Technology that was previously used primarily to power orbital spacecraft such as Gemini and Apollo is now making its way into the households of people around the world.
Fuel cells, which have been used as a source of auxiliary power for American spacecraft since the 1960s, are currently being adapted for commercial use to serve as anything from residential power generators to a replacement for the internal combustion engine in cars.
A fuel cell combines hydrogen and oxygen to create electrical energy, without actually allowing the two components to come into contact. Because of this, the only product of the reaction is water vapor.
A fuel cell operates much like a battery, but while the fuel for a battery is an integral part of the device, a fuel cell must be supplied with fuel from an external source.
This is advantageous because, unlike a battery, which eventually will run out of fuel and must be replaced or recharged, a fuel cell can produce energy as long as fuel is provided.
“Basically, a fuel cell could be used anywhere that uses electricity,” said Jennifer Gangi, Manager of Fuel Cells 2000, a non-profit organization located in Washington, D.C. “I’ve heard of anything from fuel cell bikes to fuel cell vacuums. The possibilities are endless.”
Fuel cells are being developed by companies around the world, including Ballard Power Systems located in Canada and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.
In fact, there are over 200 fuel cells installed across the world, said Gangi. These fuel cells are used as sources of back up power for various institutions across the United States including a bank in Nebraska, a hospital in Rhode Island and a mail processing plant in Alaska.
“Fuel cells are great for places like Alaska where the power goes out a lot because of the weather,” Gangi said. “(The backup systems) are very reliable, about 99.99 percent effective.”
Gangi said that fuel cells are also used in landfills and wastewater treatment plants in five different locations around the world. This is an especially efficient process because when fuel cells burn garbage, methane is produced, and that methane can then provide the hydrogen necessary to run the fuel cells.
Fuel cells are also currently being used to power buses in cities across the United States, including three buses developed by Ballard Systems that currently run in Chicago.
This leads to the possibility that fuel cells could be used in place of the internal combustion engine in commercial automobiles.
“The big push, of course, is to get fuel cells to work in cars, because they will be more efficient and less polluting,” said Bruce Parkinson, a chemistry professor at CSU.
Among the advantages of the use of fuel cells in automobiles are the fact that they run much quieter than internal combustion engines, and fuel cells have no moving parts, so vehicles should require little repair and last longer.
Parkinson said that fuel cells are also more than twice as efficient as internal combustion engines because they directly convert chemicals into electrical energy with no intermediary processes.
Many experts consider the environmental efficiency of fuel cells their greatest asset.
“I have been working in the auto industry for fifteen years, and in that time I have experienced considerable dismay at what I perceive as a willful denial of serious environmental concerns,” said Jon Motavalli, in his book “Forward Drive: The Race to Build ‘Clean’ Cars For the Future.” “But now, for the first time I see evidence of changed thinking. Environmentalists are getting a hearing in Detroit, and global warming is finally being taken seriously.”
Electric automobiles powered by fuel cells produce no nitrogen oxides, and emit less carbon dioxide than internal combustion engines making fuel cells a viable alternative for activists concerned with the polluting effects of cars.
“I would expect that (fuel cells) will replace the internal combustion engine, it just depends on the time frame,” said CSU’s Parkinson. “Whether it be ten years or 30 years, though, I don’t know.”
Gangi agreed with Parkinson, and said that while other fuel cell powered products may be available in upcoming years, it will take much longer for widespread commercialization of fuel cell powered cars to occur.
Currently all major automotive manufacturers have a fuel cell vehicle either in development or under testing.
Peter Schwartz, chairman of the Global Business Network, said in “Forward Drive” that he predicts use of hydrogen fuel cells will beat out internal combustion engines by the year 2020; however, some hurtles do stand in the way.
Most prototypes are currently too expensive to be considered economical to automobile consumers and most fuel cell automobiles are not yet developed enough to be as fast or powerful as gasoline powered cars.
Many other fuel cell uses are much closer to becoming a part of everyday life for people around the world. Gangi predicted that stationary power units for residential homes would be available by 2003 or 2004, and portable power units for use in cell phones and laptops could be ready in as early as two years.