No alternative energy blog would be complete without a discussion of fuel cells.
Here’s all the history you need: in 1839, Sir William Grove created the first fuel cell. A few years earlier in 1824, Sadi Carnot demonstrated that the maximum efficiency of any heat engine is limited by the Carnot Efficiency. In short, the most work that can be derived from any power source via combustion is a function of how hot that fuel burns and how cold it is in the ambient environment.
Importantly, fuel cells are not Carnot-limited, setting them apart from automobile engines, diesel engines, coal/oil/natural-gas-fired power plants, and nuclear plants. Fuel cells do not ‘burn’ fuel in the conventional sense; they rely instead upon electrochemistry to free electrons from fuel and oxidizer. This process enables extraction of more energy from certain fuels than via combustion. Substantial buzz arose around fuel cells in the 1990’s because they seemed to represent a more efficient way to convert fossil fuel into energy.
For an exceedingly rosy view on the fuel cell industry, check out the Fuel Cells 2000 Web site. More balanced, academic-minded information on fuel cells can be found at the National Fuel Cell Research Center Web site and the Connecticut Global Fuel Cell Center Web site.
Ever wonder why fuel cells never seemed to evolve from “the next big thing” into commercial products? Significant problems are many, and aside from specific niche applications, no company has yet to manufacture a fuel cell product that tackles all the problems while remaining economically competitive.
Fuel cells rely upon catalytic electrolytes to drive electron-producing chemistry. These electrolytes are either extremely expensive or easily poisoned by trace fuel impurities (often its both). The principle fuel cell fuel is hydrogen, but no economically-viable hydrogen infrastructure yet exists to enable widespread hydrogen utilization. Furthermore, hydrogen has proven difficult to store and transport in a reliable manner using conventional technologies. Other fuels can be utilized in certain types of cell, but the majority of these are fossil-based. So adoption of fuel cells will not wean us from petroleum; it only prolongs our death throws.
My prediction is that fuel cells will continue to be around for a long time, partly because Joe Public and Jim Investor do not understand the technology’s limitations. However, companies with the best-of-breed technologies will also certainly penetrate specific markets to legitimately keep the fuel cell torch ablaze. For example, INI Power in Cary, NC will soon have all the pieces in place to compete with portable device batteries. Plug Power in Latham, NY is currently marketing a competitive back-up power solution. Nonetheless, without a substantial technology leap that I cannot fathom at this moment, there will never be a fuel cell in every car, every home, and on every desktop.