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What happened to the hype?

What happened to the hype?

What happened to the hype?

It seems like over the last few years that there was all kinds of hype about fuel cells being the power source of the future, and how we were all going to be using them any day now.

Lately the hype seems to have dissipated somewhat.  Could it be that all the reporters and architects have gotten on board with the engineers and discovered that
1) there's no ready source of pure hydrogen,
2) creating hydrogen from some other source kills the efficiency of fuel cells,
3) creating hydrogen from some other source kills the zero-emissions claims, and
4) hydrogen tanks also go by the name "bomb"?

Don't get me wrong, I'd love to see fuel cells put into wide-scale use due to overwhelming environmental and economic justification.  But I don't think we'll see it soon, if ever.

Any thoughts, experiences, etc., would be most welcome.

RE: What happened to the hype?

Interesting.  I'm still not quite sold, but hopefully I'll be proven wrong.  A peek at their stock chart certainly dampened my spirits.  At least the managment stopped selling off their stock this spring and started buying a little of it back in June.

After using FuelCell Engergy's site as a starting point for some Google searches, I came across an interesting concept, for regenerative fuel cells, whereby the water/oxygen/hydrogen is contained in a closed system.  Solar is used to split the water, the fuel cell puts it back together.  This would seem to be a viable system in the future, but still appears to be a long way off.

RE: What happened to the hype?

There's a nice page A1 article in the Wall Street Journal today indicating that California dropped its original requirement for 20,000 alt-fuels cars per year down to 10,000 this January, and now this week they floated a proposal to reduce it to 250.  This apparently has something to do with the estimated cost of $1,000,000 per car.  Also due to the problems previously experienced with attempted conversions to diesel and natural gas, both of which seemed very promising not not that many years ago.  Not to mention the explosive nature of hydrogen.  Or the problems involved with generating it.  Or distributing it.

DaimlerChrysler was quoted in the last paragraph of the same article as saying technologies such as fuel cells "have no hope, in the near term, of reaching high volume or of making a significant impact" on the average fuel economy of the US auto fleet.

RE: What happened to the hype?

re: Solar is used to split the water, the fuel cell puts it back together.  This would seem to be a viable system in the future, but still appears to be a long way off.

Question: I'm having a problem trying to understand the value of this concept.  Is the hydrogen created through electrolysis of water (i.e., using solar-cells)?  If so, you'd be taking electrical energy and then degrading it to create hydrogen.  Even if the fuel cell is 75% efficient, you'd get back less energy than available from the solar cell -- and at a significant cost.  

Even if the electricity is ultimately going to be used for a moble source (automobile transportation), wouldn't it be better to charge batteries and use the stored electricity?


RE: What happened to the hype?

You get back less energy from batteries than you put into them.  Same efficiency problem.  Or rather, a worse problem, as batteries tend to lose their charge over time.  Theoretically, if the hydrogen and oxygen are well sealed from each other in a regenerative fuel cell, the charge would not drop over time.  Don't forget that fuel cells are almost the same thing as batteries.  

And batteries have the added problem that every 5 years or so, you have a bunch of corroded lead and yucky acid that you have to dump somewhere.  Kind of kills the green image of solar power.  I'm under the impression that the pure hydrogen and oxygen used in a regenerative cell would mean that the catalyst would last almost indefinitely (I could be wrong).

RE: What happened to the hype?

I'd like to keep this dialogue about the comparison between fuel cells and batteries going for awhile -- an interesting topic.  

Battery/Fuel Cell Life.  I agree that 5 year battery life is about right -- espeically for automotive applications where there is more abuse than in stationary battery applications.  However, I would be be surprised if fuel cells have an indefinite life; there must be contamination issues and eventual fuel cell degregation issues.  Does anyone have any information on this?  

Loss of Charge.  1.) True, batteries do lose their charge over time -- but for most automotive applications, the loss is slow enough that it isn't a significant factor.  You're still getting 85% or more of the energy out of the battery compared to what you put into it.  Whereas, I believe automotive fuel cell efficiencies aren't much greater than 50%. 2.) If the hydrogen is stored as a liquid, you're going to end up with losses as it boils away.  I read somewhere about someone that has a test vehicle that complained about this particular issue.  I don't believe this is an issue if the hydrogen is stored as a gas in a pressure tank, but then you have a very limited vehicle range.  

Environmental issues.  You mentioned the problem with what to do with the battery acid after the end of its life.  Can't you clean and recycle the acid?  

On balance, I'm still left with the impression that it would make more sense to move toward batteries.  

Let me throw out another thought starter.  If hydrogen does make sense, is there an advantage to using fuel cells versus simply using the hydrogen in an IC engine?  I suppose fuel cells are more efficient, but IC engines are certainly cheaper -- and the infrastruture exists.  Enviornmentally, I'm sure fuel cells are somewhat cleaner, but if you use a catalyst for NOx, and IC engine on hydrogen must be VERY clean.  

RE: What happened to the hype?

Keep in mind that the regenerative fuel cells I mentioned above are, I believe, primarily intended for stationary use.

I agree with you on the IC vs. fuel cell issue, I think the fuel cell advantages are overblown.  I think Pres. Bush has no idea what he's talking about, but he's managed to sell the concept to the masses, which also have no idea what he's talking about.  IC engines have a power/weight ratio that's hard to beat by most other technologies, although if a steady speed can be maintained, such as in an electric car, then turbines might hav an advantage (are turbines also considered IC?).  Either way, I think you're right, IC could probably be made almost as clean as fuel cells.  Too bad nobody goes around touting how IC engines exhaust nothing but water when they're run on pure hydrogen, and that you can power them off NG if you want to with no fuel conversion up front.

I suspect the widespread use of fuel cells is a long way off, if it ever happens.

RE: What happened to the hype?

Automotive Fuel Cells vs. IC Engines.  I have a friend at Ford that has been working on their hydrogen-power IC engine project.  Apparently they have concluded that the economics will favor IC engines, if we move toward a hydrogen economy -- although it could simply be their way of covering all bases.  I suspect they aren't alone.   

Hydrogen production.  The DOE has launched an interesting project to produce hydrogen from the gasification of coal -- and then sequester the CO2 that results from the process.  If successful, would result in an almost zero emission source.  From what I've seen, however, the economics is going to be 'way over the top'.  There was an interesting article (Wall Street Journal, I believe) this last week that compared this approach to the Europeans, that are pushing renewable technology for the production of hydrogen.  (The economics will also be 'way over the top'.)  

Many years ago the Canadians formed something called the Hydrogen Institute.  The concept was that you'd use nuclear electricity (remember the "too cheap to meter" stuff?) to produce hydrogen, and then use the hydrogen to power the economy.  Lets carry this one step further -- hydrogen fusion.  If we could ever get this to work, we could really create a true hydrogen economy.

RE: What happened to the hype?

So we'd fuse hydrogen to generate power to split water to create hydrogen?  Cool!

(just kidding)  :)

RE: What happened to the hype?

re: So we'd fuse hydrogen to generate power to split water to create hydrogen?  Cool!

You can carry it one step further -- hydrogen fusion to generate power to split water to create hydrogen to create power.  

I'm hoping that I live to see the day!  If only we could create the vision as a country to move in this direction ...

RE: What happened to the hype?

Hydrogen fusion for power is nowhere close to prime time.
In fact, I don't think there is continuous-run fusion generator in existance yet.
Re: solar to split Hydrogen- depends on what efficiency you can get in the split process. Maybe you can get a good enough efficiency in breaking the water apart, then making electricity with the Hydrogen created? I think that solar-electric (thermal steam) plants don't have the same efficiency as a good conventional steam plant. Solar P-V efficiency is even worse.
For cars and trucks, the IC engine will be king for quite a while yet, maybe with various hybreds increasing a lot.

Jay Maechtlen

RE: What happened to the hype?


Yeah -- I was just making a joke regarding hydrogen fusion.  Unfortunate, at best, that we haven't found a way to develop fusion technology.  Remember the hype a few years ago about cold fusion?  I think that, in part, might have been somewhat responsible for getting the nation off track on its quest for the holy grail.  


RE: What happened to the hype?

I think the "Hydrogen Economy" is a lot further into the future than most will allow themselves to believe.  The cost of producing hydrogen for filling stations such as the one in Richmond, CA is not commercially viable.  

Natural Gas is the most practical fuel source available RIGHT NOW.

RE: What happened to the hype?

ý think the most economic way will be the usage of some sources of wastewaters (esp. pharmaceutical ones) as a fuel source in PEMs. But it is important to select the most appropriate media for the most apropriate bacteria under suitable pressure and temperature conditions. Microbial fuel cells will solve the energy problem in future. Is there anybody having idea on specific composites instead of rushion rings that is readily used in bacteria media. I readily gained %90 hydrogen outcome by Upflow anaerobic filter system from pharmaceutical wastes.Need genius minds on composite or ceramic materials.

RE: What happened to the hype?

There are larger issues involved here. Its not just the cost to produec/convert energy, its also the cost of TRANSPORT. Theoretically, the hydrogen fuel cell's low fuel to weight ratio offers a savings in itself (not having to lug around tons of fuel). Hydrogen packs a relatively large energy wallop when compared to conventional hydrocarbons. Centralizing production of the hydrogen (or hydrogen products, ie hydrides, etc) also offers a way to more efficiently manage the emissions issues. Finally, the fuel cell lends itself to a purely electric vehicle; the energy captured from regenerative braking alone would result in significant savings. Lastly, the hope here is that reformer technology will emerge that will allow the use of presently available fuels. (or even presently underutilized biomass compounds) If done right, it would offer a massive solution to the vehicle emissions problem we presently face. Bottom Line: Fuel cell is a way to "burn" hyrdogen or hydrocarbon fuel without pollution while carrying around (in the case of vehicles) a lighter "engine package". Fuel cells also produce approx 30% waste heat, opening up potential applications for residential heating (and absorption cooling).  The real key lies in as yet undeveloped reformer technology. Many other technology solutions have been solved in the past by technological discontinuities.

RE: What happened to the hype?

PS Is anyone out there aware of any macroeconomic analysis that has been applied to fuel cell use and proliferation?

RE: What happened to the hype?

Just curious BigRed2 - how does one 'capture' the energy from regenerative braking into a fuel cell?  Are you suggesting that within the vehicle there is a means of electrolysing water to oxygen and hydrogen to then be used by the fuel cell - or that there is some kind of battery in addition to the fuel cell?

With regard to the efficiency of vehicles on a macro scale, the manufacturing overhead of the vehicle also has to be taken into account.  Certainly if wood were used in vehicle construction rather than metal it could be completely renewable.  The problem would then be the hydrogen tanks.  I think it unlikey that the pressurised containers for hydrogen can be produced without a high energy overhead.

Another question might be, why couldn't fuel cells be run off something that is easier to contain than hydrogen?  I guess that with the aim of a pure hydrogen economy that wouldn't be seen as a way forwards, but if we have to grow lots of trees to make our non-metal cars, we would then have a means of cleaning up the CO2 produced.

Alternatively, we could perhaps use a high efficiency energy source that runs purely on grass to drive our wooden vehicle - namely attach a horse to our cart!   

RE: What happened to the hype?

           Regenerative braking usally refers to using the motor drives at the wheel in reverse. That is lots of motors can be used as generators  when the connections are reverse. this is  the technique that is is used when braking a motor. Usally a hi power resistor is used to absorb the braking energy, but it can be used to charge the batteries. BTW what ever happened to the rotating mass idea that was pioneered by NASA in the sixties. They had developed a system where  a very heavy balanced mass was sitting in a Vacuum chamber (no Energy loss due to Air Drag) sitting on a magneticlly levitated bearings (also no loss due to friction). Inside the chamber connected to the Mass was multipole motor that could either be fed energy to run the mass up to a very high RPM or could be rewired to use the energy stored in the rotating mass to become a generator. I know they had problems with the mass fly apart at high RPMs but they were working with Kevlar and other high tech materials of the day to overcome this problem. I know that these Bearings are in use today because they use them in Vacuum molectular turbo pumps (lighter masses) use in various industries todays.
          Just some thoughts             -elf

RE: What happened to the hype?

elf -- flywheels are in fairly common usage in UPS systems, although they have not been widely accepted.  I can't speak to their suitability for usage in transportation, but I suspect that they are still too lossy.  The whole frictionless bearing idea might not work out too well while driving down a bumpy road, either.

RE: What happened to the hype?

Getting back to the fuel cell conversation, does hydrogen stored at high pressure (in a car for example) require it also be kept a very low temperature?  

RE: What happened to the hype?

Here are two links which you may find interesting.
http://members.rogers.com/fcurry2000/hydrogen.pdf shows the economics of various currently feasible routes to hydrogen as an automotive fuel.
http://members.rogers.com/fhcurry/Paths.pdf shows some "blue sky" approaches to solving the world's energy problems while controlling global temperature. Thanks to the Pembina Institute and Science for making these available on a limited basis.

HAZOP at www.curryhydrocarbons.ca

RE: What happened to the hype?

You might also want to check out the site on ZECA for details on the process of making hydrogen from coal to run fuel cells to make power to make hydrogen to run cars. http://www.zeca.org/overview_docs.html . The process appears to require the development of rugged fuel cells feeding dirty hydrogen to make the power. This could be a tougher job than making the cells for the cars. However it is a start on one route to the hydrogen economy. However it does appear to be decades away at best.

HAZOP at www.curryhydrocarbons.ca

RE: What happened to the hype?

My personal view on this issue, to "fuel" the debate:  

A fuelcell vehicle will need to be a "hybrid" already, needing batteries/ultracapacitors and inverters to flatten the demand profile and make the required fuelcell stack smaller, cheaper and more efficient.  You're now comparing a fuelcell to an IC engine plus alternator.  So one must compare a fuelcell-driven hybrid to an IC-driven hybrid to make a fair comparison.  Many of the comparisions out there use the conventional IC car as the comparison target, which is hardly fair- the hybrid can use a smaller, lighter and lower-emissions engine.

If renewable-source hydrogen is used as a fuel for both, the fuelcell may win on a pure energy-efficiency basis, even if the energy to compress the hydrogen and store it are considered- but I don't know for sure.

If the production of the fuelcell from its raw materials is taken into account, it might be a little less clear.  Platinum ores are < 1ppm platinum, and refining such ores is an energy-intensive, waste-generating and lossy process.  Though it would be possible to recover platinum from scrap fuelcells, we have a terrible record of doing so from automotive catalytic converters, so it seems doubtful we'll do tremendously better with fuelcells.  Scarier still, by one estimate I've heard, it would take the entire known economically-viable platinum reserves on earth to replace 1/3 of the existing IC engines with PEM fuelcells.  Though platinum loading requirements can be reduced, this makes the cell more vulnerable to contamination.  Unless they can find a way to use a more abundant metal, I doubt we'll see the IC engine go by the wayside any time soon for transportation applications for this reason alone.

If fossil-source fuels are used to directly drive the IC engine and to make hydrogen for the fuelcell, it seems to me that the IC engine hybrid wins over the fuelcell hybrid on both "well to wheels" energy efficency and cost.  The lossy processes of fuel reforming and hydrogen storage put the fuelcell at a severe disadvantage, even with its higher unit efficiency of converting hydrogen to electricity.  

It appears that most of the fuelcell manufacturers/developers are focusing their efforts on easier, stationary power applications these days, whereas their investors are betting on the future transporation uses.

RE: What happened to the hype?

tyr - I dont't think that hydrogen needs to be cold to be stored in fuel cell driven cars. I saw a design recently for a 2000 to 4000 psig "flat" or conformable tank intended for such a vehicle. The design was made by Morton Thiokol under contract for the US Government.

HAZOP at www.curryhydrocarbons.ca

RE: What happened to the hype?

There is a great 'thread' running on hydrogen as an energy source at:

I'll repeat the article by Mark Sardella that prompted numerous replies:

The Hydrogen Hallucination - The 'Freedom Fuel' Leaves Us in Chains
Mark Sardella, PE, Executive Director, Local Energy

It’s being called the 'freedom fuel', capable of releasing us at last from the grip of the oil barons. The 'hydrogen economy' is even the buzz of the bestseller list. But don't break out the party balloons yet, because hydrogen hasn't even the slightest chance of solving our energy problems. A bold assertion, perhaps, but the proof is contained in the simplest of facts: Hydrogen is not a source of energy.

It is true that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but here on Earth all of the hydrogen is combined with other elements. The best example has two hydrogen atoms bonded to an oxygen atom, forming the familiar H2O water molecule. Four hydrogen atoms bonded to a carbon atom makes methane, which we know as 'natural gas'. But if what you need is pure hydrogen - the stuff fuel cells run on - you have to manufacture it. Doing so requires tearing hydrogen loose from whatever it's bonded to, which requires an input of energy. The energy you invest in breaking the bonds is essentially "stored" in the hydrogen, and you can get it back by allowing the hydrogen to bond to something again, as a fuel-cell does. So hydrogen is simply a storage medium - you have to put energy in before you get any back. It could thus be considered a carrier of energy, by it is by no means a source of energy.

This notion of hydrogen as a storage device is vastly different from petroleum, which is clearly a source of energy. As with hydrogen, petroleum requires an energy investment before it is a usable fuel. You have to drill for it, then pump, transport, refine, and transport it again before it can be used as an automobile fuel. But in the case of petroleum, the fuel you end up with contains about five times the energy needed to produce it. That's why it’s called a source of energy - the energy returned is greater than the energy invested.

The distinction between energy sources and carriers is significant because the decline of our major sources of energy has reached a critical point. The production of petroleum, our most important energy source and the provider of about 40 percent of the world's energy, is now falling in more than 50 countries. The falling production in these regions must be offset by increased production somewhere else, but as more and more regions head into decline, fewer and fewer places remain to pick up the slack. Significant increases in oil production require large oil reserves, but at this point, the Middle East is the only place that still possesses a reserve large enough to allow production increases on the scale needed to offset the collective decline of all other countries. Rates of decline, meanwhile, are accelerating, and within the decade even the Middle East will be unable to bridge the gap. At that point oil production will peak, and from there it can only begin an irrevocable decline. Efforts by the petroleum geology community to nail down the exact date of peak are interesting academically, but the real trouble begins with the loss of oil stability, which is already happening. Price stability requires that excess production capacity be available, but excess capacity is down to around two percent of the market volume - far less than is needed. And with every developed nation's economic future reliant on Middle Eastern oil, geopolitical stability hangs in a delicate and unsustainable balance.

If world oil depletion isn't distressing enough, the heating fuel crisis in the US poses an imminent economic threat. Natural-gas production from existing US wells now falls at an alarming 29 percent per year - a rate too steep to overcome even with 892 drill rigs working full-time to bring new gas wells on line. The inability to increase production apace with demand is already destabilizing gas markets, as evidenced by the current price hikes and storage deficits. At winter's end, the US had just nine days of gas remaining in storage overall, and the northeast region dipped to just three days of reserve. Propane and heating-oil also finished the winter at near-record lows, and even the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration - a group well known for emotionless reporting of dire news - termed the situation "precarious." In its characteristic matter-of-fact style, the EIA writes in its April 16, 2003 weekly report, "The prospect of rebuilding propane inventories to prior year levels appears to be in jeopardy." The EIA goes on to discuss the possibility of supply disruptions as if they were normal occurrences as opposed to early warnings of a structural failure of the industry.

If three different heating fuels all run short next winter, what market dynamics are likely to ensue? When oil and gas prices skyrocket, what's the alternative?

Hydrogen? I think not. You might as well suggest we heat our homes and power our cars with batteries and flywheels. We’ll need energy sources, not carriers.

Some enthusiasts acknowledge that hydrogen is not a source, but that coupled with renewable sources, it's the perfect fuel. Unfortunately, that's just not the case. Hydrogen's low energy density makes it exceedingly inefficient to transport. To illustrate this, consider that a 40-ton tanker truck loaded with gasoline contains nearly 20 times the energy of a 40-ton truck loaded with compressed hydrogen. If both trucks deliver fuel to a filling station 800 miles away, the gasoline truck consumes about three percent of the energy in its payload to make the roundtrip. But the hydrogen truck traveling the same route would consume all of the energy in its payload. Put another way, if you tried to run the hydrogen delivery truck on hydrogen, it would consume its entire payload making the trip, and have no fuel to deliver.1

If it's not a source and it's a lousy carrier, why does hydrogen get so much attention? Are the 985 U.S. organizations that are listed as fuel cell developers, researchers, distributors, consultants, suppliers, associations, government agencies, and laboratories really on to something, or are they simply riding a tidal wave of government hype and subsidies? Are the coal and nuclear industries pushing hydrogen in hopes that they will get to provide the necessary energy to produce it? Once again the answers may be academic. It doesn't matter why we are fixated on an energy carrier while charging headlong into a source crisis. We must simply acknowledge the oversight and move on.

Imagining that the simplest element in the universe held the key to solving our energy problems was exciting, but now it's time to awaken from our hydrogen hallucination and devote attention to the real solutions of improved efficiencies and sustainable sources.

1 Final Report: "The Future of the Hydrogen Economy: Bright or Bleak?" Ulf Bossel, Baldur Elaisson, and Gordon Taylor, April 15, 2003. http://www.efcf.com/reports/

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