We're now one step closer
August 1, 2002 7:21 AM   Subscribe

We're now one step closer to making fuel cell cars. It was announced a few days ago that Quantum Technologies' Hydrogen Storage Tank capable of powering current fuel cell cars up to 300 miles has received the highest rating from a German auto safety commission. This is part of the previously discussed billion dollar effort by GM to bring fuel cell cars to the market. Seems like we're getting one step closer to finally saying goodbye to fossil fuel powered cars.
posted by statusquo (16 comments total)
Disclaimer: I don't work for either of these companies... I just realized those are a lot of links to two companies' web sites, and it may be misconstrued as an advertisement, I just think it's cool ;)
posted by statusquo at 7:25 AM on August 1, 2002

Now if we could only roll out true highspeed intercity rail at reasonably prices, everything would be right with the world.

Did you read the original article in Wired about the GM effort? It was good, but I always find it difficult to tell if Wired is writing hard-hitting journalism, or simply corporate puff pieces.
posted by pjgulliver at 7:28 AM on August 1, 2002

This is important. Learn how fuel cells work. While you're at it, learn about the coming hydrogen economy. Heck, even your laptop might run on fuel cells one day.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 7:30 AM on August 1, 2002

hey i was just reading from that wired article previously discussed, "GM executives are loathe to break this tenet: The Amount of Sacrifice Americans Will Be Willing to Make to Drive a Nonpolluting Car Is Exactly Zero. Any future vehicle — even one that pirouettes — must be able to go at least 300 miles between fuelings and take no longer than five minutes at the pump." so i guess now they can obey TAoSAWBWtMtDaNCIEZ tenet :) hooray!
posted by kliuless at 7:45 AM on August 1, 2002

kliuless, I thought the whole 5 minutes at the pump thing might be something of a problem, (because 10,000 PSI seeme like it would take a while to build up). But then I realized that at that pressure, even at room temperature, Hydrogen is probably a liquid. Is anyone able to confirm or deny this?
posted by statusquo at 7:53 AM on August 1, 2002

Seems like we're getting one step closer to finally saying goodbye to fossil fuel powered cars.

Unfortunatly, it doesn't seem like we're out of the woods quite yet. The hydrogen has to come from someplace, and I'm sure a certain industry would LOVE it if the hydrogen came from fossil fuels, using autothermal reforming. I've also heard of putting the reformer right in the car, so you'd gas up just like before. The process is supposed to release only carbon dioxide, so it's not quite as bad as combustion, but it's still bad (however, some people would tell you that it's fantastic!)

Everything I've heard about getting hyrdogen by using electrolysis of water is that it's very inefficient.
posted by zsazsa at 7:54 AM on August 1, 2002

These folks are collecting signatures on a petition that will be delivered to Dubya next year at the end of a cross-country hydrogen-powered road trip. You can sign it online if you are interested.
posted by spilon at 7:59 AM on August 1, 2002

Hydrogen doesn't become a liquid until it is subjected to a pressure equal to 1.4 million times the air pressure at sea level on Earth.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 8:19 AM on August 1, 2002

The process is supposed to release only carbon dioxide, so it's not quite as bad as combustion, but it's still bad

A small scale, natural gas reforming fuel cell can produce 49 % less carbon dioxide, 91% less nitrogen oxide (NOX) , 68% less carbon monoxide, and 93% fewer volatile organic compounds (VOCs). In the PEM fuel cell techonlogy that is favoured by the automotive industry, sulphur oxide (SOX) emissions are virtually eliminated because sulphur will contaminate the platinum catalyst and thus must be removed from the natural gas fuel.

While widespread use of fuel cell cars would have a significant impact on global warming, the real benifits would be realized in cities where the SOX and NOX emissions that cause acid rain and smog (respectively) could be virtually eliminated.

All you ever wanted to know about fuel cells: DOE's Fuel Cell Handbook, a 352 page reference on the theoretical and practical considerations of fuel cell systems that is freely available online.
posted by astirling at 8:38 AM on August 1, 2002

Unfortunatly, it doesn't seem like we're out of the woods quite yet.

Indeed. Something else that should be remembered: water vapor (see the section "Water, Energy, and Global Warming") is a greenhouse gas too.
posted by slipperywhenwet at 8:41 AM on August 1, 2002

The idea of sitting on a large tank pressurized to 10,000 psi does not give me a warm fuzzy.
posted by NortonDC at 9:41 AM on August 1, 2002

Fuel Cells hold a tremendous amount of promise in our future but I think there are many issues (aside from technical challenges) that could delay its usage on a wide scale.

The first such problem is economics. The sheer size and power of the worlds oil companies who would view widespread use of this or any other non-hydrocarbon based energy production as a serious threat to their dominance. Although these companies could use their current market dominance to get a head start on hydrogen production and distribution systems. Bottom line Oil/Energy production has dominated our economy for 40 years. Getting them to change or move out of the way may prove difficult.

Also are car manufacturers going to be happy about building vehicles that last twice as long? (a 20-25 year life expectancy is estimated for most fuel cells) This has the potential to cut into their current market by some 50 to 60 percent. If I were and auto company I sure as heck would not be all the pleased about fuel cell technologies impact on my bottom line.

The second problem in my opinion is that there are going to be many unforeseen consequences of adopting this new technology. There are and will be many environmental problems associated with massive production of fuel cells as an energy source. What kind of emissions issues will we have when millions of vehicles start tooling around leaking water. Will this have an impact on our air or water supply or even weather? No one can predict these kinds of scenarios but I'm sure there will be some.

Also fuel cells require platinum which is pretty rare and expensive. True recent discoveries have reduced the amount required but still the sources of platinum on the planet are pretty finite. Can or will we recycle the materials in fuel cells?

I think that fuel cells are a much better energy alternative to Internal Combustion but as with all energy production there will be negatives.
posted by aaronscool at 11:02 AM on August 1, 2002

Current cars require platinum (catalytic converters), and even if fuel cells last 100 years, it doesn't mean that cars will.

Now, about that 10,000 psi tank back there...
posted by NortonDC at 11:05 AM on August 1, 2002

Also are car manufacturers going to be happy about building vehicles that last twice as long? (a 20-25 year life expectancy is estimated for most fuel cells)

The argument I read for this was that although they lose a lot of repeat business, the cars will actually be a lot cheaper to manufacture (the fuel cell and electric motor undercarriage would be a standard chassis across most models, with the passenger/cargo compartment bolted onto it), and since the cars would be cheaper to produce and cost less, they could crack markets that they are now priced out of.
posted by RylandDotNet at 11:36 AM on August 1, 2002

See also Patrick Bedard's November 2001 and August 2002 columns Car and Driver regarding this subject. It seems he's a bit skeptical.
posted by DakotaPaul at 1:18 PM on August 1, 2002

Patrick Bedard makes some good points in fairly heavy handed ways. He does seem to be buying into the current oil industry dogma that fuel cells should still run off of gas because lord knows making hydrogen is hard!

This is an understandable position from an industry that has hundreds of billions of dollars investing in producing oil for us to consume.

But he is right. Hydrogen in fuel cells is essentially a battery system. But so is gasoline except in that case we didn't have to go to all the effort of collecting the energy up into its current handy package, nature did.

So how is Hydrogen going to be made? Well we have more than enough energy on this planet that is wasted every day. My guess is that it will be made at power plants during off peak hours or in large solar arrays near the ocean (Middle East?). The truth is that Hydrogen production when put into the long term will likely cost less than oil production does currently.
posted by aaronscool at 1:46 PM on August 1, 2002

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