The Future Isn't Here — Yet

If Fuel Cells Are the Future…

Fuel cells will completely revolutionize the oil and gas industry:

  1. Within five years.
  2. In 20 years.
  3. Probably never.

The correct answer depends on who's grading the quiz.

And the answer will certainly affect the petroleum industry.

The United States government recently put its heft behind fuel-cell technology for passenger vehicles, as Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham recently announced a new public-private research program, Freedom Cooperative Automotive Research (CAR), to explore fuel cell use in vehicles.

Freedom CAR will operate as a partnership between the U.S. Department of Energy and the automakers' Council for Automotive Research, he said.

"The government and the private sector will fund research into advanced, efficient fuel-cell technology, which uses hydrogen to power automobiles without creating any pollution," Abraham proclaimed at the Detroit Auto Show in January.

He described the effort as "a big win for everyone." A related press release noted that the U.S. transportation sector's almost total dependence on petroleum, especially imported oil, "cannot continue."

That decision came about one month after Chrysler Group introduced its third-generation fuel-cell concept vehicle, the Town & Country Natrium minivan.

Unlike earlier fuel-cell concept models, the Natrium runs on sodium borohydride, a compound related to borax.

Thomas Moore, a DaimlerChrysler vice president, said "there are no hydrocarbons to contribute to greenhouse gas buildup, no smog-producing emissions and the fuel can be recycled."

Ballard Power Systems of British Columbia, a fuel-cell manufacturer, says "fuel-cell engines, based on the Ballard fuel cell, will be comparable to conventional engines in size, weight, operating life, acceleration and speed, range and refueling time."

Some enthusiasts picture fuel cells everywhere, even powering your wristwatch and cell phone. The educational Web site howstuffworks.com predicts "fuel-cell-powered cars will start to replace gas- and diesel-engine cars in about 2005."

But talk to fuel-cell researchers and that timetable stretches out considerably.

"Things are really up in the air right now," said William Swift, project manager for the Fuel Cells Transportation Program at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

"They're pushing the hydrogen economy to fuel these fuel cells," he said, "and we don't have a hydrogen infrastructure."

It Works Like This ...

A fuel cell electrochemically combines hydrogen and oxygen, producing electricity, heat and pure water. A polymer electrolyte membrane or proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell consists of four parts:

  • An anode.
  • A cathode.
  • A thin electrolyte membrane.
  • A catalyst.

In the anode, the catalyst promotes separation of hydrogen into protons and electrons. The protons pass through the membrane to the cathode, and the electrons exit to an external circuit.

PEM fuel cells typically use ordinary air in the cathode. Oxygen combines with protons and electrons from the external circuit, giving off heat and water. Fuel cells differ in the types of material they employ and the heat at which they operate. Solid oxide fuel cells can utilize ceramic components and operate at 1,000 degrees Celsius.

Because fuel cells produce little or no pollution and can operate with four times the energy efficiency of a gasoline internal-combustion engine, they represent desirable technology.

Image Caption

How the PEM Fuel Cell Works

Please log in to read the full article

Fuel cells will completely revolutionize the oil and gas industry:

  1. Within five years.
  2. In 20 years.
  3. Probably never.

The correct answer depends on who's grading the quiz.

And the answer will certainly affect the petroleum industry.

The United States government recently put its heft behind fuel-cell technology for passenger vehicles, as Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham recently announced a new public-private research program, Freedom Cooperative Automotive Research (CAR), to explore fuel cell use in vehicles.

Freedom CAR will operate as a partnership between the U.S. Department of Energy and the automakers' Council for Automotive Research, he said.

"The government and the private sector will fund research into advanced, efficient fuel-cell technology, which uses hydrogen to power automobiles without creating any pollution," Abraham proclaimed at the Detroit Auto Show in January.

He described the effort as "a big win for everyone." A related press release noted that the U.S. transportation sector's almost total dependence on petroleum, especially imported oil, "cannot continue."

That decision came about one month after Chrysler Group introduced its third-generation fuel-cell concept vehicle, the Town & Country Natrium minivan.

Unlike earlier fuel-cell concept models, the Natrium runs on sodium borohydride, a compound related to borax.

Thomas Moore, a DaimlerChrysler vice president, said "there are no hydrocarbons to contribute to greenhouse gas buildup, no smog-producing emissions and the fuel can be recycled."

Ballard Power Systems of British Columbia, a fuel-cell manufacturer, says "fuel-cell engines, based on the Ballard fuel cell, will be comparable to conventional engines in size, weight, operating life, acceleration and speed, range and refueling time."

Some enthusiasts picture fuel cells everywhere, even powering your wristwatch and cell phone. The educational Web site howstuffworks.com predicts "fuel-cell-powered cars will start to replace gas- and diesel-engine cars in about 2005."

But talk to fuel-cell researchers and that timetable stretches out considerably.

"Things are really up in the air right now," said William Swift, project manager for the Fuel Cells Transportation Program at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

"They're pushing the hydrogen economy to fuel these fuel cells," he said, "and we don't have a hydrogen infrastructure."

It Works Like This ...

A fuel cell electrochemically combines hydrogen and oxygen, producing electricity, heat and pure water. A polymer electrolyte membrane or proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell consists of four parts:

  • An anode.
  • A cathode.
  • A thin electrolyte membrane.
  • A catalyst.

In the anode, the catalyst promotes separation of hydrogen into protons and electrons. The protons pass through the membrane to the cathode, and the electrons exit to an external circuit.

PEM fuel cells typically use ordinary air in the cathode. Oxygen combines with protons and electrons from the external circuit, giving off heat and water. Fuel cells differ in the types of material they employ and the heat at which they operate. Solid oxide fuel cells can utilize ceramic components and operate at 1,000 degrees Celsius.

Because fuel cells produce little or no pollution and can operate with four times the energy efficiency of a gasoline internal-combustion engine, they represent desirable technology.

That technology remains in the development stage, however.

Without a direct hydrogen supply, fuel cells require a converter device, know as a "reformer." The reformer produces hydrogen from a hydrocarbon, alcohol or other hydrogen-rich material. Adding a reformer reduces the overall efficiency of the system, and can increase pollution levels.

Fuel cells also are low-voltage devices that must be stacked to produce a required level of electrical current.

And fuel cells are relatively expensive to manufacture and operate, in relation to their output.

Right now, fuel-cell technology might be seen as a somewhat awkward way to make very expensive electricity.

A Hybrid Development

In January, just a week after Abraham's announcement in Detroit, Arthur D. Little Inc. (ADL) and DRI-WEFA announced they had completed a joint study of probable developments in light-vehicle powertrains until the year 2020.

ADL scientists, engineers and management experts consult on business and technologies. DRI-WEFA is an analytical-based company that provides market intelligence and insight for focused industry sectors, including autos and energy.

The study concluded that gasoline- and diesel-fueled internal combustion engines will continue to dominate the vehicle market until that time. Fuel cells may start to make some market inroads near 2020, but only if development efforts now under way meet success.

J.R. Linna, manager of ADL's automotive technology group in Cambridge, Mass., said several clients wanted a comprehensive assessment of evolving technologies in passenger vehicles, which led to the ADL/DRI-WEFA study.

"Both of our organizations have received requests for a little longer view in looking at what the powertrains of light-duty vehicles might be over the next 20 years," he explained.

The study is titled "Future Powertrain Technologies: 2008 to 2020." Linna said the companies projected out from 2008, because "beyond that point, the crystal balls of the automakers begin to get fuzzy."

Potential technology developments in North America, Western Europe and Asia provided the focus for the research. But the study also contemplated worldwide vehicle demand, as well as energy price and supply scenarios.

"We had to understand what might bound the future business situation," Linna said. "One of the things we looked at was the overall price for fuel and its availability."

Vehicle fuels should remain readily available and affordable to 2020, although demand will rise, said Philip Gott, director of automotive consulting for DRI-WEFA in Lexington, Mass.

"Between 1990 and 2020 the overall oil consumption for vehicle use will double," Gott said. "We use 1990 as a baseline because that's where Kyoto is pegged."

Vehicles in North America, Western Europe and Japan will become more fuel-efficient, but that reduction in fuel use gets "swamped by rising levels of motorization and miles traveled" in Latin America and Asia, he noted.

In the joint study's basic scenario, conventional drivetrains make up only 32 percent of the market by 2020.

Fuel-cell technology is most likely to have little if any impact, but micro-hybrid vehicles are projected to claim 57 percent of the market.

Gott defined micro-hybrids as vehicles with a combination of battery-electric power and liquid-fuel, internal-combustion engine power. A 42-volt electrical system starts and stops the engine when the vehicle comes to a temporary stand-still, such as at a traffic light.

"One of the nice things about micro-hybrid availability is that it enables the carmakers to offer vehicle features and amenities that the consumer already wants and is willing to pay for," Gott said. "These are features such as a heated windscreen for rapid de-icing, for instance, and a heated steering wheel," Gott said.

The powertrain study assessed four categories of hybrid vehicles, with increasing levels of electric torque assist. It projects that full-hybrid vehicles, capable of running for a short time on engine or battery power alone, will claim only 4 percent of the market by 2020.

Hybridization does result in significant fuel efficiencies, but the overall effect on global demand for petroleum, Gott said, "still gets overridden by increases in motorization in Asia and Latin America."

Government Involvement

In addition to economics and technology, the demand for fuel can be affected by government mandates. Requirements and restrictions influence what kinds of vehicles are on the road, and what type of infrastructure exists to refuel them.

"If you wanted to decrease fuel demand, for whatever reason, how is that decrease in consumption to be obtained?" Gott asked. "In the absence of a substantial increase in fuel price, it's got to be obtained by legislative will."

Linna said some effects of legislated fuel requirements are factored into the powertrain study.

"For instance," he said, "we are anticipating that the programs that have been announced in Europe, the recently announced biofuels directive, will be implemented."

Under those directives, biofuels will replace 6 percent of conventional fuels in Europe by 2010, with a goal of 20 percent replacement by 2020.

Fuel-cell technology doesn't show much influence in overall reduction of global fuel demand, partly because "the use of a fuel cell on a fuel-cell vehicle does not eliminate the need for fuel.

"It may reduce it," Gott said, "or change the ultimate form in which it is used, but not eliminate it."

A bigger consideration is the time needed for new vehicle technologies to be adopted fully in the market. Linna cited a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report, "Light-Duty Automotive Technology and Fuel Economy Trends, 1975 through 2001."

The authors of the EPA report found that "it may take a decade for a technology to prove itself and attain a sales fraction of 40 percent to 50 percent (of the market), and as long as another five or 10 years to reach maximum market penetration."

That's to say, even if a fuel-cell researcher shouts "Eureka!" today, your next vehicle still won't have a fuel-cell drive.

"If you had a technological breakthrough tomorrow, and you had it along every point of the critical path, and that technology is in the laboratory stage now, how long would it take to become a significant factor in the marketplace? It's unlikely to happen before 2020," said Gott.

"It's not going to happen by 2005, no matter how badly you wanted it."

Wanted: New Infrastructures

In the meantime, conventional technologies will go through a process of development, as well. Vehicle efficiency can advance with today's technology, Gott noted.

"Is there anything left in the internal combustion engine? The answer is, 'Absolutely.' The diesel, which is 30 percent more efficient, we hardly use (for passenger vehicles) in this country," he said.

Today's fueling infrastructure — petrol stations — might take even longer to replace, especially if hydrogen becomes the fuel of choice. That's partly a matter of government will, as well, according to Gott.

"If the Bush administration really gets behind the Freedom CAR and says we're going to have a hydrogen infrastructure by 2020, then we just might have it," he said.

That appears unlikely at the moment. Gott and Linna put the chances of the United States creating a hydrogen infrastructure by 2020 at less than 5 percent.

Developing a practical, economic, on-vehicle fuel reformer also looks like a problem. "Scaling it down to automobile size is problematic," said Swift at the Argonne lab. He sees another possible solution for hydrogen delivery.

"If we go that way, and that's the way things seem to be headed, you may see hydrogen refueling stations showing up in dedicated situations," he said.

Those stations could serve the needs of an organization or municipality with a fleet of fuel-cell vehicles, according to Swift. It's a way to ease into infrastructure change.

Swift said the Argonne lab concentrates its research efforts on low-temperature, high power density fuel-cell technology.

"We work mostly in polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells. That's the one all the car companies are looking at for their vehicles," he explained. "I think every major car company in the world has (fuel-cell concept) vehicles running."

Fuel cells that operate at much higher temperatures than the PEM have both a heat and a start-up problem.

"If you have a high-temperature fuel cell and you have to start it up from ambient conditions," he said, "that's not too good."

Mixed Signals

Because fuel cells are still in the development stage, they lack the pricing benefit of mass-production economics.

Their cost-output ratio, which should fall as the technology advances, remains very high.

Swift said "fuel cells are probably two orders of magnitude too high right now," generating electricity at the equivalent of $5,000 per kilowatt, compared to the $50 per kilowatt reasonable for a commercial application.

Does that make fuel-cell technology a dead end? Not at all.

Passenger vehicles just aren't the first and best use. As a stationary power source, fuel cells show growing promise.

In the United States, fuel-cell research for light vehicle applications may be government-driven, for the near future.

Here's a paragraph from the Freedom CAR news release:

"America's transportation sector is 95 percent dependent on petroleum, with transportation consuming 67 percent of the petroleum used in the U.S. The Federal government and its industry partners recognize the steady growth of imported oil needed to meet U.S. requirements — today about 10 million barrels of foreign oil each day — cannot continue."


Based on a desire to reduce oil imports:

  • The U.S. government has chosen to emphasize new technology and fuel efficiency standards.
  • Environmentalists promote conservation.
  • The petroleum industry advocates increased exploration opportunities, offshore of California and Florida and in Alaska.

More and more, the general public argues that a mix of all three is needed: conservation, increased exploration and new technology.

That's an argument government officials, environmentalists and oil industry executives and government officials are finding increasingly difficult to answer.

ccaxtezasqxdavssvybvut

You may also be interested in ...