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Fuel cells set to debut

Fuel cells set to debut

Over the next 15 years, the cost/kW of electric power generation facilities for various alternative sources of energy, including different types of fuel cell types (at left), looks to drop by two to three orders of magnitude as the size and power generation plants increases.

Flashback to the '60s: Fuel cells are used to produce power (and water) from hydrogen and oxygen in the Apollo spacecraft and are considered tomorrow's power source. Also, there were regular predictions that the world would run out of oil in five to 15 years.

It's deja vu all over again. Fuel cell technology and applications-this time being led by automotive emissions and efficiency considerations-are burgeoning. And the National Energy Technical Laboratory (Golden, CO) predicts that by 2012 pressure on crude-oil supplies will start to be felt-and by 2030 reserves may be close to exhaustion. (Others, like Thomas Gold of Cornell University, see oil being readily found once we have the right technology to find and extract it.)

Here are several companies' near-term plans for efficient energy production and use to keep an eye on:

General Motors. This week GM reveals its commitment to produce practical fuel-cell-powered cars with the unveiling of its latest concept car at the Detroit auto show. The company has a history in the technology dating from its first hydrogen/oxygen fuel-cell vehicle, the Electrovan (a modified 1966 Corvair van).

While the ultimate goal will be an all-hydrogen-based fuel-cell system and safe hydrogen supply infrastructure, Matt Fronk, chief engineer for fuel cell R&D, sees low-sulfur gasoline as a transition fuel to lead to a hydrogen economy. Transitional fuel cell vehicles will still produce lower carbon dioxide emissions from "wells to wheels," says Fronk, and higher efficiency than other powertrains, such as methanol fuel cells and diesel/electric hybrids.

Ballard Power Systems. The electrode efficiency in the Toronto-based company's proton electron membrane (PEM) fuel cells allows it to produce a 100W hand-held fuel cell for portable equipment. A 300-kW (409-hp) unit is under development for powering a bus, with production cells available within two years.

Metallic Power. Looking for lower cost and inherent safety, Metallic Power (Carlsbad, CA) is producing zinc-pellet/air (oxygen) fuel cells that it says have eight times the energy density of hydrogen. Using the creation of zinc oxide to give off electrons, operational fuel cells of up to 100 kW are possible, the company says. Pellets can be recharged off-board the vehicle, for quick cartridge or bulk pellet refueling. A combination fuel-cell/battery vehicle demonstration is set for the first quarter of this year.

Peugeot Citroen. The French automaker has a taxi demonstrator based on its Partner electric vehicle running on a combination of battery and hydrogen fuel-cell power. The hydrogen reservoir is an interchangeable rack so that refueling takes place outside the vehicle. The company has partnered with France's National Center for Scientific Research and the country's Atomic Energy Commission to develop automotive fuel cells and other non-polluting engines. It sees the need to reduce fuel-cell cost, size, and weight by a factor of five before they can be used in production automotive applications-something not happening before 2010.

Pocket rocket. Finally, in non-automotive uses, miniature methanol fuel cells may be practical for powering or recharging hand-held and portable devices starting next year. Eventually, chip-size fuel cells or carbon-molecule-based micro fuel cells could be mounted directly to circuit boards.

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