Top Stories from the Special Reports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Thursday, March 18, 1999

Can 160-Year-Old Invention Transform Motor Vehicles?

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - Over the last five years, the search for a clean, efficient alternative to the internal combustion engine has moved out of the scientific laboratory and toward commercial reality. Oddly, the technology most likely to revolutionize the family car is a 160-year-old electrochemical invention called a fuel cell.

''It has taken over a century to commercialize the technology simply because we're getting better all the time at things electrochemical,'' said Robert Rose, executive director of Fuel Cells 2000, a private nonprofit advocacy group in Washington. ''You might argue we're approaching the electrochemical age. It's almost like a choir out there now where CEOs of major automobile and oil companies are saying, 'The era when we burned fuel for energy is coming to an end.'''

A fuel cell is a portable electricity-generating power plant similar to a battery, but that does not require recharging. As long as it receives its fuel -- hydrogen -- it produces electricity through a process that does not require burning, and so produces no dirty emissions. In fact, the only emission is water.

It was partly a growing public concern for the environment that spurred this movement to do away with the modern city's greatest pollution scourge: the internal combustion engine. The more than 700 million global motor vehicle fleet emits hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, lead particles and is generally responsible for more than 90 percent of the carbon monoxide emissions in the world's cities. But it was when the government of California passed legislation in 1990 (and confirmed last year) that by 2003, 10 percent of new cars must be zero-emission vehicles, that big business suddenly took notice.

While many automobile companies already offer electric cars, they have a low range, low speed and acceleration and their heavy batteries take ages to recharge.

The fuel cell car which is an electric car with a generator on board instead of a battery seems to provide the answer, said Marcus Nurdin, managing director of World Fuel Cell Council, a Frankfurt-based association of fuel cell makers and users. ''But it was specifically the presentation by Daimler-Benz of the NECAR 2 in Berlin in 1996 that shook the automotive world,'' he said.

The NECAR 2 (New Electric Car) was a multipurpose vehicle with a fuel cell powered by pure hydrogen, and that did not sacrifice any passenger space. Daimler had already started shaking things up in 1994 with the NECAR 1. While other auto companies were testing fuel cells in laboratories, Daimler put a fuel cell in a van and drove it around for thousands of kilometers. (The drawback was that the cell took up the van's entire utility space.)

Daimler bought the cells from Ballard Power Systems Inc., a small Canadian company that in 1993 had powered a 20-passenger bus with a fuel cell. Ballard proved it could create sufficient power density to fit a fuel cell into a car.

But the race really began in the spring of 1997 when Daimler formed an alliance with Ballard -- later joined by Ford Motor Co. and Royal/Dutch Shell Group -- and announced a production of 40,000 fuel cell cars per year by 2004, and 100,000 by 2005. Their current investment is estimated at $725 million

''That changed the fuel cell debate from one about development to one about commercialization,'' Mr. Rose said.

Subsequently, nearly all the leading car manufacturers announced similar plans to produce, by 2003 to 2005, fuel cell cars as part of the world's 55 million new cars made annually. General Motors, Chrysler (which later merged with Daimler), Ford, Toyota, Nissan, Renault, Peugeot/Citroen, Volkswagen/Volvo, Mazda and Honda have all announced such plans.

This so-called revolutionary technology was created in 1839 by Sir William Grove, a Welsh judge and gentleman scientist. It never took off partly due to the success of the internal combustion engine, but also because it was not until the second half of the 20th century that scientists had learned how to better manipulate the necessary materials, such as platinum, and to create cheaper ones, such as Teflon.

A fuel cell essentially performs electrolysis in reverse, using two electrodes separated by an electrolyte. Hydrogen is presented to the anode and oxygen to the cathode. A catalyst at the anode separates the hydrogen into positively charged hydrogen ions and electrons. The ions migrate through the electrolyte from the anode to the cathode where they join up with oxygen from the air and the electrons to form water. The electrons, meanwhile, have gone out of the fuel cell and through an external circuit -- along a wire -- where they power the car's engine.

The first practical application of fuel cells was made in the 1960s during the Gemini space program, when they were used in favor of nuclear or solar power. They are still used in space not only for power, but also for making the astronauts' drinking water.

Commercial use was prohibited by the high cost of the materials until breakthroughs in cheaper platinum catalyst production in the early 1990s. Small companies like Ballard formed to find commercial applications. (The next edition of Fuel Cells 2000's directory, which comes out next month, will list over 700 such companies, more than double the number last year.)

''We're in this to build a business and not necessarily to win Nobel prizes,'' said Firoz Rasul, Ballard's president and chief executive. ''We're not interested in playing in a technology sandbox.''

But high cost is still one of the key issues. Most fuel cells are handmade and cost $500 to $5,000 per kilowatt (kW) of power, compared to $20 to $50 per kW for the internal combustion engine.

To reduce cost, Mr. Rasul said that Ballard is searching for ways to eliminate parts and find cheaper materials, without sacrificing performance. It must then develop the manufacturing process to make the cells ''in extremely high volumes to meet the cost target set out by the automotive industry,'' he said, which is between $50 and $60 per kW by 2004

According to Nicholas Abson, a former television science program producer who founded an Anglo-Belgian fuel cell company called Zevco in 1994, the key to reducing cost lies in choosing the right kind of fuel cell.


THE ONES used in the space program were not acid-based, like Ballard's, but alkaline. Zevco has put alkaline cells into London's black taxi cabs, creating a cab that costs only 2,500 ($4,000) more to buy (29,500 instead of 27,000), but with daily operating costs up to 50 percent lower. Mr. Abson said alkaline cells may be made more cheaply and in smaller numbers.

''Materials is the issue,'' Mr. Abson said. ''We use plastic, we don't use titanium. We use a liquid, we don't use an expensive membrane. We use cobalt and silver, we don't use platinum.''

Much research and development remains to be done, however. Ballard, in testing buses in Chicago, ran into cooling problems last summer (that it says are now resolved). Carbon dioxide turns an alkaline cell's electrolyte into acid, calling for a bulky onboard oxygen cleaner. And when gasoline is used as a fuel, it can poison a fuel cell, if not properly cleaned.

What fuel to extract the hydrogen from is the biggest problem. A generally favorable study on fuel cell cars by the State of California Air Resources Board completed in July concluded that pure hydrogen is not a feasible fuel for private automobiles now or in the foreseeable future.

The study says that methanol or gasoline are better, since they do not require bulky high-tech tanks, and may be distributed through the gas station network. But such fuels are used only for their hydrogen, and the onboard process of extracting it also creates toxic emissions -- though about 90 percent less than for the internal combustion engine.

''If you solve all the R&D issues and the cost,'' said Steven Chalk, who is responsible for fuel cell research at the U.S. Department of Energy, ''you still have to get the fuel out there.''

Most experts agree that the challenges offered by the race to create a fuel cell car will ultimately spur the development of the technology in other applications.

''If you get even close to succeeding in the car market,'' Mr. Rose said, ''you will be able to succeed spectacularly in other markets. If you can make a 100 kW generator that will fit under the hood of a car, you can also have a 100 kW generator that will be a spectacularly successful product for other markets.''

Fuel cells may eventually be used in such applications as laptop computers or cell telephones, or even to power an office building or home. As Mr. Nurdin pointed out, one's country cottage could eventually be powered by the fuel cell in the family car.

Both Mr. Rasul and Mr. Abson consider the fuel cell to be as revolutionary and transforming a technology as the microprocessor.

''I want to make $15 a kW fuel cells,'' Mr. Abson said. ''Because at that point you can go into a Masai village and say, 'Here's energy.' You can revolutionize the world. Energy is what separates the rich from the poor.''

BRAD SPURGEON is on the staff of the International Herald Tribune.

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