According to Gas 2.0, Ford, Mercedes Benz and Nissan have decided to pool their resources to bring affordable fuel cell vehicles to market as soon as possible. Most of us have no idea what a fuel cell is or why we would want a car powered by one. So let’s make it simple. A fuel cell combines hydrogen with air to create electricity.The only “waste product” is water vapor. Pretty cool, huh? Here’s an article about fuel cells at WikiPedia, if you want to know more about the technology.
Some of you may know that there were electric cars before the gasoline engine was invented. Today, Nissan offers an all electric vehicle called the LEAF. But electric cars from yesterday and today have the same drawbacks – heavy batteries and a short driving range. And when the batteries are fully discharged, it takes forever to recharge them.
A fuel cell car generates its own electricity, so it doesn’t need a heavy storage battery. It can go 300 miles or more on one tank of hydrogen. And fill ups should require about the same time as it takes to fill the gas tank in a conventional car.
If you live in California, Honda will lease you a fuel cell powered car for $600 a month. Why is the price so high? Because fuel cell technology today is about where computer technology was in 1977 when the Apple II computer first appeared. Translating fuel cell theory into real world products will take time and money. Lots of money. By joining forces, Ford, Mercedes and Nissan hope to beat the competition without going broke along the way.
You may have heard that there is no free lunch and that’s true when it comes to fuel cells. Yes, in operation, a fuel cell car has zero emissions. But the hydrogen has to come from somewhere. You just don’t find it lying about in nature. Chemically speaking, hydrogen bonds aggressively with lots of other elements, especially oxygen.
When hydrogen and oxygen embrace each other, we get water. But to pry hydrogen atoms loose from water takes energy. Lots and lots of energy. At the moment, the process usually involves electricity. And electricity comes from electrical generating plants, the same facilities that spew millions of tons of pollutants into the air every year. So to say a fuel cell powered car has zero emissions is a bit misleading.
Let’s not lose hope, though. The folks at Gizmag.com have reported recently on several breakthroughs in the laboratory that may yield abundant hydrogen supplies at low cost. One is a new catalyst discovered at Princeton and Rutgers through computer modeling. The other, from Cambridge University in England, uses cobalt as a catalyst. Researchers at the University of Buffalo are exploring the use of nanoparticles in hydrogen production. All three of these breakthroughs were announced just last month. Who knows how far science and industry will have advanced fuel cell technology in 5 years? Or even a year from now?
I write a lot about cars and transportation. But the hydrogen economy is an exciting development in all areas of human endeavor. Fuel cells could power every building on Earth, from homes to factories, offices and schools. Imagine a world without massive electric generating plants and the pollution they create, without phone poles and wires, and without power outages from weather or terrorist activities. Hydrogen power could change our future. And not a moment too soon.