Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the air threaten global warming, but such worries are good news for the future of another substance -- hydrogen.
Pure hydrogen is a nearly ideal fuel -- potentially a clean, abundant replacement for the carbon-based fossil fuels whose combustion has loosed all the carbon dioxide in the first place.
Hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the universe. When burned, it produces water vapor and heat. (And despite memories of the Hindenburg, advocates insist that it is no more dangerous to handle than gasoline.)
The real excitement involves the promise of hydrogen "fuel cells." They involve no flames, and they're cleaner and more efficient than hydrogen combustion.
Invented in 1839, fuel cells are electrochemical reactors. In the presence of a platinum catalyst, they combine hydrogen fuel and oxygen from the air to produce electricity and water. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has used them for decades to produce electric current and drinking water for astronauts.
Recent advances have increased their power and boosted their credibility among carmakers as a "green" replacement for the internal combustion engine.
"It's safe to say every carmaker is looking at fuel cells in some fashion," says Peter Hoffman, editor and publisher of the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Newsletter. Enthusiasts say Americans could slash one-third from the 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide they pump into the atmosphere each year if they replaced gasoline engines in their cars with fuel cells.
"There is very little in the way of forces working against this technology," says Jeff Bentley. He is vice president for fuel-cell technology at Arthur D. Little Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., engineering and consulting firm that is developing a key component for automotive fuel cells. "We think this is an unstoppable technology."
In Germany, where gasoline is expensive, Daimler-Benz has announced plans to market a fuel-cell-powered subcompact, and expects to sell 100,000 of them in 2004.
Because the most promising automotive fuel-cell technology runs at low temperatures (about 176 degrees F, compared with 1,000 degrees in earlier fuel-cell designs), it can be made with cheaper materials. And with no moving parts, no energy is lost to friction.
Of course, there is a hitch.
If the gasoline engine in the car you want costs $3,000, choosing the fuel-cell option instead would cost you $30,000 today.
But engineers have already brought prices down by a factor of 100 in the past decade. They expect to be price-competitive in the next decade. And independent market analysts seem to agree.
The best fuel-cell cars would have a range and agility better than battery-powered electric cars and would be competitive with their gasoline-powered cousins. Prototype fuel cells are being tested now in Chicago transit buses.
The big obstacle for hydrogen-fueled applications has always been the hydrogen -- producing, storing and distributing it.
It may be abundant, but hydrogen has to be coaxed from water by the application of electricity. Or it must be extracted, or "re-formed" in chemical reactions, from hydrogen-rich fuels such natural gas or methanol.
The light, expansive hydrogen must then be compressed. (If not, the car's fuel tank would be 3,000 times the size of a gasoline tank.) That demands heavy, expensive storage cylinders. Designers have had to mount them on the roofs of their prototypes.
And then, would-be fuel-cell motorists ask, "Where do I refuel?" The answer is, "Good luck."
Oil companies won't add hydrogen pumps at their stations until there is a demand for it. And there will be no demand until motorists see they have someplace handy to fill up. It's Catch-22.
In January, Chrysler announced plans to develop a fuel-cell car with an on-board re-former. It will extract hydrogen from plain gasoline without actually burning it. Not unexpectedly, Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO) and Exxon are helping.
A gasoline fuel cell was demonstrated in a lab in October by Arthur D. Little Inc. It was developed with help from a $15 million federal grant and experts at a U.S. weapons lab.
Chrysler says a gasoline-powered fuel-cell car would have the same range as today's cars, with twice the gas mileage and 90 percent fewer carbon emissions. Using gasoline, Chrysler says, could speed up the public's acceptance of fuel-cell cars by 10 years.
Chrysler hopes to get a demonstration car onto the road by 1999, with sales by 2005.
Some environmentalists would rather leave gasoline in the dustbin of history. Others see it as a bridge to a time when hydrogen is sold at the corner station.
Groton, Conn., is getting hydrogen from the methane in its landfill. A stationary fuel cell there generates enough electrical power for 100 homes.
Nobody is making an unsubsidized profit yet from fuel-cell systems. But several companies are building and selling stationary units as they work to improve designs and cut production costs.
Encouraged by federal subsidies of $1,000 per kilowatt of installed power, some buyers have hitched units to industrial-waste streams rich in hydrogen. Their electrical output is then used or sold to the local power grid.
This year alone, nearly 200 U.S. hospitals, hotels and other users have begun experimenting with the quiet, durable fuel-cell generators.
Bentley says that several companies are developing small fuel cells to furnish electric current for remote cell-phone towers, recreational vehicles and other "high value" markets. Sales should begin in 1999.
Arthur D. Little is forming a subsidiary to make and sell fuel reformers for such products. "We expect to be selling in the tens of millions of dollars, just in fuel processors, in the 2002 to 2004 time frame," Bentley says.
But the mass market for fuel cells is clearly cars.
In 1990, California's Air Resources Board, hoping to spur sales of electric cars, decreed that by 2003, 10 percent of the new cars sold in the Golden State (that's 120,000 cars) would have to be "zero-emissions" vehicles.
But progress on battery technology has been disappointing. The range and speed of electric cars remain inferior to gasoline vehicles, and recharging is slow.
By comparison, advances in automotive fuel cells have been dramatic. The acknowledged leader appears to be a Canadian company, Ballard Power Systems.
This year, Ballard has joined in fuel-cell car-development projects with Chrysler, Nissan and Ford. It also closed a $450 million deal with Daimler-Benz to help develop fuel-cell power plants for a Mercedes subcompact.
Ballard doesn't expect to turn a profit before 2001. But financial analysts like its prospects.
The 1994 Ballard/Daimler demonstrator, Necar I, was a big Mercedes passenger van so packed with machinery that there was room for little more than a driver.
In September, Mercedes rolled out Necar III. The 12-foot subcompact carries its own reformer that extracts hydrogen from liquid methanol. The hardware fills the rear seat, but the car can go 250 miles on 10 gallons of methanol, with few carbon emissions.
By late next year, Ballard expects to have shrunk the reformer and stuffed it and the fuel cell into the trunk. Necar IV will have a back seat.
Pub Date: 12/09/97