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Tenpinmaster's avatar

What is going on with fuel cell technology?

Asked by Tenpinmaster (2915 points ) January 24th, 2010

We were hearing a lot about how companies are building fuel cell vehicles and going into mass production like the chevy volt. What happened to these vehicles? Do you think fuel cell technology is going to change the world and replace fossil fuels for transportation?

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14 Answers

Lightlyseared's avatar

Those vehicles are out there and you can buy them if you happen to live in an area that has hydrogen fuel stations. In London, for example, we have fuel cell powered buses and California you can get the Toyota FCX Clarity. Unfortunately, if there aren’t that many hydrogen fuel stations near where you live it really limits the usefulness of this type of vehicle. Petrol driven cars will survive for some time to come for the simple reason that the infrastructure to support them (ie petrol stations) is there.

stranger_in_a_strange_land's avatar

It’s mostly a matter of ramping up production and taking advantage of the economy of scale. Building the complimentary infrastructure is also vital. The industry must learn to accept existing technology as “good enough” and push it to mass scale. GM had a superb plug-in electric, the EV-1, but wouldn’t push it to mass scale. Regulatory pressure is needed here.

mattbrowne's avatar

Too soon to tell. We need competing concepts. Fuel cell technology is one option among several.

csimme01's avatar

Fuel cell and plug in electric vehicles seem like a good idea but most people forget one thing. The energy to run these vehicles still comes from fossel fuel. The hydrogen in a fuel cell vehicle is made with electricity which is made using coal (mostly). Plug in hybrids use the same source. Until a cheap source of clean renewable energy is used to make electricity these vehicles really make little difference IMHO

Tenpinmaster's avatar

That brings up a good point about the underlying production. I guess no matter what alternative source is used, it still uses fossil fuels. Do you think there will be a true alternative souce of power that dosnt use a drop of oil?

Tenpinmaster's avatar

@Fred931 Thats a nice video, and that car seems very revolutionary. Why isn’t this thing nation wide yet?

oratio's avatar

@Tenpinmaster This is my view of this matter. It seems to me that the problem is where to get the hydrogen from. It has to be produced. There is no hydrogen gas source other than the sun. To do that today you need electricity. To get electricity you need power plants. What runs a power plant? Coal, oil, nuclear fission? We need to change the basic energy production to start with.

One other solution might be specialized bacteria, that breaks down biodegradable organic substances and releases hydrogen. There is very interesting research being done in this area.

Another problem with hydrogen is that it cannot be stored for long. It is so small, it seeps between the molecules of other material like the metal gas tank and disappears.

Fuel cells are very interesting, but I don’t see that it offers a beneficial solution over battery technology. Electric cars are the future, but to get there we have to change energy production.

Fred931's avatar

@Tenpinmaster Think about this: If you were a gas station owner in some place other than Los Angeles, would you spend a pretty penny on a hydrogen pump, along with the hydrogen, just to sell to a handful of hydrogen-powered car owners in the area? Hydrogen cars won’t catch on until there is enough demand for them to make gas stations want to invest in the pumping systems and fuel systems. Right now, there are about 5 or 10 pumps in the United States, all of which are in Los Angeles. That’s why Honda is making the Clarity available for lease solely to those who live in that area.

Tenpinmaster's avatar

@oratio That is a great answer! You bring up a great point.. we have to get back to basics on how we create electricity to being with. I didn’t know about the bacteria thing. Thats a very interesting concept. So the question is… if we were to go fuel cell, how to store it, how to distribute it in mass quantities, and how to create it without utilizing fossil fuels. I don’t see these questions answered for at least another 10 years. So we need to start from the ground up on energy creation.

jahono's avatar

- Fuel cells run on Hydrogen,
– Hydrogen cannot be stored as a liquid in a car because it needs Temps of about -250 degC or more (from memory) and very high pressures to be liquified (google for exact figures).
– You can still compress it though, and get about twice as much H2 gas in there as if it were unpressurised. – still that much fuel does not get you very far….
– Gas storage methods using materials, microporous solids, are being researched by people.
– Hydrogen can leak slowly THROUGH metal walls.

Fuel cell technology is pretty good, it turns chemical reactions directly into electricity, which is convenient if the car runs on electricity. It operates with about the same efficiency as conventional combustion though (from memory). So you may as well burn the hydrogen – UNLESS – you need the car to be electric motor driven, because the electricity is sourced from a variety of sources – rechargable batteries, fuel cell, recgenerative brakes, solar etc etc

Fred931's avatar

@jahono If you were to watch that Top Gear clip, apparently, the hydrogen from those pumps is liquefied. You also say it won’t get you too far, when the FCX gets 270 miles out of a tank, which is also mentioned in the clip. Care to explain?

jahono's avatar

@Fred931 Anythings possible on Top Gear! I saw them put a rocket on the back of a car and drive it off a snow ramp! Seriously though – I haven’t seen the video yet – no pc speakers at the moment. But I can check out the Honda website which says
– “an EPA-rated driving range of 190 miles”
– required fuel: “compressed hydrogen gas”
– Tank capacity: 45.7 gallons (207 L)
– Fuel storage: High pressure hydrogen tank. Storage Pressure = 5000psi (34,500kPa or 345 bar!!, this would require about 1 inch thick steel alloy walls if a conventional tank were used (with 6” radius, and S=50,000psi including safety factor). Of course they might be using special composite constructins or who knows what.

So…
– its not liquid, its still gas (compressed to dangerous levels?).
– The tank is 207L so about 4 or 5 times larger than your conventinal petrol tank.
– And it still only gets you 190 miles! YOu could go 270miles with a tank thats 300L (0.7m x 0.7m x 0.7m roughly your entire boot/trunk space.)

Ron_C's avatar

A number of our customers are involved in fuel cell manufacturing. I also inspected a Westinghouse-Siemens project that was supplying fully functioning stations to the Canadian government. The cell, about the size of a refrigerator used natural gas in and produced electricity and hot water out. It was never clear where Canada was placing these units but I noticed remote homesteads flying over north central Canada.

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