The Future of Fuel Cells and the Hydrogen Powered Car

In less than 20 years from now, driven by the oil crisis and global warming, hydrogen could become an almost regular energy source in our daily lives, potentially being used to power anything from mobile phones to heating buildings and all the way through to our daily transport.

More than 125 years ago, Jules Verne wrote in his book, The Mysterious  Island, (first published in 1874) that one day water would be used as fuel.  He wrote  of how his character, Cyrus Smith, believed that "water will one day be used as fuel, that the hydrogen and oxygen of which it is constituted will be used, simultaneously or in isolation, to furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light, more powerful than coal can ever be."  Today the "Water Engine" is no longer just a writer's dream. Thanks to hydrogen, which can be produced starting from the water and which, by burning in the air, itself produces water, fiction is about to become reality. Hydrogen is now at one of the centerpoints of international research on sustainable fuels.

Why is there so much expectation about Hydrogen Power?

Dominated by the fossil fuels of oil, gas and coal, our current energy system creates a double threat to our environment: it exposes the planet to the exhaustion of its natural reserves and contributes to the greenhouse effect. If we want a sustainable development for the future generations, it wiil be vital to diversify our methods of producing energy. Admittedly, hydrogen is not a simple energy source: it must itself be produced initially. But, according to the Atomic Energy Commission, it has a double advantage: it is both inexhaustible and non-polluting. It should therefore play, in the future, a very important role.

"It is hoped that these technologies will pass over into the real world in 10 to 20 years," says Philip Mazabraud, responsible for the polymeric and composite laboratories for the storage of hydrogen in the center of the Commission to Atomic Energy (CEA) of  Ripault, near Tours, in the centre of France.

Experts estimate that within the next two or three years mobile phones will begin to be equipped with fuel cells, electricity produced thanks to hydrogen will be used to heat buildings, and fleets of cars will regularly begin to be introduced to the automotive market running on this source of energy.

"In Europe, and even on a worldwide scale, France, is present and has results to propose", affirmed the head of the CEA hydrogen technologies program Pierre Serre Combe, during a visit press in Ripault, specializing in the design and development of materials linked to hydrogen as a source of energy. Research on hydrogen as a future energy source is also largely advanced in countries like Japan, Germany and the United States of  America. General Motors predicts the production of competitive, powerful and non-polluting vehicles powered by fuel cells by 2010 to 2012.

Remembering the fact that the materials used are one the most impotant factors in the production of fuel cells, he noted progress made in recent years by the French Atomic Energy Authority (CEA) in their design.  In seven years, both weight and cost of the special plates used in fuel cells has decreased by 90%.  Furthermoe, the French Atomic Energy authority aims to half again in the next 3 or 4 years the quantity of platinum used in their composition.  As well as the ecological benefits of this, it will reduce costs even more, due to the fact that platinum is a very expensive element.  It is foreseen that the hydrogen fuel cell reservoirs, formerly metal, but now usually plastic, will quintuple their pressure resistance and have an improvement in their filling cyles by a factor of 10 in the next six to seven years.  In Ripault the French Atomic Energy Authority participates in the AlHyance Innovation "pole of excellence", which makes it possible to immediately validate the products of research by joining together laboratories and industrial companies interested in these materials.

As part of these programmes, a school of Saint-Pierre - des-Corps will be utilizing the first French demonstration of cogeneration - a generator providing 5 kilowatts of electricity and heat.  Already generators are working in France which are assisted by power produced by these fuel cells.

The Example of the Hydrogen Fuel Cell Battery

A project by automobile manufacturer PSA Peugeot Citroen has helped develop a fuel cell compatible with the very demanding technical constraints of cars.  The PSA group has built a demonstration model on the basis of an electric Peugeot Partner van. The result, a kind of “21st Centurty London Taxi”, keeps its origninal electric motor (rated at 22 kW output) and is appended with a small sized  fuel cell with a 5.5kW power output, Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries as well as a removable rack consisting of bottles of of hydrogen.

Peugeot Hydrogen Powered Car

The Peugeot Partner Hydrogen Powered Car

The hydrogen is stored onboard in the form of gas compressed at 300 to 350 bars of pressure. Replacing an empty rack with a full rack is done very quickly. Filling the bottles of hydrogen is therefore accomplished out of the vehicle and without any major time constraints.

Another demonstratiom model created by PSA Peugeot Citroen is a batterty powered electric vehicle known as the H2O.  This vehicle, modeled as a fire engine, offers a new use of the hydrogen fuel cell. In this case, hydrogen is produced on board starting from an aqueous solution of borohydrure of sodium and a catalyst. Thus, there is never more than 2.5 grams of hydrogen on board, that is the energy equivalent of a glass of petrol, something which could increase safety. The fuel cell generates 5.5kW of energy.

H2O, is a significant innovation compared to the traditional vehicles, preserving the whole of its functionalities in anaerobic medium (without oxygen), such as for example during a fire in a tunnel or an underground car park. In this case, oxygen necessary for the operation of the fuel cell is provided by two bottles established in the vehicle.  Furthermore, the vehicle's human occupants have ultra-compact respiratory systems included in the passenger compartment.

The range of these vehicles is around 300 kilometers.  Experts note that although progress made so far is significant, there are still numerous obstacles to the large scale industrial development of the use of hydrogen fuel cells in cars.  In addition production costs need to be reduced as well as  the creation of transport, storage and distribution infastructures.

A “Joint Technology Initiative” on hydrogen currently exists in the European Union, incorporating 40 public agencies and 50 industrialists of 16 countries, with a budget of 470 million euros over five years.

CC 2.5 Based on an article by David Naulin

Discover the Zero Rally emission-free race and enjoy piecing together a Mercedes-Benz Hydrogen Car Jigsaw Puzzle and at Springfrog.

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