Fuel cell–generated electricity goes online on Long Island
November 8, 2001 10:26 AM   Subscribe

Fuel cell–generated electricity goes online on Long Island Clean air, anyone?
posted by gazingus (21 comments total)
Yes please, may I have another?
posted by bshort at 10:55 AM on November 8, 2001

So what's preventing more of these from being installed in vehicles? Size, weight, lack of efficiency?
posted by MrBaliHai at 11:03 AM on November 8, 2001

Oil Companies?
posted by tomorama at 11:18 AM on November 8, 2001

Size, weight, and cost. All of which are being worked on as we speak, by companies such as Ballard Power Systems.

The article is technically incorrect; methane and/or methanol fuel cells *do* contribute to global warming, as they produce carbon dioxide. They contribute a little less than typical power plants and much less than typical car engines, and they don't contribute to smog or acid rain or any other sort of nastiness. The advantage of not having to deal with hydrogen is worth it, IMHO.
posted by jaek at 11:20 AM on November 8, 2001

tomorama: since the article states that they can also use gasoline in addition to methane, hydrogen, and natural gas, I'd doubt that oil companies would oppose them too much.
posted by MrBaliHai at 11:23 AM on November 8, 2001

1. "Oil" companies sell methane and natural gas too.
2. Oil companies hate OPEC with a passion, and OPEC has nothing to do with methane or natural gas.
3. Oil companies don't consider hydrogen to be a threat to them.

Oil companies (and car companies) like fuel cells. The people who really have something to lose are the dedicated engine manufacturers (Allison, Detroit Diesel), and I think that most of them have been acquired by car companies already.
posted by jaek at 11:38 AM on November 8, 2001

The article is a little misleading in saying that a fuel cell can use any fuel and output only electricity and water vapor.

The fuel cell only wants to see hydrogen and oxygen - if the fuel isn't pure hydrogen, there has to be a preliminary step that separates the hydrogen from everything else (including things like that nasty sulphur that always seems to turn up mixed in with the good stuff).

Granted, it's not as polluting as combusting the fuel, but pure water it ain't.

To echo what's been said above, the oil companies would love to sell you hydrogen, a byproduct of their petroleum distillation process.
posted by skyscraper at 11:52 AM on November 8, 2001

Actually, fuel cells can react a number of different fuels to produce electricity directly, including (but not limited to):
Hydrogen (H2)
Hydrazine (N2H4)
Methane (CH4)
Propane (C3H8)
Diesel fuel
Methanol (CH3OH)
Ammonia (NH3)
Carbon monoxide (CO)

hydrogen happens to have the highest theoretical efficiency. in low temperature fuel cells, a fuel processor is used to reform hydrogen from hydrocarbons. some high temperature cells can react hydrocarbons directly, and can also generate electricity from the shift reaction that converts carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide.
posted by astirling at 12:16 PM on November 8, 2001

Check out the fuel cell bicycle. Manhattan Scientific also is in line to produce 'micro' fuel cells to power vacuum cleaners and cellphones.
posted by daver at 12:25 PM on November 8, 2001

One thing not to forget is that the chemicals these burn (i.e. Hydrogen) have to come from somewhere. Yes, you can get H2 by splitting water, but that takes power also.

This isn't free power, and many people seem to think. Better than internal combustion, yes.

To use these, you will need a distribution network and filling stations, to provide the hydrogen/methane/whatever. So, the oil companies will still make their cut.

This would do a pretty good job on letting us get to the point of telling the Saudi's to keep their stupid oil, which has more significance than simple environmental aspects these days.
posted by argon405 at 12:50 PM on November 8, 2001

i think that's why it's important to keep on with renewables like solar and wind to make it "free."

btw, the DOE recently held a meeting entitled "Hydrogen and National Security," which i thought was pretty encouraging.
posted by kliuless at 1:02 PM on November 8, 2001

If fuel cells become the de facto standard it'll probably be because of legislation.

Wouldn't that make it the de jure standard? ;)
posted by gazingus at 1:38 PM on November 8, 2001

I'm a little unclear on how this helps the U.S. reduce dependence on foreign oil (or any oil for that matter) if the hydrogen is supplied by oil companies? Are there more efficient/less polluting ways to produce hydogen "fuel" that these fuelcells run on than from the byproduct of the petroleum distillation process? Or perhaps I misunderstand the whole concept...?
posted by gwint at 1:40 PM on November 8, 2001

The car companies also must sell you on electric cars. That means no more quick winter heat, less power, electric engines, etc. What kind and how many fuel cells would you need to power your average package heavy SUV?

Don't confuse fuel cells, batteries, and "electric" cars in general.

Fuel cells have a sizeable power density disadvantage relative to conventional engines, a fuel cell of comparable power weighs about twice as much. That's not what makes current electric cars suck; their problem is that batteries have a huge energy density disadvantage to a tank of gasoline - a battery with the same amount of energy weighs about one hundred times as much.

While probably not up to sports-car performance, methanol fuel cell powered cars could certainly perform comparably to your typical econobox, along with all of the amenities you expect from a "conventional" car.

gwint: Ignore the hydrogen aspect. It's a red herring. Lots of oil comes from the Middle East, which is politically unstable. Most natural gas (and hence methanol) comes from Canada and Scandinavia, which are much friendlier.
posted by jaek at 2:12 PM on November 8, 2001

you can produce hydrogen from natural gas (in canada) as well through coal (in US) and biomass (everywhere) gassification. here's a nice survey of the economics of hydrogen technologies.

and a wide variety of feasibility studies here.
posted by kliuless at 2:17 PM on November 8, 2001

> The advantage of not having to deal with hydrogen is worth it, IMHO.

Jaek, what's so bad about hydrogen? This article from Discover magazine, said it was a lot more safe than gasoline.
posted by bradlauster at 2:21 PM on November 8, 2001

bradlauster: it's incredibly bulky, which makes it hard to store and move around. Really hard.

The only advantage that hydrogen advocates can really claim is that combustion of hydrogen does not release carbon dioxide. Even this isn't really true, as a) most hydrogen comes from petrochemical sources anyway and b) while you can make hydrogen from water and electricity, it's almost as easy to make methane from water, carbon dioxide, and electricity for no net carbon dioxide release.

A couple more useful links: Michelin Challenge Bibendum and International Fuel Cells
posted by jaek at 3:03 PM on November 8, 2001

Yet in my parents' neighborhood, LIPA is shoving a non-fuel cell, non-efficient, non-environmentally sound generator so that it can sell the electricity to Pennsylvania. Don't pat these folks on the back too hard, now!
posted by IPLawyer at 4:27 PM on November 8, 2001

Are there more efficient/less polluting ways to produce hydogen "fuel" that these fuelcells run on

The most efficient way to generate the Hydrogen needed would be to utilize the sun and wind to power the equipment to split the Hydrogen out of water.

I think that most people are missing the point on how we can reduce our dependence on oil. The real key to it is going to be efficiency. Combustion engines are terribly wasteful and the mostly metal car structures require huge amounts of energy to move their mass. Many companies are working to improve not only the means of propulsion, but reduce the amount of mass that needs to be propelled while maintaining safety. I think soccer moms can appreciate that.
posted by themikeb at 8:17 AM on November 9, 2001

In trying to find some evidence to debunk jaek's methanol fetish, I found out we're even getting better at producing methanol.
Looks like Houston and LA could be huge production facilities.
posted by themikeb at 8:21 AM on November 9, 2001

while you can make hydrogen from water and electricity, it's almost as easy to make methane from water, carbon dioxide, and electricity for no net carbon dioxide release.

this is true, but it also results in no net electrical production (2nd law of thermodynamics). infact, inefficiencies in both the fuel cell and the hydrogen / methane / methanol plant will ensure that there is a net loss of energy, and an additional energy input will be needed to sustain the system.

hydrocarbon fuel cells (typically burning reformed methane or methanol) are an attractive alternative to traditional spark-ignition and turbine based generation arrangements because they can provide more elecricity for a given amount of fuel.

so called clean fuel cells, which burn hydrogen exclusively, are of limited use, because greater energy is required to create the fuel than is recovered when the fuel is oxidized.

kliuless raised an interesting point: clean energy sources such as solar and wind could be used to power electrolysis plants for large scale hydrogen production. this is attractive because renewable power is usually VERY cheap (particularly from hydro, wind and tidal sources), but also has a poor capacity factor (meaning that the energy resource is not always available). The weather is unpredictable, and it's difficult to meet the regular demand on the grid with intermittently available renewables (hydro being a notable exception). However, wind or solar generation could be used to create a large scale hydrogen reservoir that could be shipped in the same way natural gas is shipped today, and that could be burned cleanly in a fuel cell for efficient electrical generation when ever it was needed.
posted by astirling at 8:57 AM on November 9, 2001

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