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Automotive Fuel Cells

Automotive Fuel Cells

Automotive Fuel Cells

We all more than likely at least think that fuel cells in automobiles are going to happen. The question is how soon do you actually feel it's going to happen.

The news releases are beginning to say 2002-2004 - but I don't believe it will happen that quickly.

What do you think?

RE: Automotive Fuel Cells

Fuel cells have several issues holding them back.  However, with the potential benefits (very good efficiency, NO harmful exhaust emissions) and the money that is being poured into R&D, it will happen, at least in small volumes.  Prototype fuel cell vehicles already exist!  Mass production in significant volumes is at least 10 years out in my opinion, if the technical and other issues are solved.

Some of the issues:
1) Fuel cells require hydrogen fuel to operate efficiently and without costly fuel reformers.  If you can't run on hydrogen, you need to reform another fuel to make hydrogen.  The OEM's are divided, some want to reform gasoline, others want to reform methanol.  I think gasoline is the only choice because of the existing infrastructure, public knowledge, etc.  However, reformers are expensive, complex, inefficient and not easily sized for automotive use.  In addition, they also need "pure" gasoline.  The sulfur levels in gasoline at the pumps today will destroy a reformer quickly.  So even this option needs new, purer, costly fuel.  The IC community has been asking for better fuels for years for emissions reasons.  It always ends in the fact that price will go up significantly, so it does not happen.  The money is spent in other more efficient ways to reduce emissions.

2) If you decide to use hydrogen, and not reform another fuel, the issue for fuel cells (and hydrogen fueled vehicles in general) will be the cost, complexity, infrastructure, driving range, and safety issues with storing a gaseous / highly flammable fuel.  These are the same reasons why natural gas vehicles are on the way out after more than a decade of development!  These sound like simple issues, but they are extreamely significant.

3) Nusance issues like starting time (it takes minutes after the ignition key is turned before you can drive), cold start performance (takes tens of minutes), transient response (of the fuel cell and reformer), etc.  A fuel cell car will have many small differences from an IC car.  That all plays into the consumer side, who wants a car with these problems when I can buy an IC car.

4) Cost is a big issue, as is the durability and life-cycle of the fuel cells themselves.  

You can also burn hydrogen fuel in an IC engine and likely increase the fuel conversion efficiency over gasoline.  The only emissions issue is Nox.  However, there are ways around that with egr and catalyst technology, which is already developed.  Plus you keep the benefits of an IC engine over a fuel cell, such as improved starting times, transient response, etc.

I don't deny my bias, I am an avid fan of combustion and the IC engine.  Long live the IC engine!

SAE (www.SAE.org) is a very good source on this subject.

RE: Automotive Fuel Cells

In 1964 the "nay sayers" fortold the doom of the IC engine by 2000 because there would be no possible way to clean up the exhaust gases and achieve the mileage requirements mandated by big brother.
Oh well, I guess my wife will have to give up her 2001 Lincoln LS that gets 25 or better miles to the gallon of fuel for a hovercraft or spaceship!!!(Does anybody remember all the Mechanix Illustrated articles of the 50's beside me?)


RE: Automotive Fuel Cells

How many people ride horses to work anymore?   ....but we still have all kinds of horse racing, horse jumping, horse shows, etc, etc, so when Rod's zipping around in his spaceship, I suspect I'll still be shining the chrome on my VWs for a Sunday drive!  When (if) fossil fuels run out, I might have to do it with ethanol, but it'll still be IC.

Steven K. Madoski
Mechanical Engineer
Ocean Systems Division
NFESC, Code ESC 52
Port Hueneme, CA

RE: Automotive Fuel Cells

Me too, Steve---But it is my Model A Ford or my Mini Cooper that I zoom around these days.
I am sure the IC engine will be around for regular transportation uses for as long a time as I have left, but you are right---the automobile will be around in venues much like horses are today for a long, long time.  
As a child in the 40's I dreamed of going into space , etc. and to some extent I have, vicariously.  This IS a wonderful time to be alive, don't you think?

You have another fine Southern California day.


RE: Automotive Fuel Cells

hybred vehicles such as the Prius may be the near-term answer to mileage + performance.

A hybred car using fuel cell rather than IC engine might work out. I thought some cells are in development using alcohol directly?

(I too like the IC engine a lot!)

RE: Automotive Fuel Cells

Two items here of interest:
1)  The fuel cell vehicle
2)  Advanced engineering with the IC engine.

One promising fuel for a fuel cell vehicle is Propane.  It has a well developed infrastructure, the fuel storage issue is proven and on board quantities are very sufficient.  New fuel tank designs (conformable composite) promise almost a transparent installation.  As with other hydrocarbon fuels, a reformer is needed, but a compressor is not (under most conditions) as propane provides its own fuel pressure.  There is more than one major fuel cell R&D company looking at propane, especially since it has no of the fuel toxicity issues as gasoline or methanol.

Advanced engine development, especially with propane, are showing some incredible things.  Liquid injection, where liquid propane is injected just prior to the intake valve increases cylinder air mass due to the evaporative effective of the propane, and can produce power equal to or exceeding gasoline, and reduced emissions too.  Direct in-cylinder injection sans throttle is the next step, and I am connected to a research team with this neat concept.

My best guess for a viable fuel cell vehicle, where I can go to the local dealer and drive one out is around 2015.  The hybird will rule until then, but the IC engine will be around until long after this generation of engineers are gone.

Evelrod, love the mini and the "T", but for kicks, I toodle around in my 62 Studebaker GT Hawk R-1.  Great performance, pretty good fuel mileage (20+), and surprisingly good emissions.


RE: Automotive Fuel Cells

Franzh, what is a 'conformable composite' fuel tank?

RE: Automotive Fuel Cells

Interesting comments on Fuel Cells. However there is a new rotary engine being developed which could have great promise, keeping IC Technology alive at much greater efficiencies.
This type of development will effectively kill off fuel cells, provided it works of course. The increased efficiency will reduce CO2 emmissions substantially.
See www.numerics.co.uk.
See also article in IEE Review, July, 2001.

RE: Automotive Fuel Cells

My apologies for not responding to WGJ's inquiry about conformable tanks.  Lost the thread.

Conventional LPG tanks are ASME or DOT certified (in the US) or other regional approval agencies world-wide.  These tanks are cylindrical for obvious reasons.  New technologies allow for torodial tanks that fit in the same space as the spare tire and can hold about 8 gallons of LPG.  The wish is for a fuel tank that is structurally sound, and can be conformed during construction to fit under the floorpan of a vehicle, or in a location where a cylinder is simply too cumbersome.  Pancake or similar designs are currently in R&D.  Modern composites allow for previously unheard of designs and shapes.

In the US, Thiokol is the main drive behind conformable tanks, and in Canada, Sleeger seems to be taking the lead.


Franz, MASE

RE: Automotive Fuel Cells


There is a public relations issue here, as well. If alternative fuels (cells, natural gas, hybrid gas/electric, whatever) could be made fashionable (Howard Stern drives a Honda Prius!) and IC made unfashionable (Britney Spears does not like gasoline engines), you would see it happen! Never mind cost, effiency, or anything else. If famous people say it's good, it will be good.

If you really want alternative fuel to take off, talk to Ted Turner, not Bob Lutz.

RE: Automotive Fuel Cells

re Howard Stern: Toyota Prius?

RE: Automotive Fuel Cells

Howard Stern, huh??  One more reason to stay away from them...

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