Hydrogen explosion

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In upstate Latham, N.Y., not far from the Hudson River that General Electric once used as a dumping ground for PCBs, sits a modest, brick-faced ranch house without any visible means of support. The lights are on, but the grid is off.

The house, owned by a company named Plug Power headquartered around the corner, has the distinction of being the only residence in America powered by a virtually nonpolluting hydrogen fuel cell. In place of a glass-faced electric meter whose silently spinning dials are counting off the consumption of watts, the house generates current through the Plug Power 7000 -- a metal box about the size of a large copy machine.

Inside the house, a sign greets visitors: "Welcome to Plug Power's Residential Fuel Cell System Demonstration Home." Counters have neat displays of appliances, including a microwave, toaster, hair dryer, electric stove, clock radio, TV with VCR and a computer, all in an effort to show that the Plug Power 7000 can handle the draw.

The fuel cell could soon have a major impact, not only in how we power our homes, but our automobiles and appliances as well. If the research now proceeding feverishly in a dozen "skunk works" around the world is successful, the 100-year reign of fossil fuels could soon be over. Instead of relying on a limited resource that may well be running out, fuel cells run on hydrogen, the most available element in the universe, constituting 80 percent of all matter. If hydrogen is produced by renewable energy sources, like photovoltaics or geothermal power, it can be a perfect zero-emission loop, with very clean water the only byproduct. "It's like a dream, isn't it?" said one auto company fuel-cell expert, and he's right.

It won't happen overnight. Plug Power's hand-assembled fuel cell represents millions of dollars in investment capital, so it would take centuries to amortize its costs. But mass production would dramatically bring down the cost of fuel-cell power, to prices well below those of conventional systems. Gary Mittleman, Plug Power's CEO, thinks we'll soon be buying tiny fuel cells at Wal-Mart to power everything from laptop computers to watches.

A timely invention

Many environmentalists think that fuel cells, which are virtually emission-free, are coming along at exactly the right time. Their most important use may be as a replacement to the polluting internal-combustion engine. Today, we add 50 million cars to the planet's burden every year. By 2030, there could be 1 billion cars taking up space on the Earth -- an astounding figure that means, in effect, the auto industry will produce as many cars in the next 30 years as it did in its first century. Car making is now the largest manufacturing activity on earth. Motor vehicles use up half the world's oil and account for a quarter of its greenhouse gas emissions.

It matters -- a lot -- what comes out of the tailpipes of all those cars. California provides a dramatic illustration. Auto exhaust accounts for 90 percent of the state's carbon monoxide, 77 percent of its nitrous oxides and 55 percent of its reactive organic gases, according to the California Air Resources Board. On some days, ozone levels can be three times the federal limit. California's air is getting cleaner (there was only one Stage 1 smog alert in 1997), but the gains are incremental and largely the result of the country's most stringent air-quality regulations -- which, in some cases, had car makers building special pollution-controlled "California editions" of their cars. But even with that progress, Los Angeles still has the dirtiest air in the nation.

Fuel-cell cars running on hydrogen gas will be virtually pollution-free. When the cells are fueled with methanol or gasoline, they're dirtier (some production of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide remains), but still much cleaner than any internal-combustion engine could ever hope to be.

Could fuel cells be the driving engine of a hydrogen-based energy economy? Amory Lovins thinks so. The vice president of Colorado's innovative Rocky Mountain Institute and a veteran advocate of clean energy has some fascinating ideas about how the fuel cell could be integrated into our lives. While the complications of building mobile units means that fuel-cell cars are still some years off, Lovins thinks that the devices' use for stationary "distributed" power, supplying current to homes, apartment buildings and hospitals, is imminent.

"The space and weight don't much matter when the fuel cell is sitting in a basement or outside a building," Lovins says. "An additional benefit is that you can use the waste heat the fuel cell generates ... to provide building services like heating, cooling and dehumidification. It turns out that in most situations, the waste heat is worth enough as a commodity to pay for your natural gas line and a mass-produced reformer to turn it into hydrogen. And once you've done that, the effective net cost of delivering electricity to your building is on the order of a cent or two per kilowatt hour. Right now, commercial buildings pay an average of 6 cents. So I think the building market comes first, then you get the prices down and put fuel cells in cars."

Once the stationary fuel cell catches on, costs should drop quickly. "The building market is rather large," Lovins says. "Buildings use two-thirds of all the electricity in the U.S., so you could build very large fuel cell production volumes. Actually, both the building and vehicular fuel-cell markets are potentially so big that when either of them starts to happen, it makes the other one happen, too, by building volume and cutting costs. It could go either way."

Stationary and mobile fuel cells could have a symbiotic relationship that goes beyond cost, Lovins believes. "Once you put a fuel cell in an ultralight car, then you have a 20- to 25-kilowatt power station on wheels, which is driven about 4 percent of the time and parked 96 percent of the time. So why not lease those fuel-cell cars to people who work in buildings where you've already installed fuel cells?"

It would work like this: Commuters drive their cars to work, then plug them into the hydrogen line coming out of the reformer installed as part of the building's fuel cell. While they worked, their car would be producing electricity, which they could then sell back to the grid at a time of peak power demand. Your car, instead of simply occupying space, would become a profit center. "It does not take many people doing this to put the rest of the coal and nuclear plants out of business," says Lovins, who's been trying to do just that for decades. "The hypercar fleet will eventually have five to six times the generating capacity of the national grid."

Thinking about cars as power plants illustrates how fuel cells change all the rules. With conventional wisdom, auto industry insiders say building a hydrogen infrastructure in the U.S. will cost hundreds of billions of dollars, since there is a very limited hydrogen generating capacity now. Decentralizing production, by putting reformers in buildings and even in home garages in conjunction with local power generation, reduces that prohibitive cost. That said, larger reformers in small neighborhood facilities are the "gas stations" of tomorrow.

Can it happen?

It's easy to look at the recent history of the electric vehicle, or EV, and conclude that alternative-powered cars just aren't going to happen. The GM EV1, a state-of-the-art EV available for lease in California and Arizona since 1996, has been a failure, attracting only a few hundred customers. The Honda EV Plus has met a similar fate. What's the problem? Range. Neither car can travel more than 80 miles without needing a recharge, and public charging stations are still few and far between. There have been some battery innovations, but nothing that will give EVs the 300-mile range that consumers have come to expect.

The fuel-cell car promises more, and that's one reason its development is being undertaken not only by almost every auto manufacturer in the world, but also by Silicon Valley-type startups and by major industrial partners.

"I would not be surprised to see 10 percent of the cars on the road be some form of alternative fuel by 2010," says Bill Hahn, vice president of International Fuel Cells (IFC) in South Windsor, Conn. IFC, a branch of one of the nation's biggest defense contractors, United Technologies, had just announced that it would get into the automotive market with partner Toshiba; by entering the competition, with plans to deliver the first commercial units in 2000, IFC automatically becomes a front-runner. Its 50-kilowatt stack, which runs without an air compressor, has been tested by the U.S. Department of Energy and Ford and could well be in the car of tomorrow.

IFC's sister company, ONSI, makes stationary fuel cells and is probably the world leader in actually producing 200-kilowatt power plants. It sells them for $600,000 to companies and governments in search of stable electricity with no voltage drops. ONSI fuel cells are powering the neon signs for The Durst Building at 4 Times Square in New York, described as the world's most environmentally friendly office complex. And IFC has a working production line, where old-fashioned hand work combines with a robot arm and a silk screen machine to produce the 300 phosphoric acid cells used in ONSI's PC 25 stationary fuel cell power plants. There already are 200 of these units in use around the world, providing power that won't be disrupted by blackouts or bad weather.

United Technologies is one of the largest defense contractors in America. Its stock in trade is helicopters and engines for tanks and airplanes, as well as air conditioners and elevators. This is not what you would normally consider a "green" business, but it's deeply committed to fuel cells. An IFC fuel-cell bus is now picking up passengers on the Georgetown University campus in Washington.

When will it happen?

Back at Plug Power, CEO Mittleman thinks that fuel-cell cars could be in production by 2006, maybe earlier. "By 2020, I think that half the cars made will have fuel cells, but it may be 15 to 20 years after that before we've fully converted to hydrogen. Internal-combustion cars are very sophisticated: We understand them, we grew up with them. It's a slow process. Cell phones are still in a growth phase 15 years after they were introduced."

Futurist Peter Schwartz predicted "the death of the internal-combustion engine" in favor of fuel cells by 2020. "If pollution and global warming cause governments to take action, he may be right on the money," Mittleman says.

Mittleman thinks we'll see fuel-cell-driven distributed power much sooner. Of 100 million homes in the U.S., he said, 75 million have natural gas pipelines passing by, giving them a built-in stationary power infrastructure. Mittleman also wants to target countries such as India and China, which are bounding ahead in power demand without large national grids. Plug Power thinks it can make home fuel cells viable by 2000, at a cost of no more than $5,000 each.

Fuel cells are, indeed, like a dream, promising to deliver us from a near-fatal addiction to fossil fuels. But they're not a panacea. They certainly won't do much to reduce our dependence on personal transportation, and might even make it politically more difficult to fund new transit lines. There remain huge hurdles to be overcome before they can become an everyday part of our lives. Producing hydrogen in sufficient quantities to meet the demands of a mass market remains a big question mark. Since serious development work began in the early 1990s, fuel-cell development has mostly flown beneath the media's radar screens.

That may change very soon, as practical fuel cell power emerges and makes profound changes -- mostly for the better -- in the way we live.

Detroit's green dreams

General Motors' Advanced Technology Vehicles (ATV) division, which produces its fuel cell prototypes, is a little unsettled these days. GM Chairman Jack Smith is on record as predicting "a slow phase-off of the internal combustion engine," but the company is in such financial turmoil that Smith's commitment to the research may not last. Having spent $1 billion since 1990 on the EV1 electric vehicle and related products, ATV certainly wasn't a sideline for the company, but its hold on the attention of the world's largest industrial corporation was tenuous.

The ATV office is tucked away in an anonymous office building. But it was easy to tell I was in the right place: Not only was the parking lot full of GM vehicles, but a special corner, complete with electric charging stations, was reserved for EV1s, more than I'd ever seen together before.

I asked Robert Purcell, ATV's executive director, if, in fact, GM really would build the lightweight, fuel cell-powered "hypercar" championed by clean-energy advocate Amory Lovins, who says he's "100 percent certain" that we'll eventually have a hydrogen-based economy.

"I've worked with Lovins closely, but I'm not 100 percent certain the sun will come up," Purcell said. "If we look at the ideal scenario for personal transportation, hydrogen has a lot of advantages. But the problem is the hydrogen infrastructure. Hydrogen is difficult to handle; it is, for instance, flammable at just 4 percent concentrations. There are unique challenges. Over a 30- to 50-year horizon we'll quite possibly resolve those challenges."

In late 1997, Ford announced it would invest $420 million in a global alliance with Daimler-Benz and Canada's Ballard Power Systems. The deal put tiny Ballard, a pioneer in the development of fuel cell stacks, on the map, and the company got a vital infusion of capital. John Wallace, the spokesman for Ford's electric vehicle program, says, "Yes, Ford has fuel-cell prototypes right now, and we'll show them when they make good public-relations impact. But I'm not interested in nondrivable prototypes -- I need real road-ready vehicles. I don't work for the research department, I work for product development, so I don't get to rest until I deliver a car ready to go." And Ford wants to go into production itself, with a fuel cell family car based on its lightweight aluminum-and-composite P2000 that it will show as early as 2000.

Chrysler's Christopher Borroni-Bird, who has a Ph.D. from Cambridge, seems more like a young British academic than manager of technology strategy for a Big Three auto company. His office is tucked away in a small Chrysler warren miles from the company's central headquarters. When I arrived, a group of employees stood in the parking lot admiring a gaudy pollution-spewing dirt bike parked atop an extended-cab Dodge V-8 truck. The modest world of fuel cells seemed far away.

But Borroni-Bird is quick to assert that "the fuel cell has such profound advantages, it's worth pursuing aggressively. And we are pursuing it aggressively." There are three central automotive goals, he says: efficiency, range and emissions. "Diesel has the efficiency and range, but there are emissions problems. Batteries have the emissions and the efficiency, but not the range. The fuel cell promises to have extremely low emissions, with excellent range and efficiency. Hydrogen is an amazing substance. It's lighter than air. In its liquid form, you could throw it at people and it would evaporate before it hit them."

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