cool energy

Here's how a hydrogen-powered fuel cell system might be used on a car.

Why Files:

Fuel-cell invention

Battery-powered electric cars

All fueled up and nowhere to go
Electric cars. Everybody wants one -- as soon as somebody overcomes the limitations on battery weight, cost and driving range. But as batteries trudge forward on the route to acceptable performance, an alluring work-around is quickly becoming reality.

fuel cell diagram

Meet the fuel cell. With no moving parts and no combustion, it oxidizes fuel and makes electricity, which powers electric motors that drive the wheels. Granted, many fuel cells make some carbon dioxide (as do electric cars, since many generating stations burn fossil fuels). But fuel cells generally make less carbon dioxide -- and smaller amounts of other pollutants -- than internal combustion engines.

Curious how a fuel cell works? Click "About fuel cells".

Still, there's a problem: Where to get the fuel? While our infrastructure is built around gasoline, existing fuel cells prefer hydrogen, methane or propane -- fuels that are a bit hard to find at the average highway intersection.

Enter an invention by the Epyx division of Arthur D. Little, the consulting giant. Epyx has figured out a no-moving-parts technology for disassembling gasoline into hydrogen and carbon.

Best bet?
"We felt it was the best technology on the market for advancing fuel cells," says marketing director Robert Derby. Using a partial oxidation technology (which Derby would not describe), the fuel converter separates hydrogen from carbon, and feeds the hydrogen to an attached fuel cell. The carbon eventually becomes carbon dioxide. Although the gas is vented to the atmosphere, the technology should reduce global warming because it's two or three times as efficient as the internal combustion engine. That means less carbon dioxide should end up in the air.

The fuel converter is about the size of a large trash can, and, when bolted to a fuel cell, the package should be small enough to fit under the hood of a car. A prototype designed for a small car is about to be tested with fuel cells made by Plug Power and other fuel-cell development companies.

Daimler-Benz has developed this fuel-cell car using methanol as the fuel.
Courtesy of Daimler-Benz.
achtung baby The gasoline converter is another sign of how far fuel cells have come since they were pioneered in the space program. The federally funded Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, of which Little is a member, is promoting fuel cells for use in vehicles. And Ford and Daimler-Benz have announced a $400-million effort to develop a fuel-cell engine, which Ford wants to sell by 2004.

Some advantages
To consumers, the advantages of the Epyx technology could include less guilt (if anyone still worries about polluting the atmosphere) and more fuel efficiency. Says Derby, "Standard mileage now is 25 to 30. We're talking about 50 to 70 miles per gallon."

He says the converter can also change "on the fly" to decompose fuels like ethanol, which could someday be sold for low-emission vehicles. (Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, is a "closed-loop" fuel because the carbon dioxide emitted is then taken up by the plants that make the fuel.)

And with no moving parts (other than rotors in the electric motors) the new powerplants could be fiendishly cheap to maintain. Gone would be the fuel injectors, ignition system, cooling system, transmission, differential and other parts prone to breakdown. A lone spark plug is used to start the fuel converter, but with no oil to change and nothing to tune up, Derby says, "You probably wouldn't be servicing the vehicle for 100,000 miles."

Bored by small-scale fixes for global warming? Then you gotta love the idea of engineering the planet.

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