On Fuel Cell Criticism

July 25th, 2010

I recently saw a few articles which discussed fuel cell technology. I didn’t realize how advanced our current fuel cell technology is. Apparently, we already have cars and buses (among other things) that run on Hydrogen Fuel Cells. What this basically means is we have cars that you add liquid Hydrogen (I believe it is in the H2 form) as you would gasoline to a conventional car. Energy is extracted from the H2 resulting in engines that run without combustion. The only emission from this process is H2O, water.

So as my mind is whirring on the possibilities (and awesomeness!) of this revelation, the criticism sets in. I don’t think I’ve seen an article yet that didn’t criticize the technology, which I find somewhat suspect, especially since we’d like to use clean renewable energy rather than fossil fuels.

The first criticism is cost. Fine. Any new technology will be substantially more expensive than established technology, due in part to the economy of scale not having taken over yet. Fewer units sold means the units must be more expensive to pay the workers, designers, et. al. to live, eat, pay rent, etc. Of course, were this technology to hit mainstream, the costs would necessarily plummet, though probably not as fast or as low as most of us would like.

The second criticism is related to the first. Cars fueld by H2 must be in reasonable proximity to stations that provide H2, something which conventional gas stations aren’t equipped to provide. That means early adopters are forced to limit their lifestyles/travels to suit the availability of fuel stations. Again, once it hits the mainstream, fuel stations will become more abundant, rendering this objection moot.

The third criticism is somewhat valid… Today, tomorrow and probably all this year. H2 has to come from somewhere. Fuel stations can’t just set out a bucket and collect it as you would rain. Rather H2 is produced. And unlike the cars that run on fuel cells, producing H2 currently carries a cost in fossil fuels, with associated emissions. This is where many people take pause and think “Fuel cells are no better than conventional combustion engines.” Here is where they’re wrong!

Suppose there 140 million cars in the US today (that’s pretty close to the actual number). Many of these cars are from the 1990’s, 80’s, or even earlier. If a new engine came out today that cut emissions in half, doubled performance and even was easy to produce, how fast do you think we’d replace an adequate percentage of cars with these cleaner models? 10 years maybe? 20?

Suppose further that every five years we made similar leaps toward more efficient and cleaner use of fossil fuels, how much lag in the effect on air quality and other consequences would there be? Several years seems likely per each innovation.

Now suppose instead we move to fuel cells. There is a push for fuel stations to be provided with enough saturation to make switching to fuel cell cars viable to the masses and fuel cell cars are mass produced. This transition may even take 10 years or so if we push it.

Even if all that time we are producing H2 by burning fossil fuels, once the switch is complete, we have a real opportunity. If we come up with a cleaner way to produce H2, say with a clean energy source, the public doesn’t have to buy a new car or buy different fuel. The public can do exactly the same things and immediately benefit from the cleaner sources of energy.

The reason is indirection. With combustion engines, we are directly using the fuel to power our cars. But with fuel cells, we are indirectly using the fuel to power our cars. That means the ultimate source of that fuel can change at any time without altering how our cars work or what they run on.

So, today, tomorrow and all this year fuel cells are infeasible for the mass market. But if we can help fuel cells hit the mainstream, then our cars won’t just be indirectly burning fossil fuels (rather than directly), they could be burning wind, water, or solar power. They could be burning nuclear power. They could be burning any sort of power we can figure how to use to produce the fuel cell energy supply. And that would truly help wean us off of fossil fuels.