Fuel Cell Technology and its Use in Cars
Ever since it was invented 169 years ago, you might say that fuel cell technology has come a long way. Others might argue though. Sir William Grove knew a lot of stuff about electrolysis, so he hypothesized that by reversing the procedure (which split water into hydrogen and oxygen by sending electricity through it) he might create electricity. He only reached the experiment stage, but managed to prove his ideas, which made scientists Ludwig Mond and his assistant Charles Langer further improve the technology, to which they also gave the “fuel cell” name in 1889.
Of course, you have probably heard the term “fuel cell” more than once and on various media channels in recent years, most likely with something “automotive” connected to it. For example, US president George Bush announced a program called “The Hydrogen Fuel Initiative” during his State of the Union Address, five years ago. The program aims to develop the hydrogen, fuel cells and infrastructure technologies necessary in order to make fuel-cell vehicles practical and cost-friendly enough by the year 2020, more than one billion US dollars being dedicated to it so far.
In essence, a fuel cell is an engine with no moving parts, but the technical definition is that the fuel cell is an electrochemical energy conversion device. It converts hydrogen and oxygen particles into water, therefore also producing electricity. There are many types of fuel cells in use or being researched these days, but most of them use hydrogen and oxygen as the basic chemicals required for the conversion.
A similar procedure takes place in an ordinary battery, only that the battery has all the chemicals required for the conversion stored “on board”, while the fuel cell can be “recharged” from an outside source so that electricity can keep being “manufactured”. Besides pure water vapors and electricity, another by-product of this procedure is heat, more or less depending on the type of fuel cell.
From all the different types of fuel cell, the Polymer Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell (PEMFC) is apparently the best candidate for vehicle applications. The main reasons are its high power density and relatively low operating temperature, meaning that it doesn't take very long for the fuel cell to warm up and begin generating electricity. It also uses one of the simplest reactions in any fuel cell type.
The first vehicle use of this technology was made in 1994, when Mercedes-Benz unveiled the MB100-based NECAR1 (New Electric CAR 1) prototype. Apart from the low power output (only 50 kilowatts), the biggest downside of the concept was the fact that the fuel cell drive was occupying the whole cargo area of the van, and from a passive safety point of view it would have been a horrible idea to mass-produce, taking into account it transported a massive tank filled with highly flammable pressurized hydrogen on board.
During the next decade technology evolved and Mercedes' latest fuel cell concept has a power output of 115 hp (85 kilowatts) and can run for around 250 miles (400 kilometers) before refueling. Of course, the Germans aren't the only ones taking a peek in the fuel cell technology, another major automotive player being Honda, who is already leasing the FCX Clarity model for fleet testing to selected customers.
Considering the inherent limitations for this technology in automobile applications, with the lack of a refueling infrastructure being the greatest, fuel cells are unlikely to rival more conventional cars in the next 15-20 years, but on the long run they might prove to be more than a viable transportation solution. The pollution taxes and environmental laws are becoming more and more stringent and along with the continuous rise in the consumption of fossil fuels might convince other governments and car manufacturers to pump money into the fuel cell technology.