Many auto manufacturers are aiming to begin slowly releasing the vehicles to the public by 2010.
  • Currently there’s little to no infrastructure in place for hydrogen refueling stations.
  • These vehicles, as well as the hydrogen fuel, are currently projected to be far too expensive for most people.

Fuel cells are certainly very promising and they do look like they could help solve a lot of our oil and environmental problems.  Unfortunately, the technolgy is unproven so the hopeful release date of 2010 will probably be even later than that.

Regardless, fuel cells are absolutely worth exploring and have the potential to revolutionize transportation.

For additional information regarding fuel cell vehicles, please check out Fueleconomy.gov and EPA.gov.

Comments

  1. BigOilGuy says

    You leave out one big con – where do we get the hydrogen from?

    Generally, by current production methods, all we really do is move the pollution generation to a central power plant.

  2. Water and heat = water vapor (which is a worse greenhouse gas than CO2) which means more heat, humidity, and rain

    The process to obtain pure hydrogen fom methane and natural gas produces CO2 also (CH4 O2 => 2H2 CO2 (the same as burning the methane))

    not saying that Hydrogen Fuel Cells are bad but there is a lot of work that needs to be done to make them a viable source for transportation

  3. Hydrogen can be extracted from many sources. Although SMR (steam reforming of natural gas) is the most common method currently used, gasification of many materials, even wastes can produce hydrogen.

    Why not embrace the future? We need hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles. It is the fuel of the future. There are many reasons to move forward chief among them is the need to take control of our energy and fuel future. The environmental benefits far surpass any other alternative.

    Commitment to purchase fuel cell vehicles on a large scale from domestic producers is really what the leadership in Washington DC need to implement. Putting real assets into real production of fuel, F-cell vehicles and distribution networks is how this can be accelerated.

    But, we need more than just hydrogen highways. We need Ethanol for a gasoline additive (replaces MTBE). We need Bio-Diesel. We need Solar energy. We need Wind energy. We need Tidal and Geothermal power. We need it all, now.

    Current imports include oil, gasoline, electricity, natural gas, propane, methanol, coal and more. We are spending almost $600 billion per year on imports.

    Leadership is what we truly need throughout the country.

  4. Yes, hydrogen cars will be a viable long-term solution. Remember, though, that fuel cell vehicles are not the only kinds of hydrogen cars. Hydrogen can also be used in modified internal combustion engines (ICE) and in chemical reactions such as hydrogen-on-demand technology.

    As far as the water vapor emitted as a greenhouse gas, this water vapor can be sequestered and disposed of or it can be recycled by electrolyzing it within the car and turning it back into hydrogen and oxygen to be reused by the automobile.

    General Electric has created a hydrogen production unit that plugs into the walls and electrolyzes water to produce hydrogen for about the same price as today’s gasoline prices. Hydrogen can also be produced by renewable means such as solar and wind as well.

    The infrastructure is the key sticking point though. Most likely some hydrogen / ICE vehicles will roll out around 2010 and the drivers will then ask “Now, where do I gas this thing up?”

  5. Hydrogen/ fuel cell cars take 4 times more electricity then electric cars to break the hydrogen bond and use the hydrogen for energy. Where are you going to get all that electricity?
    Currently the hydrogen comes from natural gas and yet it is less efficient and more polluting then a much cheaper Natural Gas car using an ICE engine.
    http://www.arb.ca.gov/msprog/zevprog/symposium/presentations/brooks.pdf
    On page 23 – the million dollar Honda fuel cell prototype doesn’t even match the CNG Prius in fuel efficiency.

    This article also shows difference between EVs and FCVs.
    This article is done by a company who is currently a leader in Fuelcell transportation – AeroVironment.

  6. BigOilGuy is right in wondering from where we get the hydrogen. There are many possible scenarios, one of them is being looked into by companies like Exxon, whereby gasoline is reformed into hydrogen which runs the fuel cell. Or it could possibly come from natural gas, which we’d probably have to import more of to meet demand.

    Zack and HydrogenCarGuy also miss a big point. Water vapor is a primary exhaust gas of gasoline combustion (general combustion: hydrocarbon oxygen -> CO2 H2O). And although I don’t have time to look it up right now, I think that there should be less from using hydrogen than using gasoline.

  7. Brian Carr says

    Thanks for all of the comments. I’ll try to address them one by one:

    BigOil – to be honest, I have no idea where the hydrogen comes from.

    Zach – can’t make everyone happy. I think heat and water vapors are better than pumping tons and tons of carbon into the air.

    Mike – agreed and well put. It looks like we’re going to have to embrace a lot of changes and ideas in order to make sure we lessen our carbon footprints.

    Hydrogencarguy – I agree that the real sticking point for hydrogen vehicles is going to be the infrastructure. What good is it to have a vehicle that you need to drive 10 miles out of the way to fuel up?

    Henry – thanks for the article, I’ll be sure to check it out.

    Nobrainer – I didn’t realize that water vapor is the primary exhaust of gasoline, thanks for bringing that up.

  8. Andrew Dodds says

    One serious misconception repeated above..

    Although water vapour is a greeenhouse gas and indeed contributes around 67% of the total effect, it has a very short equlibrium time in the atmosphere (around 3 days), so no matter how much humans emitt, it has no effect; the equlibrium concentration is determined (essentially) by atmospheric temperature. Which is why water vapour acts as a feedback in global warming, but cannot drive global warming.

    In short, water vapour emissions are irrelevant.

    However, the issue of where the hydrogen comes from IS extremely relevant. Steam reforming of methane is CH4 2H2O -> CO2 4H2 (a bit better than above..), but still fossil fuel reliant – you are better off just running the car on compressed natural gas.

    Electrolysis is very inefficient and worse than petrol if fossil fired electricity is used.

    Even harder than sourcing the hydrogen is storing the stuff. Acceptable ranges have yet to be produced by any hydrogen car.

  9. Brian Carr says

    Andrew – thanks for the comment. That’s a bit more chemistry than I had hoped for, I thought I was done with that after Chem 101 in college!

  10. To put it simply Fuelcells will also be the most expensive and inefficient fuel since it is made from another fuel thereby lossing from the start.
    What is cheaper a pound of oysters or a pound of pearls?

  11. Henry – Thanks for the comment. I agree, fuel cell vehicles have a long way to go, but at the same time, I don’t think we should write them off just yet.

  12. Pat fisher says

    Every one needs to see the movie. Who killed the electric car. with the use of solar and wind energy this is by far the best alternative.

  13. I personally like the prospects of plug-in hybrids if we can implement more renewable and stable sources of energy into the grid. If we can do that, plug-ins will rule.

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