Fuel Cells Still Too Costly for Mass Market

By Donna Tapellini, Wired News

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania, September 27, 2000 (ENS) - Fuel cell technologies hold the promise of producing cleaner energy, but the big question is how soon they will be commercially viable for the mass market.

Fuel cell powered cars may have attracted more attention, but the first consumer product to use such energy will likely be much smaller than a sports utility vehicle.

"We're in the probable stage," said Peter Faguy, chair of the Fuel Cell 2000 conference happening here this week.

Faguy said many companies are focusing on creating small, portable fuel cell powered devices instead of replacing gasoline in cars. One example is camping and lantern company Coleman, which is working with Ballard Power Systems on a new product that will use fuel cell technology.

"Portable applications will be first," said Faguy, director of electrochemical materials for Microcoating Technologies. Warning lights on highways in New Jersey are already using fuel cells, he said.


Fuel cell powered laptop computers allow long term remote use. (Photo courtesy Ballard Power Systems)
"People are talking about powering laptops this way," Faguy added. After small devices, the next best application for fuel cells could be in providing energy for homes and other buildings.

"Public focus has been on cars, but the cost per kilowatt is a huge issue," Faguy said. "We have to lower the cost of just about every component."

Participants at the conference said cars present several problems for fuel cell energy. One issue is dealing with the water that gets produced in the process. This can be especially tricky for drivers in cold climates.

"We don't want to tell the fellow in Duluth to get a horse when it's 40 below," said Robert Beyerlein of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland.

In August, General Motors and ExxonMobil announced they had created a gasoline fuel processor for fuel cell vehicles. GM plans a demonstration using the technology within 18 months. The processor uses gasoline as a fuel to create a stream of hydrogen that powers a fuel cell.

Hydrogen fuel, which can be obtained from natural gas, methanol, or petroleum, electrochemically combines with oxygen in a fuel cell to produce electricity. Heat and pure water vapor are the only byproducts from the fuel cell's electrochemical reaction, making it environmentally friendly.

fuel cell

Technician at Ballard Power Systems tests a proton exchange membrane fuel cell stack. Ballard is developing its fuel cells for buses, cars, trucks and buildings. (Photo courtesy Ballard)
Fuel cells have been used industrially for some time, and can be found in space shuttles, for example. There are several different types of cells, from proton exchange membrane to alkaline, and scientists and industry executives at the conference hotly debated which type produces the most renewable energy and which might be the most commercially viable, if any.

Fuel cells would be commercially viable tomorrow, said Mark Williams, fuel cells product manager for the U.S. Department of Energy, if there were a cheaper, easier way to produce hydrogen.

"There's no infrastructure for it. So, do we develop huge plants to produce it, or use gasoline to reform it and make it?" he said.

Manufacturing costs need to be brought down significantly and there are many scientific problems that still need to be resolved.


Department of Energy bus powered by a fuel cell that combines hydrogen and oxygen to form electricity and water vapor. It uses a 50kW phosphoric acid fuel cell (PAFC) and battery pack for acceleration and hill climbing. (Photo courtesy National Renewable Energy Lab)
The silver bullet, Williams said, is some kind of small, inexpensive reformer to convert the hydrogen, something a lot of companies are trying to create.

Williams said fuel cells are a niche market right now, with a kilowatt of power costing between $3,000 to $4,000 to produce. In contrast, he said the average big power plant (using coal or natural gas) produces a kilowatt for about $1,000.

Williams predicted that fuel cells will be used to power commercial facilities such as hospitals, hotels and large computer centers by 2005. Residential homes will not see them until about 2010, with cars following by 2015, he said.

Researchers also argued about whether or not fuel cell technology can help create a society less dependent on fossil fuel.

"I'm not sure we can wean ourselves from fossil fuel," Williams said. "It's a pretty formidable challenge. I just don't see it happening."

Producing hydrogen from water takes energy, so for now fossil fuel is used in the production of most fuel cells, with the exception of companies like Energy Conversion Devices (ECD), which uses solar power. Stanford Ovshinsky, the president of ECD, said that right now "there's no utopian solution, but there is a lot that can be done."

Conference attendees pointed out that the big oil and auto companies are not interested in seeing fossil fuel go out of style. "Our fuel infrastructure is geared to make gasoline," Beyerlein said. "Octane is the name of the game."